Did USCTs Massacre Confederates at the Crater?

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]
19 comments… add one
  • Margaret D. Blough Jul 5, 2010 @ 2:43

    Kevin-Also, have you ever seen any Confederate account, during or after the war, that mentions this incident much less blames the documented Confederate massacres of black Union soldiers at the Crater on it? I know Porter Alexander’s account (he wasn’t there but spoke to those who were) in “Fighting for the Confederacy” does neither.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2010 @ 3:14

      Hi Margaret,

      I’ve found a few accounts from the war, but you don’t see it during the postwar period. The wartime accounts tend not to point to any specific moment during the battle. For example, the men in Mahone’s counterattack talk about being told that black Union soldiers were not taking prisoners and that clearly played a role in exciting the men.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jul 5, 2010 @ 8:10

        Of course, by the time of the Crater, there had already been Ft. Pillow, Honey Springs, and whatever else was happening under Kirby Smith. Black Union soldiers knew that, if taken prisoner, at best, they might be sold or sold back into slavery or they might be killed summarily or subjected to the horrific punishments for blacks accused of servile insurrection. Not long after the Crater came Champ Ferguson and the Battle of Saltville after which Ferguson and his men murdered injured black Union prisoners and a white officer in their beds. (I find it rather bizarre that William Marvel went to such lengths to question whether Saltville deserved to be declared a massacre even though, as he concedes, at least 5 captured, helpless Black Union soldiers were murdered and maybe 7 more (other accounts put the body count as high as 46 or even higher) on the grounds that, “”But amid the context of a bloody battle in so bitterly contested a theater of the war, can we still call it a “massacre?” “) Whatever happened at Saltville, it was so bad that it went too far even for Confederate authorities, especially Robert E. Lee.


        • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2010 @ 9:44

          I agree that the massacre of USCTs at the Crater as well as the limited number of Confederates who were killed after surrendering must be understood within this broader context. As for Marvel, I think it is important that we ask these questions rather than use a certain language in an uncritical manner.

  • Nat Turners Son Jul 4, 2010 @ 12:01

    Happy 4th of July to you all. This Battle there was a lot of sense less killing on both sides. It was a Bloody Bloody day. I look forward to reading yours and the Hess books soon.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Jul 4, 2010 @ 5:12

    Thanks Kevin for addressing this, not that I ever doubted that you knew this. I was just reading yesterday of a Union officer who stopped such action by attacking a USCT soldier. The same happened after the initial assault on June 15, 1864 in which some of Hinks’ troops killed some surrendered Confederates.

    Another interesting thing I recently discovered and certainly would like to know more about it is the level in which Northern civilians encouraged colored troops to kill Confederate forces. This definitely was the case for the famous Civil War nurse, Cornelia Hancock. She wrote on June 20, 1864 that she “talked with an intelligent colored Sergeant. He said they intended to show the Rebels no quarter. I encouraged them very strongly and retired to my tent” (Jaquette, Henrietta Stratton. Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1865, University of Nebraska Press, 1998, 108).

    I think what you point to in that the one officer who said “and small blame to them” for those who had been victimized under the institution of slavery who had been whipped, sold, separated from family, knew of and in same cases forced to watch people rape and mistreat mothers, wives, sisters, etc. it is certainly “small blame” for these colored troops to be willing to beat, bayonet, wrestle, etc. with Confederate troops.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2010 @ 5:38


      I haven’t thought much at all about that particular question, but it is certainly relevant. Thanks for including the Cornelia Hancock. Very interesting. Do you know which unit the sergeant served?

      • Emmanuel Dabney Jul 4, 2010 @ 8:57

        Sadly she does not say his name or a unit.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2010 @ 9:20

          Thanks. I wasn’t holding out much hope.

          • Peter Jul 6, 2010 @ 9:24

            I think Confederates expected black troops to offer no quarter. The _Richmond Enquirer_, for instance, ran a short piece copied from a Northern newspaper on May 17, 1864, quoting a correspondent with Ben Butler’s army as saying “The coloured troops remember the horrid massacre of their brethren at Fort Pillow and Plymouth, and will stop at nothing to to avenge the atrocious cruelties of an unscrupulous foe.” Another article in the _Examiner_ on June 18 reprints a Northern newspaper report headlined “Remember Fort Pillow Retaliation” where USCT killed 11 surrendered Confederates. The Northern reporter clearly approves of the actions of the USCT. Combine these with newspaper reports about USCT guards at Point Lookout shooting down Confederate prisoners in cold blood, along with reports of rampages across the Northern Neck, would establish for Confederates a perceived pattern of behavior–that USCT violated the rules of war and offered no quarter because they sought revenge for Fort Pillow.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 9:34


              I think you pretty much nailed it. You read these observations all over the place. In fact, I am reading an account by Delavan Bates of the 30th USCT that sums up much of what you just shared. Thanks.

              • Peter Jul 6, 2010 @ 12:39

                To what degree do you think the North bears responsibility for the massacre at the Crater? Most of the articles that run in the Confederate papers aren’t generated by them; they merely reprinted accounts from Northerners expressing approval for USCT who refuse to take prisoners. In other words, how much of the Confederate perception that the USCT have given up the protection of lawful warfare is due to seeing them as revolting slaves versus the widespread sentiment in the North to encourage black troops to kill captured Confederates?

                • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 14:26


                  Excellent question. Most of my Petersburg-Richmond accounts are not northern accounts and one in particular encouraged Mahone to slaughter USCTs in the future. USCTs were clearly agitated by reports from Fort Pillow as well as their own officers who warned them that they would not be taken prisoner. I can’t say to what extent USCTs were aware of the broader northern sentiment. It’s difficult to imagine a different state of affairs given Fort Pillow and and the fact that this was their first battle, not to mention that they were thrown in at the most desperate point of the battle. As for Confederate perceptions I would say that while reports of northern agitation of USCTs would have angered them this didn’t have much to do with their perceptions of these men as servile slaves. I argue that these cultural perceptions are more deeply embedded.

                  • Margaret D. Blough Jul 6, 2010 @ 14:51

                    Kevin-As I’ve said before, I think you have to put the whole thing in the context of the official Confederate attitude towards Blacks in Union uniform that was very consistent from the point that President Lincoln allowed Blacks to enlist. They refused to accord them the status of POWs, even if it meant captured Confederate soldiers remaining in US government prison camps. Jefferson Davis & the Confederate Congress mandated the treatment of blacks and their white officers in the context of the legal treatment of those engaged in servile insurrection. Even in peacetime, this involved torture, government condoned vigilante committees & lynching. At best, there were summary show trials. Whites suspected of fomenting servile insurrection were hung. I think the significance of the Kirby Smith correspondence is the addressees including Generals Cooper and Richard Taylor, who was Jefferson Davis’s brother-in-law. This wasn’t a rogue expression of opinion. This was a top commander reporting to the highest ranking general in the Confederacy. The use of fear to keep a population in line is not new, and the greatest fear in the Deep South, particularly in those areas in which slaves outnumbered whites, was the fear of servile insurrection. Newspapers played a role in inflaming white fears in this regard. The Texas arson/poisoning panic of the summer of 1860 is a prime example of this.

                    I think the Confederate government attitude towards the fate of Blacks in blue uniforms who came under Confederate control was clear. Short of doing what Champ Ferguson did, dragging wounded men out of their beds to murder them (and I’m still not sure it would have been the same reaction if a white officer had not been one of the victims), I doubt that any Confederate soldier who killed a helpless surrendered Black Union soldier believed he had anything to fear and might well expect to be praised.

                    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 15:00


                      I’m in full agreement with you. Confederate policy is crystal clear for those who care to look at it. I’ve argued that the actions of Confederates must also take into account the broader cultural/racial history of the South, which, in the end, is what Confederate policy is built upon. Finally, that broader context that you refer to also includes the attitudes of northerners as well as the actions of USCTs specifically.

                • Emmanuel Dabney Jul 7, 2010 @ 18:29


                  I threw this out there the other day as you have seen before in regards to Northern nurse Cornelia Hancock encouraging a USCT sergeant to show no quarter to the Confederates.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jul 5, 2010 @ 2:50

      I think it’s more than that. The colored troops knew that it was official Confederate government policy for them not to be treated as POWs if captured. At best, if captured, they would be sold back into or sold in the first place. At worst, I’ll let Confederate General Kirby Smith speak for it a full year before the Crater (and I haven’t seen any response that indicated that Cooper or any one else told him that he was wrong in his interpretation of Confederate policy)>>

      O.R.–SERIES II–VOLUME VI [S# 119]

      Shreveport, La., June 16, 1863.
      General S. COOPER,
      Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:
      GENERAL: I have the honor to inclose you two letters, addressed to Major-General Taylor, in regard to the disposition to be made of negroes and their officers captured in arms. Unfortunately such captures were made by some of Major-General Taylor’s subordinates. I have heard unofficially that the last Congress did not adopt any retaliatory legislation on the subject of armed negroes and their officers, but left the President to dispose of this delicate and important question. In the absence of any legislation and of any orders except those referred to in the inclosed letters, I saw no other proper and legal course for me to pursue except the one which I adopted.
      I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
      [Inclosure No. 1.]
      Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
      Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
      GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.
      I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
      Lieutenant-General, Commanding.
      [Inclosure No. 2. ]
      Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
      Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR,
      Commanding District of Louisiana:
      GENERAL: In answer to the communication of Brigadier-General Hébert, of the 6th instant, asking what disposition should be made of negro slaves taken in arms, I am directed by Lieutenant-General Smith to say no quarter should be shown them. If taken prisoners, however, they should be turned over to the executive authorities of the States in which they may be captured, in obedience to the proclamation of the President of the Confederate States, sections 3 and 4, published to the Army in General Orders, No. 111, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, series of 1862. Should negroes thus taken be executed by the military authorities capturing them it would certainly provoke retaliation. By turning them over to the civil authorities to be tried by the laws of the State no exception can be taken.
      I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
      S.S. ANDERSON,
      Assistant Adjutant-General.<<—–

  • James F. Epperson Jul 4, 2010 @ 3:21

    As I am sure you know, Slotkin discusses this, but makes no attempt (that I recall) to put a number to it.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2010 @ 3:38

      Yes. I should have mentioned that the quotes are from the Slotkin book. I’ve spent a bit more time with that book over the past few weeks and I have to say that I like it a lot.

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