As I continue to think about the recent Civil War Institute and the talk I delivered on the US Colored Troops’ actions at the Battle of the Crater, I received audience reaction at the conference, have seen one blog post since CWI, and have received various notes on some articles I’ve written recently about white Union troops turning against black Union troops on July 30, 1864. At this point, my research has turned up two accounts of this. The first comes in the form of William Taylor, 100th Pennsylvania Infantry, one of the units in the thick of the battle. Taylor wrote a letter the day after the battle in which he said in part [I’ve italicized the pertinent sentence]:
“The result of yesterdays operations were the killed and wounding of about (3,000 my guess). The loss in our division is 900. The negroes lost most as we shot them ourselves, when they commenced backing. We took a few hundred prisoners, but lost probably twice as many. We gained no ground that we did not have to give up, and the day closed on the 9th Corps considerably demoralized. The old soldiers of it are getting ashamed of it. They are not numerous to redeem the vast amount of poor material that has been put in it. As to the negroes I think they did tolerable well – none but veterans could have been held in the place they were put and it was wrong to put them for the first time in such a bad fix. As to running off – the first two men who ran were two Generals. Why blame the niggers for doing so too? Some of them only fell back as far as the destroyed fort, and were there still fighting when the last man got in that we saw. A rumor came (I know not how} that on finally giving up the ground at the fort, the rebels rushed in and bayoneted every one there, even the wounded, both black and white. I don’t state this as a fact – only a rumor. “
The letter is part of Taylor’s wartime correspondence which has thankfully been digitized by the College of William and Mary. You can read all of his correspondence here.
The second piece of evidence of this comes from George L. Kilmer,14th New York Heavy Artillery, which was also heavily engaged as infantry at the Battle of the Crater. Writing in 1887 for The Century magazine he said in part:
“It has been positively asserted that white men bayoneted blacks who fell back into the crater. This was in order to preserve the whites from Confederate vengeance. Men boasted in my presence that blacks had thus been disposed of, particularly when the Confederates came up.”
Fortunately Google Books has this issue available online.
Clarification is an ironic title for this post. It is impossible to ascertain how many white Union troops killed USCTs as the battle was so chaotic. Many more letters and memoirs come from Confederates describing their rage regarding the United States Colored Troops being deployed against them. Nevertheless, clearly some white Union troops did engage in this activity which ended up pitting the USCTs against white Union troops and the Confederates in the final stage of the Battle of the Crater.