Monday, May 18, 2020

Henry McNeal Turner Comments on USCTs Executing Confederate Prisoners

In conducting my research on prisoners of war captured during the Petersburg Campaign, I've come across instances where soldiers captured on the battlefield were killed by their captors. The most famous example of this type of atrocity comes from the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864), where Gen. William Mahone's division counterattacked and in the process executed black soldiers of the IX Corps' 4th Division. Many of the United States Colored Infantry soldiers went into that engagement yelling, "Remember Fort Pillow" for motivation. Of course, Fort Pillow refers to the fight on April 12, 1864, where Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry demanded surrender of that Tennessee military installation along the Mississippi River. When the Union interracial garrison force refused the Confederate demand, the Southerners overran the defenses and killed scores of the black soldiers who attempted to capitulate. There are also references to African American soldiers being killed after surrendering during the early actions of the Battle of New Market Heights and also later that day at Fort Gilmer.

While reading Will Greene's Campaign of Giants there was mention that black soldiers killed some Confederate soldiers in retaliation for Fort Pillow. During the June 15, 1864, assaults on Petersburg's Dimmock Line of defenses, USCTs in Gen. Edward Hincks's division of the XVIII Corps successfully breached the earthworks, capturing some of the defenders, a few of whom were apparently dispatched.

Henry McNeal Turner, chaplain for the 1st United States Colored Infantry, seems to corroborate this information in his June 30 report to the Christian Recorder newspaper. In this letter Turner gives some details about the fights at both Baylor's Farm and along the Dimmock Line. Turner also tells about the motivation of Fort Pillow, and black soldiers killing Confederate prisoners; albeit doing so in careful phrasing. Turner wrote:

"The rebel balls would tear up the ground at times and create such a heavy dust in front of our charging army that they could scarcely see the forts for which they were making. But onward they went, through dust and every impediment, while they and the rebels were both crying out -- 'Fort Pillow.' This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides. But onward they went, waxing stronger and mightier ever time Fort Pillow was mentioned. Soon they boys were at the base of the Fort, climbing over abatis, and jumping the deep ditches, ravines, &c. The last load fired by the rebel battery was a cartridge of powder, not having time to put the ball in, which flashed and did no injury.

The next place we saw the rebels was going out the rear of the forts with their coattails sticking straight out behind. Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with few exceptions."

So, what does Turner mean by "over Jordan would be the best place for them?" Going over the Jordan River to the "Promised Land" is a metaphor for going on to the afterlife, and would have well been understood by mid-19th century Americans.

At this, Turner's first mention of dispatching Confederate prisoners, he writes with a somewhat cavalier attitude. However, toward the end of the correspondence he offers some deeper thoughts on killing prisoners. He wrote:
"There is one thing, though, which is highly endorsed by an immense number of both white and colored people, which I am sternly opposed to, and that is the killing of all the rebel prisoners taken by our soldiers. True, the rebels have set the example, particularly in killing the colored soldiers; but it is a cruel one, and two cruel acts never make one humane act. Such a course of warfare is an outrage upon civilization and nominal Christianity. And inasmuch as it was presumed that we would carry out a brutal warfare, let us disappoint our malicious anticipators by showing the world that the higher sentiments not only prevail, but actually predominate."

Turner's last thoughts on battlefield atrocities stands in stark contrast to that offered by some of the Richmond newspapers, who called for continued acts by Confederate soldiers.

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