Friday, July 30, 2010

A Newspaper Account of the Battle of the Crater

The following comes from the August 12, 1864 edition of The Liberator. The eyewitness accounts of the fighting that took place 146 years ago today are vivid and chilling and the commentary by the reporters is equally enlightening for understanding how the Northern public learned about this battle.


H A O T P, Aug. 1. P.M. A flag of trace was allowed by the rebels from nine until five o'clock this morning to bury the deed and relieve the wounded. Very few were found alive. Most of those living yesterday died last night. Not more than a dozen were brought in, and but few of these were expected to live.

About 190 yards in front of the fort blown up were covered with dead, mostly colored. I counted 150 of the latter and 50 whites, all of whom were buried on the spot. The reason of the great disparity between the white and colored troops it owing to the fact that the fire from the rebel guns, on both flanks, was concentrated upon this ground after the white troops had charged across it; when the colored troops crossed the spot, they were actually mowed down with grape and canister, and when they retreated, they tell in dozens, our sharpshooters being unable to disturb the rebel gunners.

The work of burying the dead was not completed until half part ten, when the truce ceased.

The rebels opened fire ten minutes afterwards. The rebel Gens. A.P. Hill, Bushrod Johnson, Mahone and Sanders were on the field.

The rebels buried their dead on their side of the line, and carried their wounded to the rear. They claim to have 1200 prisoners, including the wounded. They state that their loss was about 800, but this is not credited, as in charging to recover the works they lost heavily.

Gen. Bartlett and Col. Marshall are prisoners in Petersburg, unhurt.

S A T C On arriving at the exploded fort, our troops found it a heterogeneous mass of loose earth, guns and gun carriages, dead and wounded gunners, &c. Some of the gunners were burled alive, at the depth perhaps of twenty feet—the depth of the mine below the fort. Those on the surface were found in every conceivable condition and attitude—some merely stunned and slightly wounded, others unrecognizable lumps of flesh and dirt; some with their heads protruding from the ruins, others with their heels marking their unhallowed burial place. One poor fellow, pulling the dirt out of his eyes, in his delirium, said: "Have we been attacked? Are we driving them? Thai's right! Give them hell!" He soon revived, however, to find himself a prisoner. Another, buried up to his armpits in loose dirt, on being approached, cried: "Come, Yanks, for God's sake, take me out of this piece! It's all over now, and there is no use letting a fellow slick here. Come, take me out quick, and I will do as much for you some time." He was taken out.

One of the charging officers, noticing the dirt move near him as if a mole or gopher were at work under it, commenced digging, and finally dug out a rebel lieutenant, who was actually revived, and conversed freely with the officers before being brought from the ground. Several others were exhumed from their living graves and restored to consciousness, and will survive.

☞Bennett's infamous Herald , in a characteristic article on the repulse at Petersburg, makes the following blackguard attack upon the colored soldiers, whoso loss in killed and wounded was fearful:—

"But it is not only the incompetency of two generals that we are to blame fur the attempt that ought to have given us possession of the rebel city. We must blame also the President and his whole Cabinet, with his nigger-worshiping policy. They who have insisted, against all opposition, that the niggers should enter the army, are even more to blame than all others. Niggers are not fit for soldiers; they can dig, and drive mules; they cannot and will not fight. All the sensation stories in the nigger papers to the contrary are mere moonshine. They never have fought well in any battle. To insist that the niggers should be in the army was to insist that there should be a weak point in every line of battle with which we faced the enemy; and the enemy found that weak point on Saturday last. Abolitionism is, therefore, the real difficulty now, and unless the President soon finds out how to do away with this difficulty, he may be sure that the people will find out how to do away with him. His Cabinet is the trouble, and unless he changes it, he must go with it in disgrace. He cannot possibly have any hope to end the war with that Cabinet as it now stands, with its "to whom it may concern" policy, its niggers, its apathy, and its shoddy corruptions. But let him form a new one, with Charles Francis Adams, John A. Dix, General McClellan and Admiral Dupont in the chief places, and he may once more rally the country to his support."

In the same number of the Herald, its army correspondent renders a very different verdict—as follows:

"In rear of the main column of attack, the colored division had been formed with a view to passing the other divisions, when they had gained the outer line, and making this a starting point for the continuance of the charge. The first division held the centre, with the second and third on either flank, and now the fourth advanced beyond. The troops were in two columns, each brigade constituting a column. Their splendid discipline could not but be observed, and in the early part of the contest no soldiers behaved more gallantly. They charged upon the next and an interior line of the enemy, and for a time gained decided advantages, as is attested by two rebel battle flags which they captured and brought off with them. But the rebels, exasperated as we know them now to have been at sight of the negroes, fought with the fury of devils, and reinforcements coming to their aid—our signal officers counted six brigades hurried from a camp beyond the town—the tide of battle turned. The colored troops gave way, broke in confusion, when the rebels having repulsed their charge, charged them in turn, and then they ran, a terror-stricken, disordered mass of fugitives, to the rear of the white troops In vain their officers endeavored to rally them with all the persuasion of tongue, sabre and pistol. Whatever of discredit attaches to the troops themselves, their officers are beyond reproach."

Another eye-witness of the desperate but fruitless struggle testifies as follows:—

On came the rebels in four lines of battle, and the negroes had hardly tumbled into our lines of trenches before the battle flags of several rebel regiments were planted on the sides of our trenches. Two big negroes had jumped down on my shoulders, one had trampled me to the earth, and everybody's experience seemed to be the unit as mine. A grand rush to the rear of this line of trenches came on, and heads, arms, legs, black and white, all seemed to point in that direction. Under such circumstances a panic was inevitable. Our officers tried in vain to rally the men, but it was useless until they had retreated back toward the fort where the second trench intersected the first. There a few brave officers and men held the rebel column at bay nearly an hour, but no reinforcements coming, they 'were at last overpowered and surrounded, and the retreat to the fort was very difficult. The colors of the 17th South Carolina were planted over the bank beside the writer, who, with another officer, was seized by a rebel officer.

At that moment the rifle of a dark son of Africa cracked, and the rebel officer was shot through the head, and fell headlong into the pits. Our while officers then shouted to the colored men, "Show 'em no quarter!" "Remember Fort Pillow!" and the negroes in the very teeth of the rebels as they poured over the pits commenced fighting, and no deeds of valor, not even at Thermopylae, surpassed what followed. The negro sergeants and corporals shouted, "Fight, boys, for de country dat ye lub!" and they pitched into the Johnnies with the bayonet, and the clattering of cold steel was then heard on every side. They would use the butt of the musket when too close to use the bayonet.

Just previous to this scene of carnage, the Adjutant of the 31st Maine Volunteers lumped into the advance, and rushed upon the rebels, crying, "Come on boys." He fell mortally wounded, and was carried off to the hospital. Capt. A.J. Hough, commanding 9th N.H. Volunteers, leaped toward the front, trying to rally the white men who were mixed in with colored men, but was shot, and died in a few moments. He was of our bravest and best officers, always in front of his regiment, and noted for gallantry in action. Col' Wentworth of the 32d Maine, and Col. Howard (formerly of Massachusetts) of the 2d Maryland, fell near each other previous to this, both severely wounded. Lieut. Cheney and Lieut. Green of the 9th N.H. Vols., fell wounded; also Cape. Tilton, commanding 11th N.H. Vols., about the same time. Lieut. Drew, 9th N.H. Vols., was taken prisoner, and Lieut. Sampson of the him regiment was taken prisoner, but afterwards escaped, and is believed to be killed. Word was passed in at this rime that the First Division, Ninth Corps, had mostly retreated, and in commander, Gen. Ledlie, was a prisoner.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fun in the [Blistering] Sun

This past Thursday I had the honor of helping give a tour of the New Market Heights battlefield for around 40 park rangers from several NPS sites throughout Virginia. The host for the event was Richmond National Battlefield and, in addition to touring New Market Heights, the group also hit the recently preserved land associated with the First and Second Battles of Deep Bottom, fought in July and August of 1864. Despite the scorching heat, the group seemed to enjoy my tour and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along to see the Deep Bottom battlefields. The main themes stressed throughout the day dealt with the problems associated with preserving core battlefield land – from angry locals who refuse to admit that a battle took place on their land to dilapidated homes that would cost huge sums of money to renovate and repair, we all learned how difficult and complicated preservation can be. By looking at three important battlefields that have been saved but lack any interpretation, the group walked away with much food for thought.

I’ve attached some pictures below (courtesy of NPS Ranger Susie Sernaker) of my portion of the New Market Heights tour. Behind me you’ll see one of the huge hurdles to interpreting the site – a large gravel pit that was filled in with water smack dab in the middle of the killing fields. The area behind me was the ground over which Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s Third Brigade advanced on the morning of September 29, 1864. Obviously, any public interpretation of the site will have to find a way to deal with such an obstacle. As the Sesquicentennial moves forward, it is my hope that I will have more news to report on the public interpretation of New Market Heights.

Keep you fingers crossed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"By all means let us have a reunion"

The Christian Recorder: July 15, 1886

Reunion of Colored Troops

By: Rev. Jno. C. Brock.

A few weeks ago the colored veterans of the 54th and 55th Regiments of Infantry and the 5th Cavalry held a reunion in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was to them a delightful occasion. The first time since the war that these heroes had enjoyed the opportunity of being together, recalling the thrilling events of those memorable days when they were in the fierce charge at Wayne or on the bloody fields of Olustee and Honey Hills. Several of the line and staff officers were with them- the heroic Sergeant Carney. It was a glorious gathering. It was proposed at that meeting to have a national reunion of the colored veterans of the U.S. of America. This movement, I think, ought to be encouraged. The white troops in the several States have their regimental, and ofttimes, brigade reunions. This they can be quite easily, for in many instances regiments were organized in one town or city and brigades formed in the same locality. They were all recognized as State troops and the relationship established amidst the dangers of the battle-field they have never allowed to be obliterated. But with the colored soldiers, Massachusetts was the only State that accredited her sable braves as State troops. Prejudice prevented the others from recognizing the colored troops recruited within their boarders as State troops. With the single exception of regiments all the rest were dubbed United States Colored Troops. I know that in my native State, Pennsylvania, at Camp William Penn, eleven regiments were organized in the following order, namely: the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 22nd, 25th, 32nd, 43rd, 41st, 45th, 127th, 24th. Yet not one of these were called Pennsylvania Volunteers. 'Tis true, the men composing these regiments came from the different parts of the Union, but that was no reason why the State, whose quota was filled by these very men, should have hesitated to recognize them as State troops. But the fact that the colored regiments were recruited from all portions of this country makes it extremely difficult to have regimental or even brigade reunions. But might there not be a national one? Representatives from the different regiments might possibly be present. An opportunity would be afforded to collect facts for historical information that will never be published by a prejudiced historian. If we wish to have proper credit let us furnish historians from among ourselves to furnish the facts connected with our own history. Examine our school histories, of you please, and you will find very little, if any, reference made to the fact that nearly 200,000 colored men shouldered the musket and went forth to so and die, that the foul blot of slavery might be forever erased from our national banner. By all means let us have a reunion. I would suggest some railroad center easy of access from all parts of the country, like Harrisburg, Pa., as a proper place, where the officers and men who still survive of what was known as the United States Colored Troops may assemble and recall those days when the “rejected,” at the beginning of the rebellion, eventually became the forlorn hope that came to the rescue in the hour of danger to preserve the unity of the nation when its fate hung trembling in the balance.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bloggers Are Busy People Too, Ya Know

I apologize for the lack of in-depth postings as of late, but I’m currently in the process of helping to put together a tour of New Market Heights for National Park Service historians that will take place a week from today.

Part of the “fun” associated with this is trying to figure out a quick and efficient way to get people to the site, which is very difficult to get access to on a good day due to the testy nature of Four Mile Creek. Thankfully it has remained pretty dry lately so no pontoon bridges should be needed.

While this tour is reserved especially for those who wear Smokey the Bear Hats, I will be giving a tour (also in conjunction with the NPS) that will be open to the public on September 25, 2010.

Here’s the official write-up:

New Market Heights Battlefield Tour
Sat, Sept 25, noon & 2 p.m.
Fort Harrison Visitor Center. Free.

Experience a rare opportunity to tour the hallowed ground where 14 African-American soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for Service on September 29, 1864. Walking tours will depart from the Fort Harrison Visitor Center and will last approximately one hour. Comfortable walking shoes and insect repellant are recommended. Information: Jimmy Price, 652-3411.

Monday, July 12, 2010

It’s About Time Somebody Said It

For almost two years now I’ve been trying to locate every source and read just about every word that has been written on the Battle of New Market Heights. While I’m not satisfied that I’ve combed through all of the relevant literature that’s lurking out there, I have noticed a trend when it comes to authors discussing the 14 African American recipients of the Medal of Honor. Authors tend to either:

1. Blow the exploits of the USCTs completely out of proportion by claiming that the charge they made on September 29, 1864 was the most gallant on either side during the war. The postwar writings and speeches of Benjamin F. Butler certainly fit into this category. Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls’ Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War comes close to this, claiming that “No battle during the U.S Civil War saw such a stunning display of heroics and gallantry from black soldiers as that fought the morning of September 29, 1864.”


2. Diminish the accomplishments of the black troops and claim that the only reason that they were able to take the Confederate trenches along the New Market Line was because the Confederate troops had pulled out to support the rebels defending Fort Harrison. Dick Sommers in his exceptional Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg states that, “to go beyond citing physical courage and allege that the blacks won a major tactical victory over the vaunted Texas Brigade belies the historical record…Far from overwhelming a determined foe, Draper [commander of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, XVIII Corps] in effect charged into a virtually abandoned position and simply chased off a small rear guard from a position already conceded to him.” Other sources I’ve found claim a vast conspiracy to tout the accomplishments of the USCTs, complete with government officials throwing some Medals of Honor at those recommended by Butler to complete the evil scheme. Implicit in all of these assumptions is a reverence for the Army of Northern Virginia, especially the Texas Brigade, which is based on the “fact” that they simply could NOT be defeated in a stand up fight. After all, Mort Kunstler wouldn’t sell any paintings if that were the case.

Needless to say, I fall somewhere in between these two camps. While I don’t necessarily believe that the assault at New Market Heights was the greatest feat of arms of the entire war, I certainly don’t buy into some sort of conspiracy to exaggerate the bravery of Butler’s African American soldiers. Say what you will about the Medal of Honor not yet having attained the legendary status that it holds today, if you read what the 14 black troops – and, for that matter, the two white officers who won the MOH at New Market Heights – did to earn the MOH, it’s pretty clear that they were highly deserving of recognition.

All of this is a very long prelude to what this post is about: namely, that I’m not alone in my thinking (I was starting to wonder).

While reading through Versalle F. Washington’s study of the 5th USCI, I came across the following quote:
Historians have credited the capture of New Market Heights, not to the soldiers’ bravery…but to General Gregg’s belief that the Federal forces advancing along the Varina Road were a greater threat than the loss of New Market Heights. This is an unlikely interpretation, particularly in light of the rebels’ subsequent use of the Texas Brigade and the 25th Virginia Battalion. These forces did not rush to fight the Union forces…General Gregg gave the Confederate infantry the order to retreat once it became clear that they would not be able to hold New Market Heights.
So there you have it.

Interested in learning more on this topic?

Well, you’ll just have to wait until my book comes out…

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New to the Blog Roll

I am pleased to see that the African American Civil War Memorial has established a blog to support the mission of their museum.

In the inaugural post entitled “Why Leading Scholars Make False Reports on USCT Service”, museum curator Hari Jones makes the following claim:
It is easy to demonstrate from primary sources that the work of leading academics have promoted information aligned with the movie [Glory] in lieu of facts found in primary sources. The works of such scholars have proven market value. Some in the museum business believe that the truth must be compromised in order to attract visitors. But most are simply afraid to disagree with esteem scholars. Many of the false statements concerning the service of United States Colored Troops (USCT) are results of poor scholarship by leading scholars.
The myths that Jones seeks to correct are: 1) there were no African American officers in the United States Colored Troops, 2) the 54th Massachusetts was the first African American regiment in the Civil War, 3) African Americans were denied equal pay (some qualify this by stating that they were denied equal pay for most of the war), 4) President Lincoln did not intend to assign African Americans to combat duty, and 5) Sergeant William Carney was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

Jones gives an overview about how each of these commonly held beliefs is technically not true.

While I am not inclined to believe that there is an ongoing conspiracy among the unnamed “leading scholars” to suppress the truth by aligning their research with the falsehoods promoted by Glory (of which there are plenty), I certainly agree that there is ample misinformation out there regarding the service of United States Colored Troops. Doing research on New Market Heights alone has provided plenty of contradictory statements and outright falsehoods that are passed down from one source to another due to poor analysis on the part of the author(s).

I look forward to learning more on what Jones has to say on this and other matters in future posts.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy Fourth!

To all my readers out there, please have a safe and happy Independence Day!

As for myself, I am coming off a week which involved moving and a five day Civil War Camp for eleven 10-12 year old boys. Needless to say, I’m quite exhausted!

However, on the last day of camp, we got to tour Richmond National Battlefield Park’s Fort Harrison unit, where we got an excellent tour from their superior staff. Following that, the boys watched an exciting presentation from a gentleman who portrayed Pvt. James Gardner of the 36th USCT, one of the fourteen recipients of the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights. It was very gratifying to see those kids take in the significance of what happened 146 years ago and recognize the importance of an event that has dominated my thinking for the past two years.

As we celebrate all that makes America great tomorrow, let us pause in remembrance of the United States Colored Troops who waged their own uniquely American war of independence from 1862-1865.