Wartime Atrocities: The Civil War Experience
Americans will mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial in a few years, but the subject of wartime atrocities is a relatively new field of study. Recent books, such as Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War, edited by Gregory Urwin (2004) and John Cimprich’s Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (2005) examine wartime massacres and how Americans have remembered them. George S. Burkhardt, a former newspaper editor and journalist, apparently spent twenty years examining wartime atrocities, and his time was not misspent. Anyone examining the subject of no quarter during the Civil War should consult his study.
Prolonged wars produce atrocities, and the Civil War was no different. But Burkhardt believes that such incidents were not isolated ones: they comprised part of a disturbing pattern of behavior. He takes a chronological approach to his subject, examining battles from the June 1863 fighting at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana—where African American troops took part in Grant’s Vicksburg campaign—to the fighting at Mobile and Selma in 1865. In his chapters, the author examines the war’s most infamous massacre, the one Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men committed at Fort Pillow, Tennessee; perhaps the worst massacre of any kind during the war—the killing of African Americans at Plymouth, North Carolina; and the worst battlefield massacre, which occurred at the July 1864 Crater battle. Some of the battles Burkhardt describes are well-known to historians, others, such as the fighting at Olustee, Florida, in February 1864, and Fort Blakely, Alabama, in April 1865, are less famous. The battle at Fort Blakely, one Confederate wrote, resulted in “the Yankee Fort Pillow” (239), a Union victory that gave African Americans the chance to show no mercy toward their white enemies. Even in the last days of the war, soldiers continued to take no prisoners.
The book’s title suggests that the North and South proved equally willing to show no quarter, but the battle of Fort Blakely aside, massacres mostly stemmed from Confederate animosity toward African Americans. Confederates, Burkhardt makes clear, were fighting for slavery, and because of their intense hatred of black troops—a hatred that had its origins in slave culture and Southern racism—they usually greeted African Americans with shouts of no quarter. Clashes between black and white soldiers, therefore, made worse an already bitter and bloody war, and neither the North nor South could do much to stop such killing.
Burkhardt’s study makes a long overdue contribution to Civil War studies by examining the Union’s and Confederacy’s response to atrocities within the larger framework of their military policy. In the days before the Geneva Convention, the North and South did not follow “rules” by which its commanders must act or face punishment. On the Confederate side, notions of gentility and honor often meant little in the face of racial hatred for black troops. On the Union side, black soldiers found they often could not restrain themselves when avenging fallen comrades or those who remained enslaved. The Union and Confederate governments might have done more to restrain their men, but troops received mixed messages from their leadership.
The Confederate government, Burkhardt shows, had at best an ambivalent attitude toward the mistreatment of black troops. It did not officially endorse no quarter tactics, but it did not discipline commanders who employed them either. Thus, the Confederate armies operated using an unofficial no quarter policy. In response to Confederate misconduct, the United States investigated and issued stern warnings, but little more. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy declared it would not recognize black soldiers as prisoners of war; and in the summer of 1863, the North said it would respond in kind to any Union soldier executed or forced to labor for the South. The Davis government withdrew its pledge, but atrocities continued. After the butchery at Fort Pillow, the U.S. Congress created the Committee on the Conduct of War to investigate what happened. The committee, however, had no judicial power. The North never tried Forrest or anyone else for what we would today call war crimes.
Burkhardt, however, argues that it could have. Not just Forrest, but also Joseph Wheeler, William Mahone, and John Singleton Mosby, bore responsibility for the murder of Union soldiers. The author sees Forrest, however, as the guiltiest of all. “If any Southerner deserved a speedy trial and swift punishment,” he concludes, “it was Nathan Bedford Forrest.” (245) Burkhardt does not claim Forrest planned the Fort Pillow massacre—Confederates there needed no prodding to butcher the black and white garrison—but he blames him for failing to control his men’s conduct at Fort Pillow and at Brice’s Cross Roads and Selma, where murders also occurred.
Burkhardt has written an impressive work of scholarship, but in some respects, it is too comprehensive and not comprehensive enough. On the one hand, he provides repeated descriptions of close quarter fighting and killing: massacre follows massacre until the repetition renders the reader somewhat numb. On the other hand, the scope of his study does not extend to the frontier regions, such as Kansas and Missouri, where some of the war’s worst massacres and bushwhacking occurred. One wonders why a man such as William C. Quantrill is not included in a book that examines Civil War atrocities.
Burkhardt’s narrative of various battles and analysis of military policy are cogent and informative, but he makes some inaccurate statements. He states one reason for the Republican Party’s losses in the fall of 1862 was “the detested draft” (17). The Union, however, did not institute conscription until March 1863. Perhaps he is referring to the opposition in some states to Lincoln allowing governors to draft from militias if volunteer quotas were not met. He also claims, “Black soldiers first fought Confederates in late October 1862” (44). Some African Americans—who took advantage of the July 1862 Second Confiscation Act, which allowed them to fight—battled Confederates before then. In August 1862, for example, one Confederate wrote of a “good many Negroes” (northern cavalry) engaged in a fight in Arkansas. (see John Q. Anderson, ed., Campaigning with Parson’s Texas Cavalry Brigade, CSA, 62-63)
Burkhardt’s exhaustive use of primary sources gives his book a sense of immediacy and provides vivid battlefield details. His study, however, is less impressive in engaging the relevant secondary literature. The book feels particularly deficient in its analysis of the relationship between southern slaveholders and non-slaveholders. At times, the author makes it seem as if the detested planter elite duped or forced into secession the southern yeomanry. When he says Southerners “often held the aristocracy responsible for starting the war in the first place” (33), he does not make it clear whether he believes such a statement or merely is summarizing the views of those he quotes. And when it comes to the relationship Confederates had with slavery, he makes the sweeping claim that “every Southerner had a direct and vital interest in the institution because slavery fashioned the region’s social, cultural, political, and economic fabric.... [F]rom poorest white to wealthiest aristocrat, slavery strongly influenced mores, defined the class structure, and drove the economy” (36). Yet, in 1861, many areas of the South had few or no slaves. Some Southerners seemed to get along fine without African Americans, and they resented slaveholders and the secession movement. Burkhardt is not necessarily wrong in his assertion that slavery dominated the South’s politics and the economy, but he might have discussed—at least in his footnotes—more of the many works on Southern society produced in the last generation. The South, politically or otherwise, was not monolithic.
Burkhardt makes the convincing case that Confederates committed atrocities at Fort Pillow, but it is a case that historians have made for decades. In 1958, Albert Castel wrote an influential article that argued a massacre occurred there. Burkhardt needs to be clearer about what new claims he is making. And in his chapter, “The Plymouth Pogrom,” about the killing at Plymouth, North Carolina, in April 1864, the author might have further addressed Weymouth T. Jordan, Jr. and Gerald W. Thomas’s 1995 article, “Massacre at Plymouth” on the subject of how widespread the killing was there. Burkhardt mentions the article in his footnotes, but Jordan and Thomas have reached a different conclusion concerning the number of victims. Burkhardt claims “Confederates probably slew between three hundred and four hundred” (141), while Jordan and Thomas cite the number “at least 50” (Black Flag over Dixie, 191). Again, this is not to say Burkhardt’s conclusions are wrong, but he could have compared his findings with those of other historians. Furthermore, some scholars might find uncomfortable the term “pogrom” to describe the killing at Plymouth, considering the term usually refers to the pogroms that Jewish communities have suffered throughout history.
Such criticisms aside, Burkhardt has written a very readable and well-researched book that some readers might find shocking. Those who are not familiar with the no quarter fighting in the years 1861-1865 might not look at Civil War soldiers the same way again.
His primary thesis makes the case that Confederate atrocities against black Union soldiers during the war's final two and a half years were not isolated, random incidents, but were part of a de facto Confederate policy that offered no quarter to surrendering or wounded black soldiers.
According to the author, Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of blacks into the Union army provided the twin catalysts for the Confederates to believe such practices were necessary and even justified their use of "black flag" tactics.
To the Southerner, the Negro was barely subhuman, certainly no more than transportable chattel. These two acts threatened the social order, class structure, and cultural fabric of the South, not to mention the very manhood of the Southern male. The sight of former slaves, now clothed in Union blue and fighting their masters as battlefield equals, sparked a rage in the Confederate psyche.
Of course, the official Confederate reaction was always one of disappointment if such acts did in fact occur and it was always stressed that the Richmond government did not sanction or approve of such actions.
Surrendering enemy soldiers, be they white or black, should always be given quarter while those wounded and left behind on the battlefield would be given the proper medical treatment. Yet the Confederate government would never acknowledge that its soldiers had committed war crimes and no gray-clad officer was ever so charged and convicted.
Subsequent retaliations by black soldiers only further enraged the Confederates, whose outrages started to include the execution of some captured white soldiers who were deemed as cavalry raiders, foragers or house-burners. By 1865, it even included some captured in traditional battle, prompting a growing game of retaliatory tit-for-tat between both sides' commanding officers.
One important question raised by Burkhardt is why the Lincoln administration apparently tolerated such atrocities against its black soldiers. The author answers by asserting that had federal authorities carried out similar reprisals against Rebel soldiers, the Confederates would have responded in kind against the Union's white privates and officers.
With a dampened finger raised into the political wind, Lincoln knew the North's white populace would never have stood for white soldiers being coldly murdered for the benefit of the black man, what with racial prejudice in the North almost the equal of that in the South. Thus, the North did nothing; inaction, in effect, becoming the de facto policy of the national government. The answer reinforces Lincoln's belief that the war was primarily about Union preservation and not justice for the Negro.
Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath begins with the author setting the stage for the reader as to how black troops came to be in the Union army. Following a chapter that describes the Southern reaction, he then takes the reader on a 15-chapter odyssey describing the famous and not-so-famous engagements that saw significant Rebel atrocities perpetrated against black soldiers, as well as the North and South reactions both in the field and on the home front.
The book also contains numerous period illustrations, photographs and five maps that blend in well with the text. In his earlier career, the author was a news reporter, editor and newspaper publisher. Those skills served him well in the 20 years he spent researching and writing about Civil War atrocities.
Any student of the Civil War who still believes the conflict was all about glory, honor or the romanticized Confederate notion of "moonlight and magnolias" will need to consult this intriguing book.
Students of the black experience in sordid side of the American Civil War have long confronted the struggle that most Americans regard with such fondness. White southerners embraced secession and founded a separate nation in 1860-1861 to preserve human bondage. These Confederates generally dealt harshly with those blacks who challenged the distinctive social and economic order that slavery made possible. During the past generation, scholarly books and articles devoted to the U. S. Colored Troops have established that Confederate forces repeatedly murdered black Union soldiers who fell into their hands, including those who attempted to surrender and wounded men too weak to offer resistance. Curiously, these racial atrocities have usually been studied as regional phenomena, and this narrow perspective has kept such research from altering the fundamental image of the Civil War.
In a bold and authoritative work that should rock the field's historiography, George S. Burkhardt argues that summary executions of black men in blue were not isolated or random affairs but constituted a pervasive pattern reflecting the values that called the Confederate States of America into being. His book shines a light on the conflict's darkest corners and shatters the comforting delusion that it was a titanic gentlemen's quarrel over differences white Americans reconciled with dazzling grace after they finished butchering each other in record numbers.
Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and his administration's formation of 166 black regiments awakened fears rooted deep in the South's slave system. Jumping to the conclusion that the Yankees intended to unleash a horde of African savages to wage a campaign of extermination against Dixie, Confederates vowed to reply in kind, ignoring the so-called rules of civilized warfare whenever they met black soldiers and the white officers who volunteered to lead them. As Burkhardt easily shows, rebel troops frequently followed through on this threat from their earliest encounters with the U. S. Colored Troops. As the Union Army's black regiments proliferated, southern desperation intensified, which produced more massacres.
Although the Lincoln administration pledged to retaliate for the mistreatment and murder of the Union's black defenders, it never did. Northern politicians refused to take any action on behalf of African Americans for fear of endangering white prisoners in rebel hands. Federal field commanders often ignored evidence of Confederate war crimes to avoid having to acknowledge them and create a host of complications. Black soldiers sometimes refused quarter to rebel troops, but Union officers and white troops often succeeded in preventing or limiting such excesses.
Blacks were not the only Union soldiers to feel the brunt of redoubled Confederate fury. As the war entered its final year, Federal forces embraced a hard-war policy that targeted Confederate civilians by legitimizing the destruction of any private property of value to the enemy war effort. Southern rebels responded to this harsher strategy by routinely murdering white Federals engaged in raiding, foraging, looting, and burning the homes of civilians suspected of sheltering guerrillas and other irregulars.
This book should be essential reading for anyone who is tired of viewing the Civil War as a sanitized historical pageant and ready to explore it as the tragic social revolution that it actually was. Burkhardt presents a comprehensive analysis of the factors that drove Confederates to rebel and expose Americans to a war without mercy that will supplant my edited collection, Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (2004), as the standard work on this troubling subject. The book offers an effective challenge to Mark Grimsley's interpretation in The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 18611865 (1995), which claims that the Civil War fell short of total war. Along with the equally devastating While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War by Charles W. Sanders, Jr. (2005), Burkhardt's study demonstrates that many Americans who participated in this struggle practiced total war.
Equal parts military, political and social history, "Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath" examines the Confederate policy of "no quarter"--meaning no surrender allowed, only death, even to captives--to black Union soldiers, and the Federal response.
But that description is too sanitized. This book really describes in detail the attitudes of both Northern and Southern whites toward black soldiers, and the ruthless and persistent Southern strategy to murder wounded and captured colored fighters.
"Over the years, the Civil War acquired a lily-white complexion, and the black soldiers' role faded from collective memory," Burkhardt states. "The great struggle was remembered as a fair and square fight, with never an atrocity to sully the national self-image." Such a vision is far from the truth.
No mercy for Blacks
As Burkhardt explains, the incidents of no quarter to black soldiers at places such as Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow and the Petersburg Mine (often called the Battle of the Crater), were not random, isolated events as previous historians have claimed; they comprised a pervasive pattern--begun by soldiers in the field and tacitly allowed by the Confederate government--to punish their former slaves and to protect their heritage and society.
These actions were propelled by Southern rage at the upheaval of their desired social order and the threat to their homes, families, honor and manhood. According to Burkhardt, the only logical reaction to this offense was through the Southern predilection for, and commitment to, violence.
In addition to the battles of Fort Pillow and the Crater, Burkhardt examines the lesser-known atrocities such as the Camden Expedition, the Plymouth Pogrom, at Brice's Crossroads, Saltville, Mobile and Selma; and the men involved, such as Confederates Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Mosby and William C. Quantrill and the famed 54th Massachusetts black regiment, led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, immortalized in the 1990s by the movie "Glory."
But the black Union soldiers, while they deserve pity, also deserve censure. Burkhardt clearly shows that black soldiers responded to the Rebel no-quarter policy in kind. Their murderous reaction--understandable but still immoral--in turn fueled Southern anger, which created more atrocities and continued the violence in a vicious circle.
For all the murders of their black comrades, however, the Union soldiers and Federal government took no action to make the South stop. Union politicians talked tough, but Lincoln's fear of escalation, and a knowledge that white soldiers being killed to protect black soldiers would be violently rejected by his Northern constituents, created empty threats.
It was not until the Confederates began murdering white Union soldiers fighting with blacks--as a response to the Northern hard-war policy begun in 1864--that the Federal government authorized a murder-for-murder response. This degenerated the conflict into a nearly total "black-flag" war.
"Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath" is a well-treated, well-written scholarly history of a little-acknowledged aspect of the American Civil War. Burkhardt's aim in his study was to pull all previous scholarship on the topic together and analyze the cause and motivation leading to the Confederate no-quarter actions and the Union responses. In this, he has succeeded admirably. His analysis is impressively objective. He pulls no punches, puts blame and praise where it belongs, and shows the brutality of both sides in stark and disturbing examples based on primary documents written by witnesses and perpetrators.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this book is Burkhardt's examination of the Southern mentality: why the use of black soldiers by the North and the audacity of blacks to become soldiers not only offended Southern honor and manhood but also terrified them; how they could condone such cold-blooded murder; and how they even criticized the overwhelmingly racist white Union soldiers for mistreating black soldiers.
This latter view--hypocritical as it may seem--stemmed from the Southern view that blacks were not people, but chattel, like pets; that a good black should be treated well, and rebellious blacks should be exterminated, much like a sick cow or a mad dog.
This view also explains why Southern soldiers, at first, would ruthlessly murder black wounded and captured soldiers, but would treat the white soldiers well. It was not until the Southern cause was visibly lost that Rebel rage bubbled over into a mad desire to exterminate all Federal troops, black or white.
Even though this is a scholarly rather than popular book, it has a wonderfully engaging narrative. Burkhardt's sources are multiple and credible, his endnotes impressive, his bibliography copious and the illustrations complementary.
If there is criticism to be made of this book it is that by the end the descriptions of no-quarter incidents begin to get repetitive; and yet even this is necessary because as those events continued they also escalated to include white soldiers, a dire mutation with severe consequences.
This book is just as exciting and fascinating as the title suggests. No Civil War enthusiast can fully comprehend the totality of the conflict without reading this work, and no Civil War book collection will be complete without it.