Interpreting the White Scapegoating of the 4th Division at the Crater

Chandra ManningI am a big fan of Chandra Manning’s book, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. It’s an incredibly thought-provoking book and especially helpful when it comes to understanding how Confederates conceptualized the importance of slavery throughout the war. However, I am less convinced by her analysis of how the bitter fighting in the spring and summer of 1864 effected the attitudes of Northern soldiers regarding slavery and civil rights.

While I agree with Manning that by the summer of 1863 many of the men in the ranks accepted the necessity of ending slavery for the sake of the war effort and the Union she goes on to argue that these men had also been inspired to “consider more thoughtfully their own obligations to overcome  racial prejudice and promote at least some basic rights for black Americans…” (153). By 1864, according to Manning, military setbacks and other problems caused these men to “back away” from “a world of increasing racial equality and black rights.”

First, I just don’t see Union soldiers as preoccupied with questions of civil rights during the war. With few exceptions, they finished the war with the same racial attitudes that they went in with, though we do need to acknowledge the effect that experiencing slavery firsthand had on their overall acknowledgment that its demise was necessary for both military and moral reasons, and as necessary to bring about a stronger union.

Second, I have trouble with the assumption that we can track the overall ebb and flow of racial attitudes in the ranks from looking at their letters and diaries. Manning suggests that “scapegoating” black Union soldiers for their performance on the battlefield tells us something salient about these attitudes. She points to the Crater as one obvious example. There was indeed a great deal of scapegoating following the debacle at the Crater, but I think we should be cautious when it comes to drawing conclusions about what they tell us about racial attitudes overall and, more specifically, about white perceptions of black soldiers.

Numerous accounts of the battle written by Union soldiers, who were present on the Crater battlefield or who heard the news second hand, pointed blame at the men in Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division. These men “skedaddled” and “panicked” in the face of William Mahone’s counterattack, though just about every account fails to acknowledge that these same men managed to advance to the most forward positions, along with scattered white units. Regardless, many, in fact, did observe a confused retreat by the black soldiers after being slammed by Mahone’s Virginians. Their retreat did add to the confusion in and around the Crater. My point is not to direct blame solely on the Fourth Division, but to make the obvious point that assigning blame to these men ought not to be necessarily interpreted along racial lines.

Many men who blamed the black soldiers also went after the officers from division command all the way up to Generals Meade and Grant. We would do well to remember that for most of the men in the Army of the Potomac this was their first experience fighting alongside African-American soldiers. It’s not as if we have the benefit of tracking responses to black soldiers over many battles, though the black units in the Army of the James who took part in the initial assaults on Petersburg in mid-June received some positive press.

By the end of July 1864 the men in the Army of the Potomac had fought through the bloody battlefields of Virginia, experienced the hardships and monotony of life in the trenches. Finally, they harbored serious doubts that their generals (including Grant) could lead them to victory. We should not be surprised that the mine fiasco, in all of its horror, left the men even more demoralized and looking to direct their anger and frustrations – not unlike what German Americans in the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville experienced.

Soldiers such as Charles J. Mill (56th Mass), who declared that, “They cannot be trusted for anything, and are, in short, a hideous mistake,” likely experienced no discernible change during the war regarding their racial attitudes.

Thinking quite a bit about these men so expect a few more posts in the coming weeks. And if you haven’t done so already, pick up a copy of Manning’s book.


8 comments… add one
  • London John Jan 13, 2014 @ 1:43

    “Confederate will treat them more harshly in a battle that includes blacks. ”
    Did this happen? Joseph T Wilson in “The Black Phalanx” describes White victims of the Fort Pillow massacre, but they were North Carolina Unionists.

    • Andy Hall Jan 13, 2014 @ 8:25

      A policy of “full and ample” retaliation against black Union troops, their white officers, and anyone else deemed to be supporting them, was officially adopted by the Confederate congress in May 1863. I suspect that mirrors widespread attitudes within the Confederacy rather than causing them, but it gave formal imprimatur to the act. The policy explicitly equated the use of black troops by the Union with inciting servile insurrection, with all that implied.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Jan 12, 2014 @ 17:08

    Of course you already know this but there was some praise for USCTs performance and perhaps one of the most national/publicly available to the literate North was an article in the Harper’s Weekly. I apologize for the long comment.

    Transcription below comes from August 20, 1864 edition:

    THERE can be nothing more pitiful than the malevolent eagerness with which certain newspapers deride the colored troops for being no braver than the white troops at Petersburg. Did the unhappy panic at Bull Run, three years ago, prove that white men were cowards ? Did the misfortune of the noble Second Corps, five or six weeks since, which General HANCOCK announced must be retrieved, show that they were poor soldiers ? Or did every sensible man say at once that the reputation of that brave corps was not to be lost by a mishap which might occur to the best corps of the best army in the world ? Upon occasion of the late disaster to General McCOOK’S cavalry—caused by the fact, as reported, that the men were drunk with whisky–is. it sneeringly asserted that if the Government chooses to employ white cavalry, nothing is to be expected but that they will get drunk and be whipped on every occasion?

    Of course not. When we read of McCOOK’S misfortune we remember SHERIDAN’S, and KAUTZ’S, and GRIERSON’S, and AVERILL’S daring and victorious excursions, and we acknowledge with pride and gratitude the valor of our cavalry while we regret every mischance that befalls them. When we heard that the Second Corps had been flanked and had lost prisoners, we recalled their dauntless conduct at Spottsylvania and in the Wilderness, and chafed with them over the temporary shadow that obscured their name. And every sensible and true American citizen, when he reads of the faltering and retreat of the colored troops at Petersburg, recollects Fort Wagner, Olustee, Milliken’s Bend, and BALDY SMITH’S charge upon the same ground at Petersburg, and knows that the failure is not the proof of cowardice or incompetency, but is one of the painful events from which the record of no corps and no army can be entirely free.

    We have always insisted that colored men should have the same chance of fighting in this war that white men have; and we have always believed that, battle for battle, they would show the same spirit and pluck. Nor has the history of the war, the last assault at Petersburg included, belied our belief. And we may fairly ask whether any class of men—white, black, red, or yellow—whose services had been so grudgingly received and so reluctantly rewarded; who knew that their capture was equivalent to torture, massacre, or slavery, and for whose wrongs retaliation so loudly promised was as yet not inflicted ; who were so maligned, rebuffed, and insulted as the colored men in this country are—we may fairly ask whether any soldiers would have fought more steadfastly and bravely and willingly than the colored troops in the Union army?

    The mental and moral condition of those who begrudge fair play to the most unfortunate, but by no means the least meritorious class of our population, is one of the most melancholy phenomena of the times. The want of that fair play has produced the war, and until we concede it the war under some form will continue. The most brutal part of our population, deluded by ” Conservative” demagogues, incessantly declare that ” niggers are only fit for slaves.” The most intelligent American citizens, and the conscience of all Christian civilization, rejects the foul injustice. It is the conflict of that enlightened sense of equity and right with the ferocious determination of class privilege and prejudice which is reddening our soil every where. Who ever panders to that injustice prolongs the war. Whoever cherishes it postpones the peace which can be permanently established upon Justice only.

    The more thoughtful among those who are committed by party-spirit and jealousy to fostering the unmanly refusal to allow the black race fair play in this country must sometimes clearly see the hopelessness of their cause. They know as well as we that their profession of seeking the real interest of that race is a self-delusion. They know that the word slavery expresses some form of injustice, disguise it as they may and they are consequently aware that they are fighting against the human heart, against the instinct of civilization, and against the peace of the world. In such a contest, however they may prolong it, they are doomed to defeat and ignominy. They know, as we all do, that General GREENE in commending the valor of the colored troops in the revolutionary battle of Rhode Island is a more humane and ennobling figure to our imaginations than he would have been had he sneered at them as unfit for soldiers because they were “niggers.” For that is not the spirit which makes honorable men or great nations. We, too, are passing into history. And in our children’s eyes which will seem nobler, the men who died bravely fighting upon the slopes of Wagner and Petersburg, and on the plains of Olustee and Milliken’s Bend, or those who contemptuously cried as they read the story of the last Petersburg assault, “Pshaw ! niggers never will make soldiers.”

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2014 @ 17:21

      Hi Emmanuel,

      Thanks for posting one of the more popular and important newspaper accounts. For this particular essay I am sticking with the soldiers themselves.

      I tend to think that Manning over analyzes these men. It seems to me that for those who voice concerns about the black soldiers are doing so for practical reasons. One of the most common concerns is that they believe that Confederate will treat them more harshly in a battle that includes blacks. I think this helps to explain the few accounts that reference the bayoneting of black soldiers by their white comrades during the former’s retreat at the height of the battle.

      • Forester Jan 13, 2014 @ 19:58

        So the bayoneting is true? I’ve always suspected it was Confederate propaganda. I don’t recall Alexander mentioning it, and I only see it in “Lost Cause” accounts by Southern authors.

        The “Norfolk Virginian” newspaper claimed that captured blacks said, “Dem nasty, stinking Yankees fetched us here, and we didn’t want to come”, and says that they’d be bayoneted if they didn’t fight. It smelled like bull to me.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 14, 2014 @ 2:01

          I am referencing Union accounts, most of who were present on the battlefield.

          • Emmanuel Dabney Jan 15, 2014 @ 7:50

            There are at least two pieces of evidence I know of from the Crater regarding white Union troops killing Federal troops of African descent.

            One is a letter written the day after the battle in the Swem Special Collections at the College of William and Mary.

            The other is George Kilmer of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery who wrote many years later about this. You can read his account of the battle here:

            • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2014 @ 7:59

              I am familiar with the Kilmer document. Can you give me a name for the SWEM reference.

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