Friday, April 22, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 22: Racial massacres during the war

A recent collection of essays takes a look at an important aspect of the Civil War, and one that particularly relates to neo-Confederate ideology: Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (2004), edited by Gregory J.W. Urwin.  The "black flag" in the title does not refer to the black flag of anarchism.  It refers instead to the antebellum white South's greatest political paranoia, "servile insurrection."  The black flag was seen as the symbol of slave revolt.  And when white Southerners saw black Union troops in the uniform of the United States, it tapped into the terror and hatred connected in their minds with slave insurrections.

I'm glad the book is composed of independent essays, because the topic does not make for easy reading.  But the reason it's particularly relevant to the Lost Cause dogma is that hiding the actual role of black Americans in the Civil War, its preceeding events (slavery) and its aftermath (democratic Reconstruction) was always a core element of the ideology.  As Urwin writes in his introduction:

Two decades after the poet Walt Whitman nursed sick and wounded soldiers at a Union hospital in Washington, D.C., he wrote, "Future years will never know the seething hell... of the Secession War; arid it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books." Despite all the ink that has been spilled over the Civil War, Whitman is still right. This judgment is not intended as an indictment of Civil War scholarship. Unfortunately, much of the best work in the field goes unread by the greater portion of the Civil War community. This applies most of all to publications focusing on race - the war's central cause and the most convulsive issue to confront Americans as they patched together a sectional peace during Reconstruction.

Urwin explains speaks of those who are particularly interested in Civil War history as a hobby or special interest as the "Civil War community."  (Do my Confederate "Heritage" Month posts qualify me for membership, I wonder?)  He says this community's often-selective memory about the Civil War, which often selects out the role of African-Americans, is partly due "to the fact that military history enjoys wider appeal than social history."  But he also attributes it to groups like the Sons ofConfederateVeterans (SCV) that aggressively advocate for the Lost Cause viewpoint.  The SCV and the overtly-separatists far-right group the League of the South were the two main groups supporting the pro-Confederate flag position in Mississippi's state flag referendum in 2001.  The pro-Confederate position won.

He quotes historian Barbara Gannon:

Civil War memory was crucial to Southerners' battle to ensure Northern acquiescence to their answer to the race question—black oppression. Propagandists of the "Lost Cause" wanted Northerners to remember a Civil War that had nothing to do with emancipation and the social and political rights of African Americans. The '"War Between the States," the rubric of Southern apologists for this conflict, was waged by gallant white soldiers, all Americans who fought for their beliefs as African Americans stood idly by as "faithful slaves" uninterested in fighting for freedom and unable to appreciate political and civil equality.

The Confederacy refused to treat black Union soldiers as prisoners of war when they were captured.  Officially, the CSA's policy was more harsh toward officers commanding black troops (the commanding officers were all white) was more severe than toward the black soldiers.  In practice, the captured black soldiers were treated worse.  They were either returned to slavery, imprisioned or executed as insurrectionists, or just flat-murdered.

The most notorious mass killing of black soldiers, one that became a rallying cry for Union troops, was the Fort Pillow massacre.  Albert Castel contributes an essay for this volume looking at the evidence surrounding that event, which occurred in Tennesse in April 1864.  This is a "scholarly" rather than a "popular" book, so the authors give quite a bit of attention to weighing the evidence and the sources.

The facts of this incident was fiercely contested by Confederate partisans, not least because the Confederate commander involved was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was regarded as a brilliant cavalry officer and became the postwar founder of the Ku Klux Klan.  After wieghing claims on both sides, Castel concludes cautiously:

Amidst this welter of conflicting and often ambiguous testimony, both Northern and Southern, one fact establishesitself: TheUnion troops at Fort Pillow were massacred—massacred in the sense that they were shot down in great numbers without being able to offer effective resistance or to inflict casualties commensurate to their own losses. Out of a garrison of about 560 men, an estimated 231 were killed and approximately 100 more seriously wounded. Confederate losses, in contrast, were 14 killed and 86 wounded. Quite possibly, as the Confederates contended, a high proportion of the Union losses occurred during the storming of the fort and the flight of the garrison to the riverbank and hence may be considered "legitimate." But even so, there can be little doubt that in a great many individual instances—many more than the Confederates cared to admit—Union soldiers were shot after they, personally, had stopped fighting and were trying to surrender.

As one historian has shrewdly commented, Forrest "did not need" to order a massacre at Fort Pillow. Half of the force holding Fort Pillow were blacks, former slaves now enrolled in the Union army. Toward them, Forrest's troops had the fierce, bitter animosity of men who had been educated to regard blacks as inferior and who, for the first time, had encountered them armed and fighting against white men. The sight enraged and perhaps terrifled many of the Confederates and aroused in them the ugly spirit of a lynch mob. Black witnesses before the congressional committee told of being shot by Southern soldiers who made such remarks as "Damn you, you are fighting against your master" and "Kill all the niggers."  In short, the massacre at Fort Pillow was essentially an outburst of racial antagonism. (my emphasis)

My impression is that Castel is perhaps being overcautious in the way he states that a massacre clearly occurred.  But even his very careful presentation debunks the Lost Cause version of this massacre.  Because he not only states clearly that a massacre did occur which even in the interpretation most generous to the Rebels, killings occurred that were not justified under the existing practices of war.  And, even more, he states clearly that murderous racism on the part of white Confederate soldiers also played a fundamental role in the killings.

This is also a reminder of why the prewar history of Southern fears of "servile insurrection" and the institution of the slave patrols, which directlyinvolved nonslaveowning whites and instutitionalized their own fear of slave revolts, is so important to understand in order to make sense out of many wartime and postwar events.

The book also examines other wartime massacres of black Union troops, including the Battle of Poison Springs (Arkansas) and the Plymouth massacre (North Carolina), both of which also took place in April 1864 after the Fort Pillow killings.  The authors suggest that the immediate aftermath of Fort Pillow inspired new hatreds and terrors and therefore probably contributed to those two massacres.

Bruce Suderow writes on the Battle of the Crater (Virginia) in the summer of 1864.  This is a good example of how even sterile, academic descriptions of statistics can convey a sense of real horror at times:

One startling fact is that although 410 blacks were missing after the battle, the Confederates captured only 85 prisoners and killed 423 blacks, counting the missing who were slain. At the Crater, the ratio of blacks killed to wounded was 423 to 757, about 1 to 1.8. In the Civil War, the average ratio of killed to wounded was 1 to 4.8. These statistics make it clear that the massacre at the Crater was the worst massacre of blacks during the Civil War. Only two other massacres rival its carnage. At Fort Pillow, blacks belonging to the 1st Battalion, 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery (Colored), and to Company D, 2nd U.S. Light Artillery (Colored), lost 185 killed, 40 wounded, and 51 captured, a total loss of 276. At Poison Springs, Arkansas, the 1st Kansas (Colored) lost 117 killed and 65 wounded.

The book does not focus exclusively on Southern atrocities.  As Mark Grimsley writes in the concluding essay, "the Confederates were far from having a monopoly on lethally racist sentiments."  He also takes note of the fact that "a substantial number of African Americans were humiliated, tortured, and even killed by Union soldiers."  A reality-based view of the Civil War not only debunks the Lost Cause ideology.  It also means that the Union war effort can't be treated as a comic story or a pretty fairy tale.

Grimsley's essay is a brief but very good examination of the evolution of racist ideas prior to the Civil War.  He writes in the concluding paragraphs:

For ultimately, anyone who ventures into a topic of this sort goes spelunking down black cataracts of human imagination and action. Psychologist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl asserts that the central dynamic of racism is the projection of one's darkest impulses onto others. The savagery, degradation, the lack of self-restraint that whites perceived in African Americans was shown by events to be part of their own character. Carl Jung famously termed this phenomenon "the shadow." areas of the self so hideous that an individual cannot, without great effort, take ownership of them. They manifest themselves in the form of emotion, "and the cause of the emotion appears to lie, beyond all possibility of doubt, in the other person. No matter how obvious it may be that it is a matter of projections, there is little doubt that the subject will perceive this himself. He must be convinced that he throws a very long shadow before he is willing to withdraw his emotionally-toned proiections from their their object."

As with individuals, so with whole societies. The United States has cradled some of humanity's highest ideals. But it has also cast a very long shadow. And until the shadow is accepted and understood, its power to harm everyone - the nation included - is vast.

Black Flag Over Dixie is valuable (if not easy) reading for those in the "Civil War community" who are genuinely interested in the real history of the war rather than some phony fantasy version.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)


amkpantera said...

Interesting.  I don't ever remember us discussing any massacres of black soldiers in history class, though we were taught that they were routinely discriminated by soldiers on both sides of the war.  I do have a Civil War book -- that admittedly has some Lost Cause influences in it, but I think that has more to do with how the author himself was taught, rather than personal outlook -- that goes into detail about the Fort Pillow Massacre.  Horrendous stuff, indeed.

davebarlett said...

Interesting take on the book, which i haven't read. But my understanding of the origin of the black flag is that is was flown by confederate units when they wanted to symbolize that they would give no quarter if the opposing forces resisted. (opposite of the white flag, if you will) I've never heard of the Black flag having any association to slave revolt. It's more recent association to anarchists is better known.

Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was singularly famous for often bluffing superior union forces to surrender rather than fight by threatening no quarter (although his units did not fly the black flag as other irregular confederate units did) The massacre at Ft. Pillow might be better understood as an instance where Forrest's bluff was finally called and he at last made good on his threat of no quarter. It can also best be better understood when one is familiar with the war in west tennessee, which could be compared with with the fairly recent Bosnian Civil war, in that neighbors were often pitted against neighbors in irregular and guerilla warefare, and abuses were common. Also, The white union troops at ft. Pillow were "tennessee yankees" and it is well documented that they and their black comrades were defiant (and even abusive verbally) to Forrest's threats of no quarter. Add to this rumors of yankee abuse of the local civilian population, and all the ingredients for the massacre are present. But,to simply state that THE MASSACRE AT FT PILLOW WAS ESSENTIALLY AN OUTBURST OF RACIAL ANTAGONISM reveals a shallow understanding of the facts involved, althought the central conclusion that a massacre in fact occurred is inescapable.