Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Uncivil War

Vengeance in Wartime

George S. Burkhardt. Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. xiii + 338 pp. $37.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8093-2743-0.

Over three million men served in the combating armies of the American Civil War.  Of them, nearly 200,000 were African Americans in the Federal forces – fighting to seek autonomy, freedom, manhood, and destroy the institution they knew to be detrimental to the well-being of their nation as well as their own families.  But naturally, these desires provoked untold costs in lives and perceptions of race.  Though enlisted as combatants seemingly worthy of the rights white soldiers were entitled to, the true situation offered anything but.  Though Confederate vengeance unleashed upon black troops was not “official” government policy, argues author George S. Burkhardt, revenge and murder were commonplace in southern ranks when they encountered United States Colored Troops.  Affronting southern ideology on race in addition to posing military and social threats, Confederates were enraged by the fact that negroes they once commanded and suppressed now faced them as equal foes on the field of battle.  Fighting fire with fire, black Federals in kind initiated atrocities of their own against their Dixie counterparts, especially in retaliation to the ongoing existence of slavery and more numerable rebel massacres.  Despite these Yankee-commenced retributions, Burkhardt notes, their number paled in comparison to similar actions ignited by Confederates.  All in all, this military and racial tug of war set the brutal stage of total war in which fewer prisoners survived and hatred intensified.  Mainly relying on eyewitness accounts and reports in The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the author strikingly depicts the combined social, political, racial, and military dimensions that transformed once-ordinary citizens and slaves into revenge-driven killers.  The reader is introduced to a world the author notes is similar to that of the embittered Pacific Theater of World War II where brutality, ambivalence about death, and willingness to murder were commonplace.

Most acts of violent rebuttal were of a relatively small scale throughout the conflict, but they nevertheless had the ability to catch the eye of a horrified general public.  In some ways, ideas of hate and murder could be difficult for some to consider when envisioning the highly romanticized Civil War.  Many Americans perceive their 1860s ancestors as chivalrous gentlemen, fighting a war in which both sides were gallant in defending their causes of equal righteousness.  But in the 150 years since that war, the true causes and bloody realities frequently become muddled in nostalgia and popular portrayals.  The truth of the matter remains, however: soldiers of both North and South, especially in the final year of the war, easily embraced a take-no-prisoners mentality.  The losses, tensions, and daily hell of the four year conflict could usher the worst in human nature.  In considering this though, one must still realize that “Confederates more and more often refused quarter to Federals and that Yankees were ever more willing to retaliate for killings and mutilations” (9).

The formation of United States Colored Troops and black regiments rested in the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation and the continually evolving notions of liberty.  Though always morally opposed to the institution of chattel bondage, President Abraham Lincoln initially felt politically indifferent to slavery.  Originally desiring to extend an olive branch to the South and wishing not to incite additional secession, the president was apprehensive of emancipation rhetoric in the early days of the war.  His notions soon altered, however, as he came to recognize slavery as the South’s most potent war-making machine.  Though widely vilified in many corners of the North, scores of citizens, including soldiers, eventually came to appreciate the document, if not for moral reasons then for strategic means.  Southerners on the other hand saw the Proclamation as one of the greatest perils to southern society.  “They firmly believed Lincoln meant to incite slave rebellion with the proclamation, endangering the lives of defenseless home folks and the honor of their women.  Patently, the twin measures [of emancipation and black recruitment] threatened social order and structure, culture, and mores, their very existence as a free people” (27).  Emancipation embodied the very real danger of social and economic dissolution.  These southern fears of black freedom helped plant the seeds of vengeance and zealousness.

Further measures to ensure retaliation came only two months after the preliminary Proclamation was released.  On November 30, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon issued a proclamation of their own stating that blacks captured waging war against the Confederacy would be recognized as inciting insurrection and would therefore be executed or returned to a state of bondage.  “They cannot be recognized in anyway as soldiers subject to the rules of war,” Seddon concluded (46).  A subsequent directive by Davis cited that armed blacks would be sent before southern courts for trials and hangings.  But battlefield justice through violence widely became the preferred measure of exacting the Confederate Government’s ordinance.  Within six months, the first Colored Troops discovered the conviction in these southern sentiments at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana.  Despite being a Union victory and black troops admirably proving their mettle, scores of Colored Troops were shot down amidst the rebel withdrawal.  Burkhardt notes this southern ferocity by noting that, “Black soldiers left behind were as good as dead.  While daylight remained, Confederates killed the wounded, shot the prisoners, and hanged any stragglers they caught.  At first light the next morning, [CSA Col. John L.] Logan’s men began hunting those who had escaped the previous evening’s slaughter” (67).  Such a scenario became the rule rather than the exception in white versus black combat.  

 The 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner.  Artwork by Rick Reeves.

The famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment certainly fared no better in their unsuccessful but noteworthy assault on Battery Wagner in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina in July 1863.  Like a significant portion of his men, unit commander Robert Gould Shaw lost his life in the attempt of capturing the seaside fortification.  But dying was not enough to satisfy his southern opponents.  “To show their utter contempt for an aristocratic Yankee who betrayed his race and class, they sought to punish and disgrace Shaw even in death” (74).  The twenty-five year old officer was stripped of his clothes and his valuables before being heaved into a burial trench with his men.  A southern officer supervising the post-battle cleanup noted of Shaw, “I put that Yankee colonel just where he deserved to be—in a hole with six of his niggers” (74).  Very rarely was such antagonism and vitriol aimed at dead white Federals by southerners.

As the military noose slowly tightened around the Confederacy’s figurative neck by the spring of 1864, combat escalated to a new level of brutality and desperateness.  Such was especially the case on April 12 of that year when the cavalry of General (and later KKK founder) Nathan Bedford Forrest breached the undermanned defenses of Fort Pillow on the banks of the Mississippi.  The Confederate attackers were quick to counterblow the defenders’ indignant unwillingness to surrender.  Once having broken through the Federal defenses, southerners partook in “indiscriminant massacre,” bayoneting and shooting into the faces of black and white defenders begging for mercy or attempting to flee to the USS New Era anchored offshore.  Burkhardt contends that Forrest and Confederate apologists attempted to veil the true carnage of Fort Pillow, insisting that it was little more than an astounding one-sided victory.  But newspaper accounts, affidavits, and period letters testify otherwise.  “It is also impossible,” the author continues, “to ignore Southern fury toward blacks as evinced before and after Fort Pillow and that same rage felt for Southerners who fought for the Union . . .” (109).

 How the newspaper Harper's Weekly viewed so-called rebel massacres, including Fort Pillow.

Perhaps the most chaotic and brutal of vindictive deeds came only three months later amidst the stalemate of trench warfare on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia.  Eager to make a breakthrough and press onward to the capitol of nearby Richmond, the Union high command endorsed a plan to tunnel under the Confederate defenses, set a massive black powder explosive charge, and then finally exploit the breach.  What ensued was one of the worst Union military disasters of the war.  Initially planned to head the assault around the crater caused by the explosion, subsequent plans were poorly revised.  Thus, white troops and additional regiments of Colored Troops charged into the charred whole in the earth only to become surrounded in their own trap.  By this stage, Burkhardt argues that Confederates “had murder in their hearts” and that murdering, especially of black troops, became extremely second natured.  Using one effective primary account after another, the author paints a very vivid depiction of the Crater.  For instance, Dorsey Binion of the 48th Georgia noted, “When we got to the works it was filled with negroes. . . . We did not show much quarter but slayed them[.] some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they [fled] us” (167).  “Good or bad,” Burkhardt concludes, “the blacks remained an intolerable front” to their Confederate adversaries (177).  

Within months, Colored Troops began to adopt similar modes of retribution against the enemy.  Enraged by the treatment of their comrades in previous battles, black troops butchered the rebel defenders of Fort Blakely at Mobile, Alabama to the point that their officers tried unsuccessfully to stop the mass killing.  One southern survivor of the devastation scornfully noted, “Blakely was the Yankee Fort Pillow” (238).  Burkhardt alludes to the fact that these types of deeds on the part of northerners demonstrate how this vengeful mentality came full circle and, by war’s end, few were innocent of their involvement in such actions.  The division between race was the hallmark factor which ignited such animosity.  Sadly, this division did not fade with Union victory, as the era of Jim Crow was established in the wake of tumultuous and unsuccessful Reconstruction.  Burkhardt’s study proves extremely comprehensive, objective, and at times, frightening.  The author concludes that despite an overwhelming amount of evidence of atrocity, events were forgotten or rewritten in the name of post-war reconciliation and reunion.  Notions of unofficial military retribution remain shockingly alive amidst foreign civil wars and ongoing struggles in the Middle East.  Until citizens can see beyond the romantic veneer of our own Civil War, the conflict can never fully and widely be understood.

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