Northern Soldiers, Race, and the Crater

battle of the craterI am really enjoying the opportunity to go back and review the letters and diaries of white Northern soldiers who fought at the Crater. Now that I’ve done so I regret not going deeper into these wartime accounts in the book. Hopefully, this little essay project will make up for it. In this post I want to share a couple soldier accounts from the battle and solicit some feedback. 

Before I get to that, however, a quick question about the historiography of Union soldiers. Having recently re-read a few chapters in Chandra Manning’s study I was wondering if there are other historians who have attempted to analyze Union soldiers on race over time. Re-reading the sources I am even more convinced that my guys just don’t fit her framework. Indeed, I find it difficult to situate them into an analytical framework that tracks their views on race since the Crater fight is there first experience fighting alongside black soldiers.

Now to the primary sources. I am trying to leave no stone unturned and the last thing I want to do is over analyze anything. In the aftermath of the battle a number of soldiers offered the following observations about the inability to distinguish between black and white soldiers.

“Go back in our old place and have to look on our dead on the field in front of us they are all black as hat and we can not tell the Colored from white soldiers as they lay mixed up all over the ground.” — William T. Ackerson (51st New York)

“But this morning we got leave to bury the dead and take care of the wounded. But they were almost all dead! I was on field, and Oh God, what a sight! Men cut in a thousand pieces and as black as your hat. You could not tell the white from the black by their hair.” — Hamilton R. Dunlap (100th Pennsylvania Infantry)

Should we treat this as a straightforward descriptive claim about the condition of the landscape and neglected bodies or are these men and others telling us something else about the battle and race? One thing that occurred to me is that perhaps they went into the area of the crater with the intention to take care of the white soldiers first. I don’t know. What do you think? Is there anything to see here?

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6 comments… add one
  • Tom Heaney Jan 16, 2014 @ 6:42

    I cannot say that I know anything about army burial practices in ’64 and would have expected them to dig mass graves, but could it be that they had set to work with the expectation of being able to identify individual soldiers (or perhaps at least bury the bodies by regiment)? Their responses could be seen then as an expression of dismay that no one could be identified, not even white from black?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2014 @ 6:54

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. That was one of the things I thought about and even went back to Drew Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering” to see if there were any common practices when dealing with both white and black soldiers.

      • Emmanuel Dabney Jan 17, 2014 @ 13:42

        I will only add that this inability to distinguish people except by the texture of their hair comes up in Theodore Lyman’s account of the recovery of the dead. As I recall he gets even more specific that the bodies were so black from laying in the sun since July 30th or that the bodies were white from maggots eating their flesh that they could not be distinguished otherwise.

        Of course, I always think about those mixed-race whose hair my have betrayed any racial assignment. And while Native Americans were not present in large numbers, there were some there, notably in the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters.

        Sidenote: Some bodies were clearly identifiable as people of Native/Indian and people of African descent buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2014 @ 13:56

          These are helpful reminders. As always, thanks, Emmanuel.

  • James F. Epperson Jan 16, 2014 @ 4:50

    I would be careful about reading too much into these. As awful as combat was, cleaning up after the battle—burying the dead—was gruesome work, especially after a bitter fight like the Crater. I’d be willing to conclude these guys are just giving their honest perceptions of the mess they had to deal with, and not look for any hidden comment on their USCT comrades.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2014 @ 4:53

      Thanks for the comment, James. I tend to agree with you. The only thing I would add is that many expected to find their comrades still alive. As you know Grant and Lee were unable to come to terms for a truce immediately. That said, I certainly don’t want to read too much into these accounts.

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