The Crater Massacre

Bryce Suderow’s 1997 Civil War History article titled "The Battle of the Crater: The Civil War’s Worst Massacre" is the most complete analysis of the slaughter of United States Colored Troops.  (The article was recently reprinted in Gregory J.W. Urwin ed. Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War [Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2004]).  While the article is only five pages long, Suderow includes a great deal of important information and lays out a detailed explanation of the casualties of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s black division.   He makes two important points: First, Suderow argues that there were four separate massacres of black soldiers between their introduction to the battle around 8:00am to the close of the battle and the surrender of a sizeable number of the division.  Second, he provides a corrective to the exact numbers that may have been executed at some point during the battle.

Suderow claims that there were four separate "massacres" of black soldiers during the battle.  To make his point Suderow utilizes the written testimony, both contemporary and postwar.  The first massacre occurred around 9:00am when the men of Brig. Gen. David Weisiger’s Virginia brigade and the Alabamians under the command of Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright killed black soldiers who were part of the deepest penetration beyond the contours of the crater and were now wounded and trying to retreat back into position with the rest of the Federal units.  Of the four "massacres" that Suderow cites this is the least convincing.  He references three Confederate accounts and one by Lt. Freeman Bowley of the 30th USCT; all of them suggest that wounded black soldiers were gunned down as they attempted to make their way back into the crater from their advanced position.  Part of my problem is with the claim that this represented a massacre.  Suderow never defines his terms, which is problematic as his next three instances differ in one crucial respect: the intention to kill specifically black soldiers.  Yes, these men were hollering "No Quarter" and I have no doubt that Confederates were enraged by their presence on the battlefield, but given that these are the first units that Gen. Mahone’s brigades met it is impossible to know how they would have handled the situation if they had faced white units or a combination of white and black units.  In other words, it seems reasonable to ask, given the gravity of the situation, whether white Federal soldiers might have been gunned down indiscriminately as Confederates made their way closer to the crater itself. 

The second instance, which lasted from 10:00am until noon, involved Mahone’s men hunting down black soldiers who had taken shelter in bombproofs.  Some that were not executed outright were gunned down while being led back through Confederate lines and this represented a third massacre.  Both instances are documented by Suderow and here I believe he is on more solid ground as these men were not actively engaged in the fight and at least in the latter example had already surrendered.

Finally, following the battle a number of black soldiers were executed.  B.F. Philips, who served in the Alabama brigade which made the final counterattack around 1:00pm, recalled in 1907 that Mahone had sent orders for the men "not to kill quite all of them."  A soldier in Robert Ransom’s North Carolina brigade also remembered the treatment of black soldiers following the battle: "When I got there they had the ground covered with broken headed negroes, and were searching about among the bomb proofs for more, the officers were trying to stop them but they kept on until they finished up."   

The second part of Suderow’s article – and the more important part – is his analysis of the actual numbers of black soldiers that may have been massacred.  The nominal list of casualties in Ferrero’s Fourth Division shows that 219 soldiers were killed in the battle.  Suderow believes this number is much too low and here is his argument:  While Confederates claimed to have buried 750 Federal soldiers a nominal list suggests a total 504 killed including the 219 black soldiers.  So, we have 246 bodies that are unaccounted for as compared with the Federal casualty list.  While the list of captured black soldiers includes 410 names, Confederates claimed to only have captured 200 black soldiers.  Suderow then went back to the service and pension records of these 410 soldiers and discovered the following: 205 killed, 13 mortally wounded, 62 wounded in action, 3 mortally wounded and captured, 13 wounded in action and captured, 72 captured — Total of 368 (of 410; the other 42 were not casualties).

Adjusted claims for the Fourth Division, according to Suderow, include 423 killed, 13 mortally wounded, 744 wounded, 3 mortally wounded and captured, 13 wounded and captured, and 73 captured–a total of 1,269 men.  An important point that Suderow makes at the end of the article about the Crater is that while the ratio of blacks killed to wounded was 423 to 757, about 1 to 1.8 the ratio of killed to wounded for the war in general was 1 to 4.8. 

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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2 comments… add one
  • Ivanna Kutchakokoff Oct 28, 2018 @ 14:07

    No mention of the USCT yelling ” No quarter! Remember Ft. Pillow!” in the initial attack immediately following the mine explosion. Or the killing of dazed rebels in the crater. Funny thing.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2018 @ 14:26

      You should read my book.

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