Sharpshooters of the 18th Corps in action at the Battle of the Crater. (Library of Congress)
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The Union prisoners were formed in line, four abreast. Officers led the way, followed by alternating ranks of four black and four white soldiers. Roughly 1,500 men, captured following the July 30, 1864, Battle of the Crater, were paraded through the streets of Petersburg, Virginia, while onlookers hurled comments like “See the white and n—— equality soldiers” and “Yanks and n—— sleep in the same bed!” at them. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill had ordered the spectacle to send a message to the Army of Northern Virginia, civilians and the whole of the Confederacy: The use of black troops, as sanctioned by the U.S. government in that battle, was intolerable.

Historians have recently sought to better understand how the presence of U.S. Colored Troops at the Crater and elsewhere changed the war’s course. But awareness of black soldiers’ contribu battle of July 30, 1864, including the massive detonation beneath a Confederate salient and close-quarters fighting that ensued for roughly six hours, is mostly viewed as a brutal example of the hard turn of war that defined much of the fighting in Virginia, beginning with Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign that May. There is much greater significance to the Petersburg fight than that.

The involvement of USCTs at the Crater signaled a dramatic shift in the Lincoln administration’s goals and policies dating to the summer of 1862, when the Northern president turned to a limited plan of emancipation and recruitment of black soldiers. Despite deeply engrained racism that pervaded Union ranks and Northern society, tens of thousands of free and formerly enslaved blacks embraced the opportunity to enlist and fight for their own freedom and that of family members still in bondage.

To Southerners who defended Petersburg, the use of black soldiers constituted a threat to their social order. The shift in the Union Army’s racial profile reinforced long-held fears, ranging from the horror evoked by bloodsoaked images of race wars to dismay at the possibility that helpless white women would be defiled by black troops. Little wonder that the Rebels at Petersburg, raised in dread of this kind of social upheaval, believed they were defending the town’s civilians when they brutalized USCTs. Mindful of a number of prewar slave insurrections, the Confederates at Petersburg saw the black troops not as soldiers but as manifestations of a new revolt, actively promulgated by the U.S. government. The Confederate government’s policy specifically stated that black soldiers and their white officers should be treated as criminals, liable to enslavement and/or summary execution—similar to the guidelines for participants in a slave revolt.

Nat Turner’s August 1831 uprising in Southampton County, Va., was no doubt still fresh in Southerners’ minds. That had resulted in the deaths of more than 60 men, women and children. But they also remembered failed revolts in Richmond led by Gabriel Prosser (1801) and in South Carolina by Denmark Vesey (1823). In addition, Southerners had heard of similar mutinies on Barbados (1816) and at Demerara, in Guyana (1823).

At the Crater, Robert E. Lee’s men were already engaged in heated combat by the time Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s USCT division entered the battle. Most Rebel accounts mention the black soldiers crying, “No quarter! Remember Fort Pillow!” in reference to a massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow, Miss., on April 12, 1864—though it’s impossible to know how many Confederates actually heard what they said given the confusion on the battlefield. But aside from their battle cry, the mere sight of the USCTs enraged Lee’s men. “It had the same affect [sic] upon our men that a red flag had upon a mad bull,” was the way one South Carolinian described their reaction. David Holt of the 16th Mississippi remembered, “They were the first we had seen and the sight of a n—— in a blue uniform and with a gun was more than ‘Johnnie Reb’ could stand.” Holt said that “Fury had taken possession” of him, adding, “I knew that I felt as ugly as they looked.”

Soldiers rarely shied away from conveying the horrors of battle and hatred of the enemy in letters and diaries. But when we look at such accounts from the Battle of the Crater it is important to keep in mind that Confederates did not see USCTs as soldiers. The harsh language often used to describe the black soldiers not only helped to dehumanize them in the eyes of Southerners, it also raised the possibility of swift, violent retaliation.

Many Rebels described their experience at the Crater in unusually vivid terms, which suggests that, for them, this was a different kind of combat because of the nature of the enemy. One man wrote that he and his comrades “shot them down until we got mean enough and then rammed them through with the Bayonet.” According to Labnan Odom of the 48th Georgia, “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the buts [sic] of there guns and every other way until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.” Another soldier in the 48th Georgia wrote: “[T]he Bayonet was plunged through their hearts & the muzzle of our guns was put on their temple & their brains blown out others were knocked in the head with butts of our guns. Few would succeed in getting to the rear safe.”

For some, writing about the battle may have proved cathartic, since it allowed them to express their anger about the U.S. Army’s use of black soldiers. The 10th Alabama’s A.T. Fleming, who missed the battle due to illness, wrote that Confederates “knocked them in the head like killing hogs.” Southerners may have felt that sharing such stories bound them more closely with the troops who had been there—and also reminded their families that they were defending them from armed blacks.

Once the Confederate salient had been retaken, the Southerners’ rage proved difficult to bring under control. Rebels later wrote freely about having executed black soldiers who had surrendered. Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many were killed in this way, it is not a stretch to suggest that between 200 and 300 or more USCTs were executed in the battle’s aftermath.

Jerome B. Yates of the 16th Mississippi recalled: “Most of the Negroes were killed after the battle. Some was killed after they were taken to the rear.” According to Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird, “The only sounds which now broke the silence was some poor wounded wretch begging for water and quieted by a bayonet thrust which said unmistakably “Bois ton sang. Tu n’aurais de soif.” [Drink your blood. You will have no more thirst.] James Verdery simply described it as “a truly Bloody Sight a perfect Massacre nearly a Black flag fight.”

Given the circumstances, it is a mistake to dismiss such accounts as examples of uncontrolled rage. The scale of the violence mirrors whites’ swift response in putting down slave rebellions during the antebellum period. The numbers killed, as well as vivid accounts of the executions, suggest that what happened at the Crater should perhaps be seen as a response to a wartime slave uprising.

In the antebellum era, a crushed revolt had commonly been followed by executions. After the 1816 rebellion on Barbados, roughly 200 slaves were put to death, and in Demerara another 200 slaves were killed in 1823 following a failed rebellion. Around 200 slaves were either publicly tortured or executed outright in Virginia following Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. These violent measures sent a strong message to the slave community about who was in control, underlining that such behavior would not be tolerated and could not succeed. Given this background, we can better understand the brutality meted out to black soldiers at the Crater. The Army of Northern Virginia was responsible for defending Petersburg’s civilian population as well as slaves in the area. The executions conveyed a warning to blacks that any attempt to follow in these soldiers’ footsteps would be dealt with harshly.

Most Southerners, slaveowners or not, liked to believe that slaves tended to be happy and passive rather than combative. Any acknowledgment of soldierly qualities in USCTs threatened assumptions about the dependent nature of blacks and the paternal justification for slavery. Yet even though they despised the black troops, some of the Confederates who fought at the Crater acknowledged the USCTs had fought well. Colonel John C.C. Sanders, who commanded the Alabama Brigade in General Mahone’s Division, admitted that “Negroes…fight much better than I expected.”

When blacks resorted to violence before the war, Southerners were convinced that meddling abolitionists had agitated otherwise content slaves, resulting in bloodshed. In wartime, Confederates shifted the blame to the Lincoln administration and the U.S. military’s high command. Colonel Sanders, for example, qualified his statement about blacks’ performance in combat by claiming the USCTs “were driven on by the Yankees and many of them were shot down by the latter.” J. Edward Peterson, who served as a band member in the 26th North Carolina, described the black soldiers at the Crater as “ignorant” and like Sanders assumed they had been forced to fight. Peterson concluded that because of that they had not deserved such harsh treatment following the battle.

As a result of their experience at the Crater, many Confederates found a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the Southern cause. Years after the war, Edward Porter Alexander remembered that the “general feeling of the men towards their [USCTs’] employment was very bitter.” According to Alexander, “The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.”

William Pegram also acknowledged that perceived threat, noting, “I had been hoping that the enemy would bring some negroes against this army.” Now that they had, he wrote, “I am convinced…that it has a splendid effect on our men.” Pegram concluded that though “[i]t seems cruel to murder them in cold blood,” the men who did it had “very good cause for doing so.”

Southern newspapers echoed the renewed fervor of Lee’s men. Editors reminded readers of the sacrifices being made in Petersburg’s trenches, encouraging them to remain optimistic and supportive, in hopes that further victories might lead to a Lincoln defeat in November. Most described the USCTs’ battle cries of “No quarter!”—and this was used to justify the violent Confederate response. One Petersburg paper noted that “our brave boys took them at their word and gave them what they had so loudly called for—‘no quarter.’”

The Richmond Dispatch commented extensively on the USCTs and emphasized the dangers posed by readers’ own slaves: “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long as they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”

The Richmond Examiner acknowledged the executions and encouraged Mahone, whose men led the counterattack: “We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting ‘no quarter,’ shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.”

The account portrayed Lee’s men as the only obstacle preventing the slaughter of civilians by former slaves who had been duped into fighting their former masters. While it acknowledged that Southerners would normally be expected to follow their paternal instincts in managing blacks, the paper also stressed that in the wake of what had happened at the Crater, Lee’s men had to stand firm to prevent Nat Turner writ large.

It was this response that led to the parade of Union prisoners through Petersburg’s streets after the battle. To the residents who lined the streets and verandas “in holiday attire,” that represented first and foremost submissiveness. Hill’s forces demonstrated the Confederacy could still defend residents from the Union invaders. But the sorry spectacle also reminded Rebels just what was at stake now that black soldiers had been introduced to the battlefield.

Kevin Levin teaches history in Charlottesville, Va., and maintains the blog Civil War Memory (

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times.