Corroboration in Historical Studies: Chandra Manning and the Battle of the Crater

My wife is a neuroscientist who constantly reminds me that the value of any individual research project’s conclusions relates directly to whether those results can be replicated by independent parties.  Unfortunately, we don’t have anything comparable in historical studies.  We can take steps to ensure that our conclusions have been challenged by peers who may question the sources utilized or the interpretation of those sources.  When done correctly and honestly the peer review process can lead to stronger conclusions.  Still, there is a certain amount of underdetermination between evidence and interpretation.  We do our best.

I’ve finished with Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War War Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. I have much to think about, especially in connection with my work on memory and the Crater.  In one of the chapters I make an argument about how Confederates interpreted the presence of USCTs in the battle and specifically about why they were so enraged.  I was pleasantly surprised to read that Manning found many of the same themes in the letters she surveyed of Confederates who either faced USCTs in battle or who took the time to write home about what their service meant to their view of the war.  Manning argues that Confederates – both nonslaveholders and slaveholders – understood the war as a defense of slavery.  While other issues certainly animated Confederates at different times, according to Manning, the issues of race and slavery served to focus the army.  Internal fissures may have threatened the unity of the Confederacy, but these problems never trumped the importance of defending the “peculiar institution.”  Regardless of status white Southerners held to the belief that the maintenance of slavery guaranteed their respective place in the political/social hierarchy.  More importantly, defeat would mean race wars and miscegenation.  My archival sources indicated that the experience of having to fight USCTs at the Crater reinforced the importance of continuing the fight, but I was surprised to discover in Manning’s study just how early in the war Confederates were focused on the issue.  Confederates in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia focused their attention on the recruitment of black soldiers from the beginning of 1863.  This is important because the battle of the Crater is the first time they faced USCTs which suggests that the rage exhibited must have been building for quite some time.

Here is just a short section from my Crater manuscript which touches on how Confederates responded to the presence of USCTs:

Lee’s officers and men were already engaged in heated combat by the time Edward Ferrero’s black division entered the battle, and it did not help that many of them, according to Thomas Smith, “charged me crying no quarter, remember Fort Pillow.  Private Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird of the 12th Virginia recalled proudly that “The negro’s charging cry of ‘No quarter’ was met with the stern cry of ‘amen.’” Writing after the war, one Union veteran was surely correct when he noticed that for a Confederate soldier, “It seemed to add increased poison to the sting of death to be shot by a negro.”  The Confederates considered such an act as violating all rules of warfare and the sacred rights of humanity.”  For many of the men fighting in the vicinity of the Crater, this was their first experience fighting black soldiers, and their response suggests a heightened sense of rage and purpose.  “It had the same affect upon our men that a red flag had upon a mad bull,” was the way one South Carolinian who survived the initial explosion described the reaction of his comrades.  David Holt of the 16th Mississippi remembered, “They were the first we had seen and the sight of a nigger in a blue uniform and with a gun was more than ‘Johnnie Reb’ could stand.  Fury had taken possession” of Holt, and “I knew that I felt as ugly as they looked.”

Many Confederates relished retelling of their experiences in the Crater fighting Ferrero’s division.  “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the but[t]s of there [sic] guns and every other way,” according to Labnan Odom, who served in the 48th Georgia, “until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.”  Another soldier in the 48th Georgia described the hand-to-hand combat: “the Bayonet was plunged through their hearts & the muzzle of our guns was put on their temple & their brains blown out others were knocked in the head with [the] butts of our guns.  Few would succeed in getting to the rear safe.”  Even after acknowledging the bravery of the black soldiers in the crater who “fought us till the veary last,” John Lewis who served in the 61st  North Carolina of Hoke’s division and participated in the final attack of the day, was satisfied that “[W]e kild asite of nigers.  Both the horror of battle and rage at having to fight black soldiers must have been apparent to the mother of one soldier as she learned that her son “shot them down until we got mean enough and then rammed them through with the Bayonet.”  Another soldier admitted that, “Some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.”  Lieutenant Colonel William Pegram described moments on the battlefield in great detail for his wife where black soldiers “threw down ther arms to surrender, but were not allowed to do so.  Every bombproof I saw had one or two dead negroes in them, who had skulked out of the fight, & killed by our men.”

The presence of black soldiers served as a rallying cry for Confederates who did not participate in the battle; writing about the battle served as an outlet through which they could express their own resentment and anger over the use of black soldiers.  Describing how, “Our men bayoneted them & knacked ther bra[i]ns with the but[t] of their guns,” as did Lee Barfield who served in the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, may have been the next best thing to being there.  Even A.T. Fleming, who served in the 10th Alabama but missed the battle due to illness, could not help but allow his racist preconceptions to pervade a very descriptive account in which Confederates “knocked them in the head like killing hogs.”  Perhaps commenting on the dead black soldiers on the battlefield or the prisoners, Fleming described them as the “Blackest greaysest [greasiest] negroes I ever saw in my life.”  While stationed at Bermuda Hundred during the time of the battle, Edmund Womack wrote home to his wife, “I understand our men just chopped them to pieces.”

Once the salient was retaken, Confederate rage was difficult to bring under control.  Accounts written in the days following the battle rarely shied away from including vivid descriptions of the harsh treatment and executions of surrendered black soldiers.  Jerome B. Yates of the 16th Mississippi recalled, “Most of the Negroes were killed after the battle.  Some was killed after they were taken to the rear.”  Another soldier admitted that “the poor deluded devils were butchered right and left.”  Lieutenant Freeman Bowley of the 30th USCT wrote, “As the Confederates came rushing into the Crater, calling to their comrades in their rear, ‘The Yankees have surrendered!’ some of the foremost ones plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded.”  “The only sounds which now broke the silence,” according to Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird, “was some poor wounded wretch begging for water and quieted by a bayonet thrust which said unmistakably “Bois ton sang. Tu n’aurais de soif.” [Drink your blood. You will have no more thirst]. James Verdery simply described it as “a truly Bloody Sight a perfect Massacre nearly a Black flag

Confederates who took part in the battle or heard about the presence of black soldiers secondhand were forced to explain away what some perceived as acts of bravery and skill on the field.  John C.C. Sanders, who commanded the Alabama brigade in Mahone’s division, was forced to admit that the “Negroes. . . . fight much better than I expected.”  However, he was quick to qualify this statement with the conviction that “they were driven on by the Yankees and many of them were shot down by the latter.”  J. Edward Peterson, who served as a band member in the 26th North Carolina, described the black soldiers at the Crater as “ignorant” and like Sanders assumed they were forced to fight by the Yankees.  Peterson went on to conclude that because of this they did not deserve such harsh treatment by Confederates following the battle.

As a result of their experience fighting black soldiers, many Confederates experienced a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the cause.  Years after the war, Edward Porter Alexander remembered that the “general feeling of the men towards their employment was very bitter.”  “The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof,” according to Alexander, “of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.”  William Pegram also acknowledged the perceived threat as stated by Alexander when he noted that “I had been hoping that the enemy would bring some negroes against this army.”  And now that they had, “I am convinced . . . that it has a splendid effect on our men.” Pegram concluded that though, “It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood,” the men who did it had “very good cause for doing so.”  According to Pegram’s most recent biographer, the experience facing black troops during the war renewed his commitment to the values of the antebellum world, “which had given birth and meaning to his nationalistic beliefs.”  The experience of fighting black soldiers for the first time served to remind Lee’s men of exactly what was at stake in the war—nothing less than an overturning of the racial hierarchy of their antebellum world.

Newspapers added to the growing chorus of rage upon learning of the presence of African-American soldiers on the battlefield.  Editors not only used the opportunity to share the details of the battle and the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow,” but also reflected on the broader meanings of black participation.  One newspaper pointed to the hypocrisy of Northern claims of equality between the races and concluded that “hatred of race never dies out.”  “The white man will never fall down to the level of the negro, nor the negro rise up to the level of the white man.”  The upshot of such discussion, according to this writer, was “miscegenation, which is but another name for amalgamation.”  “Saturday was the first occasion on which the Army of Northern Virginia ever fought against negro troops,” wrote the Richmond Dispatch, “and it is hardly probable that Grant’s darkeys will be over-desirous to run against that army again.”  The author of this account could not resist pointing out that “our men, enraged by the cry of ‘No Quarter’ slaughtered them like sheep.”  “Comparatively few were taken prisoners, while hundreds were slain.”  Perhaps out of a need to explain away what appeared to be fearless behavior exhibited on the battlefield by black soldiers, this writer reduced their conduct to the influence of alcohol: “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long as they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”

The presence of black soldiers at the Crater and other battlefields directly challenged notions of Southern paternalism and racial hierarchy.  In addition to citing alcohol as a stimulus to fight, others blamed Northerners who “fill the hearts of these confiding poor creatures with vindictive rage and thirst for revenge against their people, their masters, who have treated them with kindness and humanity.”  Commentators avoided any acknowledgment that African Americans were engaged in a fight for their freedom and chose instead to contrast Northern “outrages” with the noble Southern soldiers and Robert E. Lee, whom they regarded as “the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.”  The fighting on July 30 was not to be understood simply as another instance of indescribable bloodshed, but rather as a fight for survival against an enemy that was now reduced to inciting formerly loyal slaves against their loving masters.

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3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2007 @ 5:28

    Jim, — Your response is typical of a certain kind or reaction to my research. It comes off as somewhat defensive and it goes like this: Ignore the arguments contained within and focus on the fact that racism was a problem in both armies. Well, of course it was and nobody denies that. Your comment completely ignores the fact that while there was racism in both armies both sides viewed the recruitment and participation of black soldiers in the war along different lines. All I can say is that if you are truly interested in answering your own questions than begin by reading Manning’s book and than get back to me.

  • Jim Apr 9, 2007 @ 21:55

    Truly an awful account of an awful war. The Union must have been very pleased to have black soldiers carry out their mission, particularly as they conscripted blacks before whites or otherwise risk social unrest as was seen in NYC Draft Riots of 1863. And treatment of blacks within the Union army was not free from discrimination either: “And while black troops accounted for 10% of the Union Army, 80% of all Union soldiers executed for mutiny were black” (Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance Of Black Soldiers and White Officers, New York, First Meridian Printing, 1991, p. 115).

    I can’t help but wonder how white Federal troops would have felt and reacted if they had to fight black soldiers as white supremacy was an attitude that transcended both armies.

  • John Hoptak Apr 9, 2007 @ 19:59

    Excellent post. . .Perhaps Grant was saying more than he knew when he referred to the Crater as “the saddest affair” he had witnessed in the entire war.
    I’m looking forward to reading your completed book!

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