Sunday, August 30, 2020

New York Tribune on USCTs and Confederate Prisoners at Petersburg

A couple of months ago I shared a couple of posts about 1st United States Colored Troops (USCT) Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner and his mention of some USCTs not taking prisoners during the June 15, 1864, attacks at Petersburg. Turner in dispatches to the Christian Recorder commented that some USCTs refused to accept Confederate soldiers' surrenders that day, and that "over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there with few exceptions." 

The June 15 Petersburg acts of atrocity came largely in reciprocation for the Fort Pillow massacre, which occurred in West Tennessee on April 12, 1864. In that earlier action, an integrated garrison of USCTs and white Unionist Tennessee troops on the Mississippi River refused a surrender demand by forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest and his soldiers, perhaps frustrated with their inability to capture a fortification at Paducah, Kentucky, a few weeks earlier, successfully stormed Fort Pillow and mercilessly killed many of the black soldiers who attempted to surrender when continued resistance was determined futile. 

Word of the atrocities at Fort Pillow spread quickly through the newspapers and made their way to the USCTs then serving in east central and southeast Virginia. It was in their assaults upon the earthworks at Petersburg where they yelled "Remember Fort Pillow!" as they made their charges and captured several Confederate positions along the Dimmock Line of defensive earthworks.

Recently, while reading some of the Petersburg Daily Express articles, I came across a mention of an article from the New York Tribune that spoke of the USCTs killing Confederate prisoners at Petersburg. Curious to see if I could find said referenced article, I combed the late June 1864 editions of the Tribune on the Library of Congress' Chronicling America digital database and finally found the article. It appeared on page one of the June 21 edition. The main section referencing the incident is clipped and shown above. 

In it the reporter, "Our Special Correspondent," only identified by the initials "W. H. K," either heard the referenced conversation first hand, or had it relayed to him, that Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's chief of staff, Col. John W. Shaffer, shared a brief conversation with a USCT sergeant. The unnamed sergeant from a regiment that goes unmentioned states that the USCTs lost a good number of officers and men in the attack. Shaffer then asked how many prisoners were captured. The sergeant responds "Not any alive, Sir." The correspondent then mentions that Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith, commander of the Army of the James' XVIII Corps added: "They [USCTs] don't give my Provost-Marshal [in charge of captured prisoners] the least trouble, and I don't believe they contribute toward filling and of the hospitals with Rebel wounded;" implying the USCTs offered no quarter to wounded enemies. It is difficult to tell if Smith's comments came at the time of the conversation between Shaffer and the USCT sergeant or at another time.

There appears to be enough evidence given through the accounts of different individuals that atrocities against prisoners of war did occur on June 15, 1864 at Petersburg. However, its origin was not there and its end was not there. At the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, just a little to the left of the June 15 fighting, the USCTs would again invoke the memory of Fort Pillow in their charge, but like Fort Pillow they would endure the atrocities. On September 29, 1864, at both New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer, reports of atrocities against USCTs would again appear in soldiers' accounts from both sides. 

War does terrible to things to its participants, and some of its participants do terrible things in wars.       

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