Saturday, March 9, 2013

Moral Judgments and USCTs

The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry as portrayed in Lincoln
In a recent post over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin asked a series of probing questions about the ways in which USCT history is interpreted at public sites.

Part of one question in particular piqued my interest – “have we inadvertently made the message visitors receive [about US Colored Troops] too celebratory?”

This is something I have struggled with, especially when it comes to battlefield atrocities and the refusal by some USCT units to take prisoners.
One cannot approach the topic of US Colored Troops without encountering numerous occasions in which black soldiers were ruthlessly cut down on the battlefield while in the act of surrender. Olustee, Fort Pillow, the Crater, Saltville – the list of places where Confederate troops perpetrated these war crimes goes on and on.

But there is a flip side to this coin, and the way it is presented in the grand narrative can be problematic. Just as one can find numerous examples in Civil War texts that lay out the atrocities committed by rebel soldiers, one can also find the examples of when US Colored Troops went into action shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” and encouraging their fellow soldiers to “raise the black flag” and give no quarter to any Confederate soldier who sought any.
Take, for example, an incident made popular in the opening scenes of Spielberg’s Lincoln – the clash at Jenkins’ Ferry.

Here is how the scene plays out in Tony Kushner’s script:
There’s no discipline or strategy, nothing depersonalized: it’s mayhem and each side intensely hates the other. Both have resolved to take no prisoners.
“Some of us was in the Second Kansas Colored. We fought the rebs at Jenkins’ Ferry last April, just after they’d killed every Negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs….So at Jenkins’ Ferry, we decided warn’t taking no reb prisoners. And we didn’t leave a one of ‘em alive. The ones of us that didn’t die that day, we joined up with the 116th U.S. Colored, sir. From Camp Nelson Kentucky.”
Private Green coolly relates the story of this atrocity without batting an eye, and Lincoln gives no obvious sign of disapproval for what he would know to be a violation of the articles of war. Thus, the audience is lulled into thinking that the action of Green and his compatriots was perfectly acceptable.

The fight at Jenkins’ Ferry (April 30, 1864) was retaliation for the Battle of Poison Spring (April 18, 1864) and was every bit as cold and ruthless as it appears on screen.

But one is inevitably left asking the question – if it was wrong for Confederates to show no mercy to surrendering black troops, what made it acceptable for USCTs to engage in the same activity?
Indeed, the Union soldiers who witnessed Jenkins’ Ferry wrestled with this question themselves. One white northerner wrote after the battle: “It looks hard, but the rebs cannot blame the negroes when they are guilty of the same trick.” Another simply observed, “It would not surprise me in the least if the war would ultimately be one of extermination. Its tendencies are in that direction now.” (Note: for a great treatment of Poison Springs and Jenkins’ Ferry, see Gregory J. Urwin, “’We Cannot Treat Negroes…as Prisoners of War’: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in Civil War Arkansas” in The Price of Freedom: Slavery and the Civil War, Vol. 1).

Since the cause that the USCTs were fighting for is so much more compatible to 21st Century America’s views on justice and freedom, it seems as if these incidents have flown under the radar and are taken at face value as the Confederacy’s just deserts for fighting to establish a slaveholding republic in the first place. Indeed, that very well may be the case.
But what if it isn’t?

Even George Burkhart in his work Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War writes that if the black Union soldiers and their commanding officers had ever been court martialed for killing soldiers in the act of surrender, they “would have packed many courtrooms. They killed a large but unknown number of wounded, surrendered, or captured Confederates. Though their lawyers might contend that the defendants only gave as good as they got, that argument would not have saved them” (p. 247).
As we continue into the Sesquicentennial and the topic of emancipation and black military service takes center stage, we would do well to wrestle with such vexing questions. The struggle is worthwhile.


  1. There is an article in all of this. You've definitely given me some ideas as I prepare my remarks for the conference later this week at Gettysburg College. Thanks.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    You're quite welcome. Best of luck at Gettysburg - wish I could be there, but it wasn't meant to be.

    And I'll look into that whole article thing ;-)

    - Jimmy

  3. You raise an interesting issue. Too often we like to see things as good v. evil. In fact, there may be evil lurking where we most want to see good. This issue involving the USCT has a moral aspect--can cold-blooded killing as an act of vegence, justice, or retribution ever be condoned? Then too, there is the legal aspect to which you allude. And, of course, the moral and the legal may clash in some people's eyes. If we are to remain faithful to history, then we should fully discuss all aspects of the USCT, warts and all.

  4. An interesting question. I confess that I'm enough of a Calvinist to not think that evil tainted everyone, but I also think that given the evil of the slave system, that legally equal actions by CSA and USCT troops were not necessarily morally equal.

  5. Definitely huge gap between legal vs. moral. Apr. 30, 1863 Confed. Congress passed a measure calling for the execution of white officers, and trial by the state for black soldiers (which would have meant the death penalty) as "slaves in insurrection." With that kind of a law on the books, the marvel to me is that there weren't more "massacres."
    (See James G. Hollandsworth's excellent article, “The Execution of White Officers from Black Units by Confederate Forces during the Civil War.” Louisiana History 35, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 475–489, where he concludes that only a small number of white officers were killed.)

    I agree with Jimmy Price that the USCT's often have a glow about them that makes them impervious to any discussion of atrocities that they may have committed. It is definitely a subject to look into. I think there are many untold stories in that regard. Especially interested in Fort Blakeley at the end of the war, as that may be one time where there seems to be pretty strong evidence that at least some of the black troops may have killed surrendering Rebs.

    In my work on Milliken's Bend, there is an incident a week or so before the battle even takes place where a Union commander (Col. Hermann Lieb) is said to have issued a threat to hang some Confederates in retaliation for some alleged atrocities that had been committed in the area - though I never found any evidence that either one of these particular atrocities had taken place.

    Which brings up the larger issue - the policy of "retaliation" - which both sides claimed. If the politicians and high generals are calling for a retaliatory policy - then is there any reason to fault the soldiers-in-the-ranks from implementing it on the spot? (as in the Poison Spring/Jenkins Ferry matter)?