The USCT at The Crater – “No Quarter to the Rebels?” (Part 33) by Bill Vallante
A couple of years ago I attended a meeting of the local Civil War Round Table here on Long Island which on that particular night featured a talk by an author who had written a book about “Italians in Blue and Gray.” Naturally, being a “neo-confederate,” as I am sometimes called, and being of Italian extraction, I was hoping he’d speak about the Italians who wore the gray, but that was not to be. He focused instead on the Garibaldi Brigade out of NY City, and on General Taliaferro, who commanded the United States Colored Troops division in the army of the Potomac.
As most WBTS fans are aware, this particular division played a major part in the July 1864 Battle of the Crater at the siege of Petersburg. During the speaker’s talk, he made reference to the “awful massacre of African Americans at the Crater by the Confederates.” Maybe he was practicing for an appearance on Oprah or maybe not, but almost looked like he was about to shed (crocodile?) tears when he said it.
Steaming, I decided to let the first comment pass. His big mistake was in making the same comment a second time, as if to drive the point home. This time I opted not to take a pass and instead raised my hand during the question and answer period. My question to him was as follows:
“Regarding your comment about Confederates massacring African Americans at the Crater, are you aware that the United States Colored Troops yelled “NO QUARTER TO THE REBELS” as they charged, and do you not think that they, in effect, got what they asked for – since, when you yell “NO QUARTER” at your opponent, you have to expect him to act in kind toward you?”
Of course, a few people in the audience gasped. Then, our distinguished speaker squinted at me, eyes somewhat glazed, like he had been hit over the head with a hammer, and began to shake his head ever so slightly and mumbling unintelligibly. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was simply stunned by my question, or if he simply had no answer, or if he was denying that such a thing ever took place? This continued for a few seconds.
Since I wasn’t getting an answer, I asked “Are you going to try and tell me that this never happened?” He continued to squint and shake his head ever so slightly with no answer coming out of his mouth. At that point the moderator stepped in and diffused what seemed to be an uncomfortable situation and the group moved on to the next question. I never did get an answer. Afterward however, and somewhat surprisingly, several people came up to me to show support.
The incident in question is indeed documented in the writings of Confederate veterans of that particular battle who faced the USCT. I have no reason to believe that their claims are any less valid or true than anyone else’s. Yet, I never hear “No Quarter to the Rebels” mentioned in any account of the battle. All I hear is that those werry werry bad confederates hatefully beat up on the black men, and I am fast growing weary of this one-sided treatment.
That said, here are a few accounts of the battle that you won’t find many contemporary historians willing to admit or even discuss. You can determine for yourself whether the USCT got what they asked for or not…
Confederate Veteran August 1903, P. 355 — "BATTLE OF THE CRATER." BY W. A. DAY, SHERRILL’S FORD, N. C.
“… By that time it was light enough to see a considerable distance, and our men could be seen running rapidly to the rear, and the whole field in front full of Yankees and negroes charging up to the crater. The great burly negroes in their ill fitting uniforms, half drunk it was said, were shouting at the top of their voices, "No quarter to the Rebels! No quarter to the Rebels!" and butchering every man they found alive in the works. The soldiers who fought in that battle will never forget it. That dreadful shout, "No quarter!" from the negro troops rang in our ears for days afterwards. We plainly saw the position we were in. To be captured by the negro troops meant death not only to ourselves but, it appeared, to the helpless women and children in Petersburg…”
Confederate Veteran, November 1907, P. 490 – “WILCOX’S ALABAMIANS IN VIRGINIA,” BY B. F. PHILLIPS, ASHER, OKLA
“… About two o’clock in the afternoon a detail was made to send for water, and while waiting for its return General Mahone walked in front of the line and told us that the negroes in the Crater had holloed: "Remember Fort Pillow! No quarters!"
…The slaughter was terrible. The soldiers were excited, they were reckless, they burst the negroes’ skulls with the butts of their guns like eggshells. The officers tried to prevent it, but they were powerless. It was "No quarter for the Rebels" that morning, and it is no quarter for them now. The fight was soon ended.”
Confederate Veteran, February 1893, P. 41 – “CARNAGE AT "THE CRATER NEAR PETERSBURG”
“Lieut. Col. William H. Stewart, of the Sixty first Virginia, Mahone’s old brigade, gives a thrilling account of the battle of "The Crater," from which the following extracts are made……
Ay, boys, you have hot work ahead they are negroes, and show no quarter." This was the first intimation that we had to fight negro troops, and it seemed to infuse the little band with impetuous daring, as they pressed onward to the fray. Our comrades had been slaughtered in a most inhuman and brutal manner, and slaves were trampling over their mangled and bleeding corpses. Revenge must have fired every heart and strung every arm with nerves of steel for the herculean task of blood….”
Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. XXIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1895.
By Judge THOMAS R. ROULHAC, late First Lieutenant Company D., Forty-Ninth North Carolina Infantry.
“A large excavation was made, and in the smoke and confusion, amid the flying debris and mangled men, the enemy charged in great force, effecting a lodgement in our lines, and a large number of flags of Burnside’s Corps floated on our works. Reinforcements poured to their support and a vigorous assault was made on our line on both sides of the crater. In the van were negro soldiers crying, "No quarter to the rebels." “
Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1905
”Graphic Account Of Battle Of Crater, STORY OF A PARTICIPANT.
Charge of Wilcox’s Old Brigade Under General Saunders, of Mahone’s Division.”
From the Times-Dispatch, October 22, 1905
“… In the fort the enemy were crowded, but; undaunted by numbers, our boys commenced scaling the sides of the fort. The enemy kept up such a fire that it seemed like a second Vesuvius belching forth its fire. Then came the "tug of war" The enemy have shouted: "No quarters!" We then gave them what they justly deserved. There we were on one side of the walls of the fort and the Yankees on the other. The fight was the bloodiest of the war considering the numbers engaged. We fought with muskets, with bayonets, with rocks, and even with clods of dirt. The fight lasted in this manner for near half an hour, when they called for quarters, and we being sickened by the slaughter as well as awfully tired of the fight, granted them quarters. All that we had not killed surrendered, and I must say we took some of the Negroes prisoners.”
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