Explaining a Massacre

Published:July 27, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


In a couple of provocative posts at his blog Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin writes about the infamous Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, and the massacre of black troops that immediately followed it. He’s interested in the context of the moment: what did it mean for Virginia soldiers—some of them slave owners, perhaps, or folks for whom the name Nat Turner was especially fearsome—to face United States Colored Troops (USCT) in battle?

Kevin writes:

What I am arguing is that the massacre of USCTs by Confederates along with their wartime accounts must be understood within the broader context of the history of slave rebellions (real and imagined) that stretched back to the beginning of the nineteenth-century. As I’ve stated before, all too often the actions of Confederates in response to the presence of the USCTs has been reduced to one of uncontrolled rage. Others have given a nod to the role that race played in their actions and written accounts, but have failed to fully explain their particular form. After all, race/racism can shape our actions and thoughts in any number of ways. Why did it lead to a massacre and how can we explain the convergence of thought in the accounts written by Confederates who took part in the battle or who learned of it later?

We’ve been working on our entry about the Battle of the Crater and have alluded in these pages to the gruesome details of the massacre associated with the battle. And in our research, we’ve come across information that might assist Kevin in his efforts to better contextualize the actions of Confederate soldiers.

While it is true, as Kevin writes, that “uncontrolled rage” is reductive and vague, so is “race/racism.” In a short article that appears below, our invaluable intern (and University of Virginia graduate student) Peter Luebke argues that a little-known raid in the Northern Neck a few weeks before the battle may have contributed to the Crater massacre. Black soldiers involved in the raid had been accused of raping the wife of a Confederate soldier eleven times, and if the lurid newspaper reports of the allegations reached Lee’s army at Petersburg (as they likely did), the result could have been incendiary.

IN ADDITION: Ta-Nehisi Coates has his own ideas: “But I think, when we talk about black soldiers in the Civil War, the noble chivalrous sheen (think Glory) doesn’t account for that oldest of human emotions—vengeance.”

IMAGE: Black Union soldiers at Dutch Gap, Virginia, in November 1864.


What Does the Northern Neck Have to Do with the Crater?

By Peter Luebke

On the night of June 11, 1864, Union forces launched a raid into Virginia’s Northern Neck, the peninsula formed by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. While civilians had experienced periodic cavalry raids before, this one was different. For starters, it lasted more than a week and covered more territory and destroyed more supplies than earlier forays. Even more troubling for local residents was the fact that the raiding parties included black soldiers. Since April, African American soldiers of the 36th United States Colored Troops (USCT) had occasionally ventured across the Potomac on raids from their garrison at the Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. This time, however, accusations of rape would follow in their wake—accusations that may have contributed to a massacre weeks later at the infamous Battle of the Crater.

The raiding party was hounded but not really impeded by a combination of local guerrillas, Confederate troops on furlough, armed residents, and some elements of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. After several small skirmishes, the black troops boarded their Navy transport ships and, on June 21, returned to Point Lookout.

Reports of what those troops might have done on the Northern Neck immediately followed. Citizens appealed to Confederate secretary of war James Seddon, who passed their reports on to Robert E. Lee. Seddon noted the “deeds of spoilation, destruction, and infamy unexampled among the many atrocities heretofore practiced,” before inquiring if Lee could spare any men to deal with the situation.

Lee replied that “I fear there is much truth in the account which reached the Department of the ravages and outrages committed by the enemy in the Northern Neck and on the south side of the Rappahannock.” Still, he claimed he couldn’t spare any soldiers from the Petersburg front and recommended that instead residents “operate against the enemy as [John S.] Mosby has done in the Piedmont country.”

Seddon and Lee also hinted at things darker than just property destruction. Their use of words like “infamy” and “ravages” pointed subtly toward suspicions of rape.

Then, on July 5, 1864, an article ran in the Richmond Examiner containing excerpts from a letter written by a woman who was unhappy with Confederate authorities for not adequately defending the Northern Neck. She described the “brutal outrages” of the USCT and alleged that “a woman, whose husband was in the army, was left insensible.”

This, then, is the first public insinuation that the black troops had engaged in rape during their raid. The letter writer went on to describe the events that transpired at her own home: when her sister asked “the colonel for a guard, he asked ‘if her husband was’nt [sic] guard enough;’ she replied, ‘I am a widow,’ when one of the negroes said, “I wants a wife, and now is my time’—whereupon an officer clapped him on his head and laughed hoarily.”

In other words, the Examiner implied that the USCT had raped women on the Northern Neck, but shied away from saying so explicitly.

Also on July 5, perhaps because a Confederate official had read the paper and demanded an explanation, Captain John S. Braxton reported to headquarters about the June raid. Braxton confirmed that

about the 14th ultimo, at a place called Hutt’s Store, near the center of Westmoreland County, some of the negro troops went to the house of Private George, of Ninth Virginia Cavalry, and committed a rape upon his wife, who had just been confided with a babe only six weeks old. She is now almost a maniac, and begs that some one [sic] will kill her. This atrocious crime can be verified by a number of witnesses who are personally cognizant of the fact. In Warsaw, Richmond County, the negro troops attempted to ravish white ladies, but were foiled by the assistance of the female slaves of the households. In the case of Mrs. Belfield, she escaped by flight to the woods.

It’s worth noting that Braxton expressed no doubt, only conveying what he apparently believed to be fact.

At July 7 report in the Richmond Daily Enquirer advanced the story by providing graphic details. It described how the USCT had “violated the person of Mrs. G eleven times, she being the wife of a brave soldier of the Ninth Virginia cavalry, being sick at the time, with an infant six weeks old at her breast.” Either the paper had obtained Braxton’s report or the story contained therein had become public knowledge.

Whatever the case, what’s clear here is not that soldiers of the 36th USCT committed acts of rape, but that Confederates sincerely believed that they had. Indeed, these stories are reminiscent of rape accusations that would spark lynch mobs in the years following the Civil War. And the circumstance are certainly provocative: Mrs. George was a helpless white woman recovering from giving birth who was allegedly raped not once but eleven times. Even the flow of information was similar to patterns that would develop during the Jim Crow era: the first article introduced the notion of the outrages, while the second followed it with lurid details.

Yet before dismissing these reports as the nightmarish anxieties of white Southerners, one must acknowledge that Confederates certainly perceived the reports to be true. From James Seddon to Robert E. Lee on down to lowly Captain John S. Braxton, officials voiced no disagreement about or suspicion of the rape allegations.

Why is that important? Not because it suggests the allegations are true, but because the Confederates’ belief that they were true could have—perhaps did have—very serious consequences.

Set the scene: at Petersburg, Lee’s tired Army of Northern Virginia had just been through one of the most difficult and bloody campaigns of the war, surviving Ulysses S. Grant‘s punishing attacks at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor. At the end of July a mine shaft packed with four tons of powder would explode under their lines and among the Union troops that would pour into the Crater left behind by the blast would be a division of black troops.

Had William Mahone’s Virginia soldiers—the ones who would most famously meet those black men in battle—lately been hearing reports of rape on the Northern Neck? If they had, it might help explain why black troops were massacred at the Crater.

The historian Jason Phillips has noted in Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (2007) that troops in the lines around Petersburg and Richmond eagerly circulated news reports and rumors. It seems likely, then, that the Examiner and Enquirer articles made it to Lee’s army, where they would have provoked intense discussion among the troops. After all, Confederates had long been warning about the terrible consequences of putting black men in uniform. The only thing the various accounts of the June raid agreed upon was that the wife of a Confederate soldier had been raped, but that alone would have been incendiary, resonating as it did with already well-established fears.

On July 30, just following the Battle of the Crater, a number of captured black troop were murdered. To explain what happened, historians usually stress white Southern racism and the fact that, during the battle, armed blacks challenged established Southern hierarchy. Yet these explanations remain maddeningly abstract—ideas about social hierarchy don’t act by themselves. The newspaper articles provide a more tangible way of uncovering the Virginians’ state of mind at the Crater.

Of course, reports of rape were not the only contributing factors in the massacre. The actions of the black troops themselves must be factored in. Charging into the Crater, they reportedly screamed “No quarter!” and “Remember Fort Pillow!” (the latter a reference to another, earlier massacre of black troops). According to the conventions of nineteenth-century warfare, crying “No quarter!”, or, in other words, announcing that you would not take prisoners, freed your enemy from his obligation to take them, as well.

These two elements, in addition to deep anxieties about the corrosive effect of the Civil War on racial hierarchies and stability within the South, provoked the Confederates of Mahone’s Brigade to slaughter black Union troops at the Crater.


2 Comments on “Explaining a Massacre”

  1. Kevin

    Brendan and Peter,

    This is an incredibly thought-provoking post. I’ve never before heard about this incident and will definitely give it some thought. In my 5 years of research on the battle, I’ve not once come across a reference to this particular incident so I am skeptical that it explains the massacre. That said, I would like to know if there are other editorials referencing the behavior of USCTs that might collectively help to frame the massacre at the Crater. The rumor mill can easily be located within the broader historic framework that I am working to better understand.

    Thanks again and look for a response on my blog in the next few days.

  2. Mary Sue Benton Nicholas

    I am not a military historian and pursue genealogy as a self taught amateur, but wanted to bring this to your attention. Major General William Mahone and his own attitude may have contributed to the massacre of USCT after the battle. Mahone was born and raised in Southampton Co, Virginia on the North Carolina border. His father, Fielding Jordan Mahone, lead militias who tracked down Nat Turner when William was 5 years old. Ironically, young William’s household included at least 2 free people of color as well as 8-4 enslaved people from his earliest memory. His father was a merchant, post master, inn, and tavern keeper so his work force needs were minimal. It appears William was a very progressive and pragmatic man after the Civil War, but he may have reverted to his father in the face of black troops.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

XHTML: You can use these tags <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>