Playing Nice With United States Colored Troops at the Crater

Today the NYTs Disunion page features an essay by Richard Slotkin on the Crater and the story of the “colored” Fourth Division. I recommend his book on the battle, though the source material utilized is very limited.

The following passage about the battle cry of the black soldiers caught my attention.

Union officers used that fact to their benefit. During their assault training, Fourth Division troops were enjoined to use “Fort Pillow! No Quarter!” as their battle cry. However, for the division’s officers the battle cry was not intended as a command. In the battle itself they took pains to see that their troops did not harm rebel wounded or P.O.W.s. Rather, it was a motivational ploy that reflected their own racial prejudice: They believed that Negroes, as a race, were timid and needed the stimulus of desperation to make them fight hard against white Southerners. That same prejudice would cost the Union dearly when, on the eve of the battle, Gen. George Meade – commanding the Army of the Potomac – forbade the use of the “Colored Division” as the spearhead, because he did not think black soldiers were good enough.

I understand that there are constraints when writing for Disunion, but this analysis of why black soldiers recalled Fort Pillow and promised no quarter to Confederates is much too narrow. Black soldiers did not need to be encouraged to utilize such a battle cry. They wanted revenge on Confederates as did their comrades who charged the earthworks at Petersburg in mid-June 1864. Lt. Richard M. Gosney of the 28th USCT recalled that black soldiers went into battle at the Crater “not expecting any quarter, nor intending to give any.”

While the white officers of the Fourth Division did attempt to restrain their men there is evidence that a few Confederates were executed. One soldier claimed that a Confederate prisoner was killed by a black soldier with a bayonet and “in an agony of frenzy.”

To claim as does Slotkin that the soldiers were “enjoined to use” this particular battle cry or that it was a “motivational ploy” robs these men of their agency at the very moment that begs for explanation and understanding. The racial contours of the fight at the Crater extended beyond Confederates massacring blacks.

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle we need to face these tough issues head on. See you on the battlefield.

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7 comments… add one
  • Julian Aug 2, 2014 @ 8:46

    If the member of the 29th Connecticut Infantry (Colored) – who later became a mother – were at the Crater she is a real survivor. There was a very well equipped and presented young female African American enlisted man at the GAC Gettysburg 150th reenactment. I was unable to speak to her to find out whether she was a specific person or just representing the women who passed as men during the war. Interestingly although a lot of reenactors saw the GAC as the more farby event than the Blue and Grey Alliance event the week before, the Union army at GAC fielded a-historical mixed units, with a smattering of African American Union soldiers of all ages from drummers in their early teens to middle-aged in a number of units. Again I was tied up with other groups and could not ask whether in fact the unit was always – ahistorically – integrated – as some are or whether the unit just let interested African American reenactors fall in – as they did with stray soldiers from all over the US and from global destinations. No identifiable African American soldiers fought at Gettysburg. (I don’t think that any one dares to venture that the much vaunted 1000s of Black Confederates went into action there, perhaps they could have helped General Armistead hold the Angle) African Americans from the Gettysburg area enlisted in the Union army but were deployed elsewhere. Hardcore and progressives insist upon units having the same membership compositions as was recorded during the war, mainstreamers are more tolerant and often accept anyone who shows interest – and as Pat Young has discussed, changing US demographics will change the way in which the war is seen in public

  • Julian Aug 2, 2014 @ 6:34

    Did you mention in your book that when re-burying Union dead at the Crater in 1866 one of them was found to be a woman armed and dressed as a solder according to newspaper accounts of the day. There may have been another woman who survived – in Feb 1865 a member of the 29th Connecticut Infantry (Colored) gave birth to a baby as mentioned in a soldier’s letter home, but it is possible that this disguised woman soldier may have been at the Crater (and akready pregnant at the time) – although without a name the enlistment can not be tracked

  • TF Smith Jul 30, 2014 @ 18:37

    “Fort PIllow” was used as shorthand for rebel atrocities; Lincoln referenced it in his speech to the Baltimore Sanitary Fair in 1864.

    However, the idea that any US troops would have to be “enjoined” to use it – especially officers and men of the USCTs – seems unlikely; I’m not aware the Army of the Potomac’s veterans had to be encouraged to shout “Fredericksburg” at Gettysburg as what was left of Pickett’s division fell back from the ridge…

    There’s also the interesting precedents of the “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Goliad” at San Jacinto with regards to an enemy perceived as having hoisted the black flag…


  • Eric Mink Jul 29, 2014 @ 21:43

    Kevin – There are accounts of the USCTs in the 4th Division mentioning Fort Pillow when confronting captured Confederates during the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. I don’t believe any of the accounts mention the involvement of or encouragement from officers during those confrontations.

    See you on the field this morning.

    – Eric Mink

    • James Harrigan Jul 30, 2014 @ 7:01

      Eric, I believe that no USCT took part in the Overland Campaign, and thus would not have been present at Wilderness or Spotsylvania Court House. Am I mistaken?

      • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2014 @ 9:14

        They did come across Confederate prisoners while engaged in various support roles in central Virginia.

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