The Battle of the Crater and Slave Rebellions in Civil War Times

I am very excited about the next issue of Civil War Times, which should be hitting the newsstands very soon.  The October issue will include an essay of mine, titled, “‘Until Every Negro Has Been Slaughtered’: Did Southerners See the Battle of the Crater as a Slave Rebellion?”.  I am hoping that readers will find it to be a thought provoking analysis of what happened to a large number of USCTs following the battle.  All too often the massacre of these black men is reduced to some vaguely defined rage.  I argue that this Confederate rage was a function of a cultural outlook that stretched back into the antebellum period.  Acknowledging the long-standing fears among white southerners regarding the management of a slave society and the dangers of slave rebellions (real and imagined) helps us to better understand the treatment of USCTs following the battle.  From this perspective there is very little that is surprising about the massacre of upwards of 200 black soldiers.

I also like the fact that this article came directly out of a blog post from last summer.  As you can see it received a great deal of attention and I immediately emailed Dana Shoaf about the possibility of turning it into a magazine article.  It’s also an opportunity to thank all of you who commented on that post, which I think is a perfect example of how this format can help in the process of actually doing history.  I go into much more detail in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript, which I am happy to say is almost completed.  No doubt, this article will upset some, but I hope it forces readers to think about this battle from a completely different perspective.  That is what good history should do.  Thanks once again to Dana Shoaf, who expressed enthusiasm for this piece from the beginning.  This is my second article in Civil War Times this year and it’s been a pleasure working with the magazine’s staff.

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8 comments… add one
  • Ryan Quint Aug 11, 2010 @ 15:30

    I read your article about the Battle of the Crater in the recent edition of ‘Civil War Times.’ It was a very insightful article, and in the Resources Section of the magazine, it directed to this website. I will definitely favorite this site.

    A quick question about the Crater if possible. I have heard stories of USCTs being beaten to death with ramrods within sight of Robert E. Lee and yet the man so heralded as a kindred spirit by Lost Causers did nothing. Is there any truth to these stories?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010 @ 7:42

      Thanks Ryan. Glad to hear you enjoyed the article. I came across accounts of blacks being beaten with all sorts of objects following the battle. However, I didn’t come across anything that specifically cited Lee as being present. Lee was close by during the battle, though the timing of when he left the Gee House escapes me. You may want to check out Earl Hess’s upcoming study of the battle, which is scheduled for release in September. This promises to be the best account of the battle to date.

      • Ryan Quint Aug 14, 2010 @ 10:36

        Thank you for your reply. I will make sure to check out Hess’ work. I have his book “In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate defeat.” It is a very resourceful read, so I will look forward to his study of the Crater.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010 @ 11:38

          No problem. I actually got my start on my own Crater project after doing a great deal of the archival digging for Hess’s Petersburg book back in 2004.

    • Mark Douglas Nov 11, 2010 @ 16:11


      YOu might be interested in Elizabeth Pryor’s book, “Reading the Man” about Lee’s torture of slaves, even young slave girls. Pryor is unabashedly a devotee of Lee, which just makes her that much more credible. She supposedly had unprecidented access to his personal papers, including his account books. SOmeone should have told Lee, its best NOT to keep too many records, if you are selling infants and paying men to torture slaves. Lee didn’t get the memo.

      She tries very very hard to excuse everything he did that was horrendous — but she exposes more of it than any other serious researcher.

      I get the distinct feeling – and I could be wrong — that she could have revealed a lot more. She artfully dodges many things which cry out for clarity —- for example, she shows the Norris statement (which showed that Lee tortured young women, and screamed at them before and during their torture) was “unquestionably accurate” but then inexplicably does not make it clear to her readers the horrific details of Norris statement.

      But she shows that Lee’s slaves detested him — contrary to every single Southern Myth so far — and that Lee’s slaves revolted, and many ran away. They called him “the meanest man they ever saw”.

      She blames that, ludiciously, on “Lee’s poor cross cultural communication”!! Reminds me of that movie HUD was it? Where the sadist whipping Paul Newman would say “What we have here, is a failure to communicate”.

      She also says that Lee “didn’t appreciate the slaves desire to be free” !! What could be MORE obvioius — they were running away! And he was torturing them for it!!

      She also shows Lee paid six times the normal bounty to get one young girl back, the girl he tortured. (there were probably many more –we just have one testimony about this torture).

      Amazingly, she shows Lee kept a “Hunting List” — her term — in his account books, with amazing details about the run away slave girls, especially the shade of skin their infants had. Its not a stretch to say Lee was obsessed with capturing and torturing the girls that ran off with his infants, which were light enough, by Lee’s own record keeping, to pass as white. Was THAT why he wanted those infants back so badly? What did he do with those infants?

      Pryor shows that Lee “separated every family unit, but one”. Family UNIT? She does not explain why she said such a thing — but given her use of euphamisms, its very possible she was trying to soft sell the fact that Lee regularly sold the children of the slave girls. He could NOT sell the slaves alive at the time he inherited — though he tried to repeatedly. So, what on earth happened to the CHILDREN? We know they had children — Lee was obsessed with getting those babies back!.

      What did Lee DO with those infants? It’s a good be Pryor knows, she shows that no FEMALE slave children were on his property not long after he tortured the young woman. We know those infants existed. So — WHERE did Lee send those infants? Did he sell them? They were there one day, and not anywhere around later. Where did they go?

      Pryor is just mum about that. She could have told us MUCH more about those hunting lists too— she including many self serving quotes from Lee’s own communication. Why not make his Hunting List clear? WHy not SHOW us the lists? The way she spins it, she tries to absolve him of all guilt.

      She even adopts Lee’s attitude somewhat, blaming the slaves for making Lee mad.

      Really an amazing book, but written in such a way that many Lee admirerers have no inkling Lee was just outted on a number of things.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2010 @ 16:13


        I’ve thoroughly read and greatly enjoyed Pryor’s study of Lee. It’s one of the most interesting recent studies of Lee and a must read for the reasons you cite.

  • Vince Jul 24, 2010 @ 4:50


    I look forward to reading your article. I thought of your project(s) last weekend while visiting a Whiskey Rebellion era plantation near Pittsburgh. A prominent man named John Neville owned the house and brought his slaves with him to Pennsylvania from Virginia. Neville was in charge of collecting the tax on whiskey, which sparked great outrage and led to his being personally targeted by angry farmers. A nearby mansion he owned had even been burned to the ground. As an emergency measure, he armed his thirteen(?) slaves to protect his other property, and his action was apparently successful although I haven’t had the time to verify the story in any formal historical research.

    So, it would be interesting to know the who/what/when/where/why/how’s of any other occasions of slaves with weapons and their result of insurrection or loyalty. How common or uncommon was it in different parts of the country in different eras? What can we learn from any patterns that exist that might have influenced policies or attitudes toward arming slaves or freed blacks?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2010 @ 6:10

      Hi Vince,

      Great questions. Perhaps someone can point to some published sources that will help you to further understand the situation in Pennsylvania. The one event that sticks out for me is Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. As you know B’s crowd was made up of both whites and escaped slaves. In response to the violence the government passed much stricter laws designed to drive a wedge between the races. At least this is Edmund Morgan’s interpretation of it in his book, _American Slavery, American Freedom_.

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