I‘ve said more than once that I find Civil War memoirs to be very difficult to use when trying to understand the war itself. Many are self serving and are inevitably influenced by the political, social, and economic conditions present at the time of writing. While difficult to use to illuminate the war itself, I enjoy trying to piece together an analysis that places the source in its proper context. One thing I’ve learned after years of research on the memory of the Crater is that nothing written by former Confederates and other Southern commentators after 1879 can be understood apart from the radical political changes that William Mahone introduced to the state and the lingering bitterness and suspicion that would be attached to his reputation well into the twentieth century.
That said, we can identify those postwar sources that seem to transcend the influences mentioned above. Please don’t ask me to explain how we can identify these specific sources; suffice it to say, we just know – think “Brewmaster’s Nose.” There is a sense that the author is attempting to be fair and balanced; he is self-effacing and may even accept blame on occasion. I can’t think of a better example of such a narrative than Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy, which was edited by Gary Gallagher back in 1989. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. There are very few memoirs that top 500 pages that I can claim to have read in their entirety, but I can honestly say that I’ve read it through twice and large sections multiple times. In contrast with Military Memoirs of a Confederate (1907), Fighting for the Confederacy was written for his grandchildren and, if I remember correctly, was written while in Nicaragua. No doubt, this helped to shape the narrative.
Recently, I decided to go back and reread Alexander’s chapter on the Crater as I finish up my essay on understanding the post-battle massacre of USCTs as a slave rebellion. It should come as no surprise that nothing I’ve read in the letters and diaries of Confederates who were at the Crater describe it as a slave rebellion or reference the likes of John Brown and Nat Turner, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across the following:
In fact there were, comparatively, very few Negro prisoners taken that day. It was the first occasion on which any of the Army of Northern Virginia came in contact with Negro troops, & the general feeling of the men toward their employment was very bitter. The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof 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. (p. 462)
This was not the first time that I read this passage and I’ve even used it in different places in the manuscript, but reading it again as I think about slave rebellions, John Brown, etc. gives it a salience that I failed to fully appreciate.