Historian Sheds Light on Racial Atrocities, and Reprisals, in Civil War

Newswise — Despite what some Civil War buffs might think, war does not turn soldiers--or generals--into saints.

"What did we learn from the Civil War? That Lincoln freed the slaves and Robert E. Lee is a saint," Temple University military historian Gregory J.W. Urwin says in jest.

"Really, I don't know that we learned that much from the Civil War," he continues. "Wars don't always change hearts. It takes a mature society to learn from its mistakes and celebrate its successes."

In his new book, Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (Southern Illinois University Press), Urwin brings together some of the nation's leading 19th century military historians to illustrate the central role race and racism had in some of the war's ugliest battles.

The Civil War is popular with today's history buffs--an estimated 40,000 people have joined reenactment groups--but enthusiasts prefer to focus on the heroism and bravery of the combatants, rather than the reasons for the fight, says Urwin, himself a retired field officer of the Frontier Brigade, the largest Union reenactment unit west of the Mississippi River.

"A lot of people like the Civil War because they find aspects of it entertaining. It's so attractive, so compelling. And there are a lot of great stories--and many tales of heroism.

"But the Civil War community prefers a sanitized picture of the most wrenching experience in American history. A vicious and bloody conflict is now fondly remembered as an ennobling experience.

"In putting together the book, we wanted to look at the Civil War that most Americans have missed," adds Urwin, who wrote the introduction, contributed an essay and served as editor for the volume, which features pieces by 11 authors.

By telling the stories of brutality suffered by black troops--and, in many cases, their white officers--at places like Fort Pillow, Tenn.; Poison Spring, Ark.; the Crater at Petersburg, Va.; Plymouth, N.C.; and Olustee, Fla., Black Flag Over Dixie authors do more than simply explore tactical decisions and list casualties. They also take an in-depth look at why the atrocities occurred--and explore the impact the tragedies had, and continue to have, on race relations in the United States.

To that end, the battles outlined in the book are as important as those fought at Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam or Vicksburg, Urwin maintains.

"I'm hopeful that these essays will stimulate the research that will lead all Americans to see the Civil War not merely as a string of titanic battles, but as a social revolution that still influences what it means to be American," Urwin says.

To the Confederates, the sight of a black man in a uniform was a "crime against humanity," an offense so severe that Southerners felt they were not obligated to treat black troops and their white officers as "honorable opponents." Blacks, says Urwin, were savages in the eyes of white southerners, who fought the war intent on "preserving their way of life."

"When you're fighting enemies you're convinced are savages, that leads you to suspend the rules," says Urwin, noting that the Confederate leadership issued an edict that black soldiers weren't to be taken prisoner. "And once you convince yourself your opponents don't play by the rules, ostensibly decent people can do indecent things."

The atrocities outlined in Black Flag Over Dixie include, among others:

  • Poison Spring, where 4,000 Confederate calvarymen ambushed 1,170 Union troops. Over 300 soldiers—including 182 from the 1st Kansas U.S. Colored Troops--were listed as killed, wounded or missing. Many of the casualties occurred after the battle had ceased, Urwin illustrates in journal and newspaper accounts of the time. One account states that Arkansans, ordered to remove their wagons from the battle site, "drove over the dead and dying blacks," competing to see who could crush the most heads of black soldiers.
  • Fort Pillow, where "all who attempted to escape were hunted and shot down," writes contributor Albert Castel. "Many who raised their hands to surrender also were shot down, especially the black soldiers. Pleas for mercy were answered with curses and bullets."
  • And the Battle of the Crater, which contributor Bryce Suderow writes, ranks as "the worst massacre of blacks during the Civil War, as the Union lost 1,269 men, including over 400 from the black 4th division." In describing the massacre, Suderow quotes George Bernard of the 12th Virginia from the book War Talks of Confederate Veterans. Bernard witnessed a black soldier begging for his life on the outer edge of the crater, as two Confederate soldiers, one striking him with a rod, the other holding a gun, confronted him. The man was shot in the stomach while being beaten to death.

    "It was a brutal, horrible act"¦This, I have no doubt from what I saw and afterwards heard, was but a sample of many other bloody tragedies during the first 10 minutes after our men got into the trench, many of whom seemed infuriated at the idea of having to fight negroes," Suderow writes.

    In conducting his own research, Urwin said he was most surprised to find out that black soldiers in some cases retaliated for the war atrocities. The book notes that some soldiers shouted "Remember Fort Pillow!" in battles after Fort Pillow as they sought to avenge the atrocities.

    "When I began working on my own essay on Poison Spring, I found that there was a lot of documentation of black troops fighting back," says Urwin. "You did see black troops taking matters into their own hands. But blacks also showed tremendous restraint."

    Racial inequities didn't end when the war did, Urwin notes. "The original Ku Klux Klan killed as many as 50,000 blacks during Reconstruction" as they held fast to the notion that blacks were a threat to the Southern white ideal, says Urwin. At the same time, Confederate veterans and their heirs lobbied so that pro-Confederate history, which didn't focus on slavery or racism, was taught in Southern schools.

    "From the Gilded Age into the first half of the 20th century, educators who did not justify secession or who dared to suggest that slavery had something to do with the Civil War ran the risk of censure, ostracism and even termination," says Urwin, who himself had run-ins with the Sons of Confederate Veterans while teaching at the University of Central Arkansas more than a decade ago.

    But, Urwin notes, knowing the truth about the Civil War, with its atrocities and retaliations, has little bearing on the valor of the soldiers--on either side.

    "It doesn't make those who fought for the South any less brave," says Urwin, who was a consultant for the motion picture "Glory." "We're not dealing with saints here. We're dealing with atrocities. War is an atrocity. It's not business as usual. And it leads you to do things you'd never think you'd do."

    Urwin is hopeful that the essays in the book, which contributor Mark Grimsley calls "the first generation of scholarship regarding Confederate atrocities against African American troops," makes an impact—and not only in Civil War circles.

    "I hope it is controversial," says Urwin, who was surprised when he moved to Philadelphia and found that "the desire for race-free Civil War history" was prominent in the North as well. "These atrocities really happened. And it still has an impact on how we deal with each other today. It's one of our blind spots."

    A digital image of Urwin is available for download online through Temple's Photo Archive at: http://mdev.temple.edu/photoarchive/.

    An online version of this release is available through the Office of News and Media Relations at: http://www.temple.edu/news_media/bb0404_571.html

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