One of the richest sources for a black counter-memory of the Civil War is Ebony magazine. Throughout the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s and beyond the magazine published articles that addressed the crucial role that African Americans played in Union victory. No topic received more attention than USCTs. You can view old issues through Google Books and it has proven to be incredibly helpful as I write about how black Americans remembered the battle of the Crater during this period.
One particular article written by Lerone Bennett Jr., (October 1975) about the battle of Chaffin’s Farm caught my attention. In addition to Bennett’s text there are five sketches by Orville A. Hurt that add quite a bit of depth to the essay. You can find Hurt’s illustrations in multiple issues of the magazine.
Hurt’s illustrations emphasize the bravery and manliness of USCTs as well as the sacrifice made on the battlefield. The image above is by far the most powerful. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a stark image of a black soldier plunging his bayonet through a Confederate officer before the movie Glory.
A friend of mine is currently working in an archive in South Carolina and came across a reference to the Crater from a soldier who served in the 18th South Carolina Infantry:
The Negro troops were slaughtered without mercy, we not allowing them to surrender, they huddled together in the pit formed by the explosion and our men deliberately capped down on them and beat out their brains and bayoneted them until worn out with exhaustion. We took the other prisoners, a number however were shot or hung after brought to the rear- this may seem cruel and heartless to those at home but let them come to VA and see the sights we have seen and they will no longer say so. Kill, kill every negro soldier is my motto.
I have files and files of Confederate accounts that reflect this mindset, but what I find so interesting about this particular account is the explicit reference to the home front. It is tempting to speculate as to the “sights” that this particular soldier is referring to, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it was specifically the presence of black men with guns that so impressed him. It must have been a challenge for soldiers to depict the sight of large numbers of black men with guns to loved ones back home, especially in South Carolina.
I am pleased to report that I am making steady progress on revising my Crater manuscript. In fact, I recently contacted the publisher to inform them that I plan to mail the manuscript no later than the first week of August. It’s nice to finally be in the home stretch. Much of my time has been spent cutting content that detracts from the core issue of race and historical memory, which I am now convinced is this project’s most important contribution to the literature. One section that I am adding is a discussion of the black counter-memory of the battle. It’s not that I didn’t have any references to African American accounts, but there are so few that it was very difficult to weave them together as a coherent analysis. One of my reviewers suggested that I take another shot at it.
One of the more fruitful sources is the postwar accounts written by white officers from USCT units. I still don’t necessarily consider these sources to constitute a counter-memory, but they did help to preserve memory of the participation of African Americans at the Crater at the turn of the twentieth century. The problem for the historian is that so few of these articles actually tell the story of the men in the units or address the larger issues that defined the service of African Americans. The cultural and social divide between the two groups made it difficult for these individuals to relate to one another and very few officers remained in touch with the men in their units after the war. I have accounts in which the officers go on and on about the battlefield heroics of their fellow white officers, but say nothing about the men in the ranks. A few that do end up minimizing their claims to manhood by continuing the argument that black soldiers needed their white officers to control their innate emotional excesses. One account focuses specifically on denying claims that white officers were drunk during the battle without addressing continued claims that black soldiers were as well.
The few accounts that do attempt to tell the story of the men in Ferrero’s Fourth Division are very important primarily because they preserved a memory of the war at a time when the nation was moving away from a narrative of emancipation and embracing reunion. The majority of these articles can be found in The National Tribune, which was in publication between 1877 and 1917 and functioned as the principal Grand Army of the Republic’s weekly newspaper. Two officers in particular stand out for their contributions to this newspaper. The first is Lt. Freeman Bowley, who served in the 30th USCT. His writings and memoir were recently compiled and edited by Keith Wilson as Honor in Command (University Press of Flordia, 2006). The second is Colonel Delavan Bates, who also served in the 30th USCT.
I have already mentioned what a pleasure it was to have the opportunity to talk last week with Earl Hess about our mutual interest in the battle of the Crater. During our discussion Prof. Hess asked if I dealt in any substantive way with the evidence that USCTs executed surrendered Confederates at the Crater. I told him that I reference these accounts, but that I had a very difficult time coming to terms with the numbers as well as the timing. One of the reasons I am looking forward to Hess’s upcoming book on the battle is that he attempts to put a number on it. I don’t know if this is possible given the scant evidence, but it is definitely an aspect of the battle that is often overlooked and I have no doubt that Hess will give it a good shot.
So, the short answer is, yes, USCTs did massacre Confederates at the Crater. It occurred during the initial advance of the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, which took place at approximately 8 A.M. While part of the unit was diverted into the chaos of the crater itself, a substantial portion of the division was able to skirt along its northern rim and advance west toward their objective along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Elements of the other three divisions were already engaged in this area by this time, but the rush of new soldiers led to the surrender of roughly 200 Confederates who were huddled in the complex chain of earthworks that dotted the landscape behind the salient.
It should come as no surprise that the black soldiers who made this attack did so having been incited by their white officers to “Remember Fort Pillow” and grant, “No Quarter.” It would be interesting to know what exactly these officers communicated to their men about the recent massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow given the levels of illiteracy among USCTs. These black soldiers would have also gone into battle knowing that it was unlikely they would be allowed to live in the even that they were taken prisoner. Accounts suggest that they “killed numbers of the enemy in spite of the efforts of their officers to restrain them.” Another Union officer recalled, “That there was a half determination on the part of a good many of the black soldiers to kill them as fast as they came to them. They were thinking of Fort Pillow, and small blame to them.” As far as I know this was the only moment in the battle where this type of killing on the part of USCTs occurred.
While it may be tempting to explain the Confederate massacre of USCTs following the battle as a direct response to these incidents, this would be a mistake. First, the evidence suggests that the killings were isolated and therefore probably not widely reported throughout the ranks. Mahone’s counterattack took place after this incident and while these men knew before going into battle that they would meet black soldiers there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware of these killings. Of course, many of them recalled having been told that the black soldiers would give, “No Quarter.” Finally, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Confederate soldiers did not need a massacre on the part of USCTs to justify a much larger slaughter of surrendered black soldiers. There are reasons as to why this happened that extend beyond the battlefield itself.
[Painting of Crater by Tom Lovell]
I just put the finishing touches on my paper and accompanying visual presentation for the George Tyler Moore Center – Pamplin Park Conference that begins tomorrow afternoon. Back in 2007 I took part in this conference, but this is the first year that Mark Snell and the rest of the gang at Shepherd University have decided to take the conference on the road. Teaming up with Will Greene and Pamplin Park was a smart move given that the conference has sold out. We will spend three days exploring the battlefields around Petersburg and discussing the experiences of the men in the trenches. Will Greene is the scholar-in-residence and will be be leading the tours. Additional presentations will be made by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, Walter Powell, and Mark Snell.
You may remember a series of posts I did last summer that explored the ways in which the Confederate response to the presence of USCTs at the Crater connected to the challenges of maintaining slavery during the antebellum period as well as reports of slave rebellions both in the South and Caribbean. Since then I’ve developed these ideas for inclusion in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript as well as in an article that will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times. I am going to present a version of that article on Friday. I want the audience to think beyond the trenches as did the soldiers themselves. It is important to remember that during the final year of the war the Army of Northern Virginia was defending a civilian population. Many of the men in Mahone’s Virignia brigade were from Petersburg and the surrounding counties. Aaron Sheehan-Dean makes a compelling argument in Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (UNC Press, 2007) that during that final year soldiers and civilians grew increasingly alienated from one another. He suggests that many of the men believed that civilians had failed to appreciate the sacrifices that Lee’s men were making on a daily basis outside of Petersburg. I argue that the Crater reinforced their connection with the home front and served to remind civilians of just what was at stake in the event of a Confederate defeat. I am looking forward to the opportunity to try out some of these ideas on Friday.
While I am looking forward to seeing a number of old friends, I am especially looking forward to meeting Earl Hess for the first time. Back in 2004 I conducted some research on William Mahone for a seminar class at the University of Richmond. It’s funny how word gets around, but somehow Chris Calkins, who was then the chief historian at Petersburg National Battlefield Park (PNB) found out about it and suggested to Prof. Hess that I might be able to help gather source material for his study of the Petersburg campaign. I was more than happy to help out since I was planning on turning that essay into an M.A. Thesis on historical memory and the battle of the Crater. Professor Hess had me working at the University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, Library of Virginia, Museum of the Confederacy, and PNB. The source list was extensive and provided me with a great start on my own project. It definitely saved me a great amount of time and ultimately went into what I consider to be a pretty good thesis. It will be nice to be able to thank Prof. Hess in person. By the way, Prof. Hess is slated to release his own study of the Crater in September. That makes four books on the Crater in the last few years, but why do I have a feeling that Hess’s book will be the best of the lot.
I hope to blog a bit from Petersburg, but from what I understand there is a happy hour scheduled for each night.