Petersburg, Race, and the Aftermath of the Crater

Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading my entire archival collection of Union accounts of the Crater and looking specifically at how they characterize the performance of USCTs.  I’ve divided the sources between wartime and postwar and hope to draw some conclusions about the way in which the men reference or fail to reference this crucial aspect of the battle.  As you might expect the few accounts from white officers of USCT regiments spend much more time focusing on the performance of black soldiers during the battle.  One account in particular was penned after the war by First Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley of the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry.  Bowley was a prolific writer following the war.  The particular passage that I will discuss is from and address that was printed in the MOLLUS Papers of California.

Bowley provides a detailed and rich account of the actual battle, but it is a comment about the events following the battle that caught my eye.  As many of you are know doubt aware large numbers of black soldiers were massacred by Confederates at various points during and following the battle.  Black and white prisoners were sent to various prisoner camps throughout the South.  Their trip began as an orchestrated parade through the streets of Petersburg.  Bowley was captured towards the end of the battle and here is his account:

The next day we were taken through Petersburg.  It was Sunday, and our captors proposed to make a grand spectacle of us for the benefit of Petersburg citizens.  First came General Bartlett–his cork leg was broken, and he was mounted on a sorry looking nag, without saddle; then four wounded negroes, stripped of everything but shirt and drawers; then four officers viz: Col. E. G. Marshall, 14th N.Y.H.A.; Col. Stephen Weld, 56th Mass. Infty.; Col. Daniel White, 31st Maine; Lt.-Colonel Buffam, 4th R.I. Vols.; then four more wounded blacks, then four officers, and so on, alternating the whites and blacks.  I was in the third file of officers, and as the head of the column reached the streets of Petersburg, we were assailed by a volley of abuse from men, women and children that exceeded anything of the kind that I ever heard.  I was seven months before I saw the Old Flag again, and my first impression of the Confederacy did not improve with a more intimate acquaintance.

Historian Will Greene provides analysis of A.P. Hill’s decision to mix white and black soldiers for the march through Petersburg.  Greene sees the decision as primarily an attempt on the part of Hill to humiliate white Union soldiers.  He is no doubt correct in pointing this out: "Hill understood that by doing this he would imply that white Union soldiers were no better than the former slaves who fought by their sides." (p. 209) The overwhelming number of Union accounts in my collection blame the black soldiers for the disaster at the Crater; the racial invective is incredibly strong.  [I am going to comment on this in the next few days and how these accounts fit into Chandra Manning’s analysis.] It is unlikely that Hill was aware of the strong reactions against black soldiers, though it is still the case that he would have understood how such a decision would play out in the minds of white Union soldiers.

What is missing from Greene’s account is how this decision to mix white and black soldiers played out amongst the civilian population of Petersburg.  Seeing white and black men interspersed would have provided the clearest demonstration of just what was at stake if the Confederacy lost the war.  Given the overwhelming sense of insecurity and fear of racial mixing and emancipation that comes through the letters of Confederates it seems reasonable to suggest that this decision also served as a message to the white residents of Petersburg.  [Click here for an earlier post on Greene’s book and some statistics about slavery that are relevant to this issue.] The presence of black soldiers in this battle aroused the same fears from both slaveholding and non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers.  Hill’s decision no doubt bound the same two categories within the civilian sphere.  In short, the decision should be seen as an attempt to forge a bond between the army and civilian population at a time when the outcome of the war and the will of white Southerners remained in doubt. 

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

0 comments… add one

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *