They Attacked Shouting “No Quarter”

USCTs CraterOne of my responsibilities at the upcoming Future of Civil War History Conference at Gettysburg College is to moderate a panel on interpreting USCTs at historical sites.  Panelists include Barbara Gannon, Emmanuel Dabney, Hari Jones, Joseph McGill, Jill Newmark, and Robert Sutton.  The presenters have already submitted short essays on various issues that they believe are important to discuss.  I’ve pretty much finished reading through them and am in the process of identifying challenges associated with the interpretation of USCTs as a point of departure for further discussion.  Many of the papers reference the influence of the movie Glory on popular perception as well how we interpret the massacre of black soldiers on battlefields such as Fort Pillow and at the Crater.  While I am particularly interested in how we frame the massacre of black soldiers the question of how we address instances where black soldiers executed Confederates has not been adequately addressed.  Consider the following passage written by Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney who does address this with visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield.

One of the ironies I discuss with visitors is that the US Colored Troops capture Confederate earthworks which were primarily dug by slaves and free blacks. In discussing the troops assaulting these works, I read directly from a letter written by Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops. Turner stated that the Black troops and the “the rebels were both crying out – ‘Fort Pillow!’ This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides.” He wrote of the men assaulting the position and the Confederates retreating which he humorously wrote that the Southerners went “out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind.” Immediately, he makes a powerful summary of how Confederate prisoners were treated as he penned, “Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.” I tell our audiences that while Chaplain Turner did not condone killing of Confederate prisoners it was done in retaliation to the Southern Congress’ May 1, 1863 legislation which stated that Black men found in the Union army’s ranks were slaves in insurrection and that the white officers leading them were inciting a servile insurrection. In both cases the Confederate legislators and the war department condoned the execution of USCTs as well as their white officers. I note that according to white Union soldiers, some of them that night stopped more Black troops from killing Confederate prisoners.

I suspect that these are very difficult stories for visitors to digest.  They certainly don’t fit the overall narrative of those who have been influenced by the movie Glory as well as the Sesquicentennial’s emphasis on emancipation and the sacrifice of black soldiers.  In this narrative battlefield massacres are central to a story of African American sacrifice for the Union and the eventual attainment of civil rights.  Whether intentional or not our embrace of emancipation as the central theme of the Civil War affords black soldiers what might be described as a kind of moral immunity.

When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom and in those unfortunate moments when they are executed they are victims of an uncontrollable rage that has its roots in a society committed to maintaining slavery and white supremacy.  How should we characterize incidents of black soldiers executing Confederates?  I agree with Emmanuel that part of the explanation must reference legislation from the Confederate Congress, but that doesn’t constitute everything that we can learn from accounts such as the one cited above.

We have little difficulty coming to terms with white Union and Confederate rage on the battlefield and how it sometimes led to acts that fell beyond the rules of war.   But what happens when the conduct of blacks on the battlefield takes a turn, however slight, toward something that resembles Nat Turner’s Rebellion?  More to the point, what do we gain from looking more closely at these accounts when interacting with the general public and/or in the classroom and what are the risks involved?

15 comments… add one
  • Brad Mar 12, 2013 @ 18:19

    As Barbara Gannon and others have hinted, atrocities in war have occurred on both sides, probably from time immemorial. It’s in the nature of war and the factor of revenge knows no color.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2013 @ 2:23

      Yes, and what I am trying to point out is that we have an easier time dealing with atrocities committed by Confederates against black soldiers, but not vice versa.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Feb 15, 2013 @ 4:44

    Thanks Kevin for highlighting this portion of my thoughts.

    Part of the reason I use this quote is to illustrate where the country is by the summer of 1864 with the Civil War. This gets to what several posters have said already about the barbarity of war regardless of race or personal background. One of my on-going interpretive issues (discussed with John Rudy before) is the firing demonstration for the sake of firing demonstration which doesn’t discuss in depth the consequences of the bullets and artillery shells that flew across battlefields. As several people here have suggested the notion of “Brother vs. Brother” is still too dominant in the minds of the American public and too often used even in museum/battlefield settings.

    Another reason I use this is too often (as you know) interpreters avoid the subject of race on battlefields. That is simply not an option along the Petersburg-Richmond front if we are going to have an honest discussion about the military campaign. Race and more directly, racism, will directly impact the opening assault which Rev. Turner discussed, the Battle of the Crater, the action at New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer, and even what troops get to move quickest to occupy Richmond.

    To get to John Rudy’s comments above and what is missing from the paper I wrote I think altogether, is that I interject in discussing who composed the USCTs around Petersburg their varied stories and the stories overall of enslavement and racism in the American Republic from its colonial history when 13 colonies belonging to Great Britain to its situation in the summer of 1864. The stories of whippings, rape of women (whether observed or heard about), denied access to vote or even in places to be able to use tobacco in public, kidnappings, sales, and division from family and friends created an environment in which armed Black men (Free born, freed, or escaped from bondage) would finally be able to illustrate their individual (and the race’s) resistance to the American (North & South) racial oppression.

  • Gregg Jones Feb 12, 2013 @ 18:08

    I believe the truth will set us all free. Tell it as it is. What do we gain looking more closely at the accounts? Well one of the complaints about the Centennial was that it expounded the myths, censorship and lies about the Civil War, so by not looking at all accounts we will be doing the same. The risk of not telling it straight up will be the loss of trust. Readers today are now more jaded than ever before when they read history. Would this not be censorship and political correctness to hide or ignore these accounts? What do we gain by looking closely? We gain trust in future readers.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2013 @ 3:43

      I tend to agree with you, but this is more easily said than done. What I find so interesting is that having embraced a history that was sidelined for so long we, in turn, create new narratives that reflect a certain set of values and ignore others.

      • Lee Feb 14, 2013 @ 10:26

        I very much agree with “telling it as it was/is.” If Confederates often killed wounded/captured black Union soldiers, but the reverse happened as well, then that’s what should be said. If some people feel upset and/or offended by that–well, that’s their problem. I believe history should always be presented as objectively as possible, with the good as well as the bad or questionable behavior of all sides acknowledged. And while some people may get upset in the short term as a result, in the long run such an approach will only enhance the credibility of the narrator and of historiography in general.

        An example of what I’m talking about is Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” based extremely closely on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist from Poland who survived the Holocaust. The movie and the book it’s based on make the horror of Nazi policy toward the Jews of Poland abundantly clear. However, not all of the Jews are presented as complete paragons of virtue. While there was massive starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto, a small and wealthy minority of Jews made a fortune by having goods smuggled in and selling them. Additionally, some joined the “Jewish police” and helped deport other Jews to the death camps, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to ensure the survival of themselves and their families. Showing all this only adds to the humanity of the Jews by showing that they were real people, not just cardboard victims.

  • Barb Gannon Feb 12, 2013 @ 16:20

    This is an issues that needs to be looked at outside the Civil war context. In war when one side gives no quarter, the other side reciprocates. Dower examined this in War Without Mercy, his study of the Pacific War. I would recommend his discussion on this phenomenon.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2013 @ 3:44

      I read it in college. I would also recommend Jill Lepore’s In the Name of War.

    • Ryan A Feb 13, 2013 @ 12:44

      Barb, I agree completely. I think it made things much more emotional during the Civil War considering that a well-established parole and exchange system was in place and operating for both sides up to that time. The fact that the Confederate Congress and therefore the troops in the field would make an exception to that system and make policy for executing USCTs on site probably made even more of a jarring impact on USCTs and their officers than the Japanese policy of flying the “black flag,” especially since the exchange system had long since disappeared from human memory by the 1940s.

  • Boyd Harris Feb 12, 2013 @ 16:04

    I hate that I cannot make it to Gettysburg for this conference and, in particular, your panel. I just started researching my dissertation topic which covers the interpretation of racial atrocities at state historic sites. I am currently in Tallahassee conducting research on Olustee (heading to the reenactment next weekend). I picked four state parks, including Ft. Pillow, Poison Springs, and Jenkins Ferry. My choice of Jenkins Ferry was made primarily to address the atrocities against white soldiers.

    Even though I am at the beginning of this process, I am beginning to see a lot of evidence that these parks experience many difficulties interpreting atrocities. Obvious reasons involve the ongoing difficult conversations on race in American society, but your post today reflects my view that atrocities contradict the “romantic” view Americans have of the Civil War. The upcoming reenactment at Olustee offers a good example of this. Widely popular in this area of the country, the reenactment occurs on the historic battleground and is attended by about 20,000 people. Needless to say, I doubt the killing of wounded and unarmed US colored troops will be featured in the reenactment, but there will be a somewhat “sanitized” depiction of the battle.
    I think another difficulty at these sites is that atrocities emphatically highlight the moral ambiguity of combat. As you well know, the memory of our Civil War is more problematic than any other American conflict because it was a “family affair.” Discussions about atrocities, whether racially motivated or not, strips away the familiar cliches that our society has created in regard to combat during the Civil War. It is difficult to imagine “Brother v. Brother” when one thinks of the Crater, Ft. Pillow, or Andersonville. Instead we are left with the observation of combat, aptly described during the Fort Pillow National Historical Landmark designation ceremony in 1975, as a “constant reminder of how close we are to barbarism.” Such a notion is hardly an easy topic for discussion.

    Good luck with the panel. Have fun.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2013 @ 3:57

      Hi Boyd,

      I am sorry you can’t make the conference. Your voice would have been particularly helpful. We do indeed hold onto that idea of the war as a family affair, but it seems to me we’ve made some progress in coming to terms with certain aspects of what was a brutal war. We see it in movies as well as an increase of titles on the Crater and Fort Pillow.

      I am wondering whether stories of blacks massacring Confederates present us with a unique challenge given the place that USCTs occupy in our collective memory. It’s not simply a matter of coming to terms with stories of massacres, but that they committed the act.

  • John Rudy Feb 12, 2013 @ 15:39

    It depends on your position, though. If you can stand in a set of black shoes, oppressed systematically for generations, you can start to understand the rage. It mirrors the rage on the rebels’ part pretty handily. Fear mixes with a cultural hate instilled by petty generations, terror boils tithe surface. That white skin means threat, means slavery, means terror. So you strike.

    I think it’s instructive precisely because it shatters the cultural understanding. What is a system of racial oppression and cultural fear that pushes both races into such a blind, vindictive rage? I think it’s just the story to tell visitors. Complications make the story that much more rich.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2013 @ 4:02

      I like that you frame it around a “system of racial oppression” as it allows for an interpretation connects directly with the culture of slavery and the history of racial tension that it generated. Still, getting at these stories does challenge a very comforting narrative embraced by many.

      • John Rudy Feb 13, 2013 @ 6:19

        Challenging that comforting narrative is crucial if we want parks and sites like this to be more than places where the age-old chestnuts simply get passed along, unquestioned and unchanged. If parks are to grow into civic temples, places where we peel back the many layers of history to view, understand, atone for and learn to avoid the mistakes and problems of the past (I often phrase that one “sins,” but that can get a bit too religious for folks sometimes), then we need to touch the challenging, gut-wrenching complexities and find the complications that help us grow as individuals and as a nation.

        Does that make sense? Sound like a good goal to aim for when it comes to CW sites? Or am I psychotic? Brian Jordan once told me I don’t sound like an historian anymore, but instead like a psychologist. Maybe historical interpretation is really personal and cultural psychological introspection, though…

        • Gregg Jones Feb 13, 2013 @ 12:03


          I agree with you in that it would be good if “we peel back the many layers of history to view, understand, atone for and learn to avoid the mistakes and problems of the past”
          To do this, would you too say we need to look at all of the accounts no matter what? I know we would have a challenge in how to present it. You’re right, some can’t stand to use the expression “sins of the past” but lets embrace this and just deal with this issue where both sides committed atrocities. I have faith we would get through this. As a people, Americans have always just wanted the facts.

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