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Gregory J. Urwin (Ed.), Black Flag Over Dixie

According to Black Flag over Dixie, captured black union troops and their white officers could often expect the worst treatment from their Confederate opponents. In particular, black soldiers in general were often shot, as were white officers who led them. Initially, Confederate leaders debated whether to treat free black soldiers differently from escaped slaves, and what to do with their white commanders, and in the wake of the failed assault on Fort Wagner in mid-1863, forty-six captive black Union soldiers were jailed in Charleston and held until South Carolina fell to Sherman’s forces in early 1865 (pp.40-48).

Most, though, were simply shot upon capture. White Union officers leading black forces could expect execution, as mandated by the Confederate Congress’ resolution of May 1863. However, James Hollandsworth asserts that “the number of white officers from black units executed by Confederate forces during the war was not great” (p. 61), though he also states that numerous officers were shot, as some Confederate soldiers claimed, for trying to escape.

Also, while the Confederates had no reservations about killing captured or wounded black opponents, they did not necessarily kill every black they found; at Olustee, says David Coles, “it appears certain that at least some black troops were killed by vengeful foes after the battle’s close” (p. 73), but sources mention that some of the wounded were captured and abused; one source implies that black captives’ limbs were amputated regardless of their wounds’ severity (p. 74). Also, other supposed massacres were not as brutal as Northern accounts claimed.

Albert Castel writes that “Fort Pillow was not a case of deliberate, wholesale massacre of prisoners of war” (p. 89), and that while hundreds of black soldiers were killed while wounded or trying to surrender, fifty-eight blacks were taken prisoner, showing that the policy was frequently but not always followed to the letter. Confederate soldiers and officials treated captured blacks and their white officers so brutally, says Urwin, largely out of vindictiveness and a sense of betrayal.

He writes, “Confederates denied black Union soldiers the same respect and consideration [as white troops], not so much for any crimes that may have committed but for who they were and the social revolution that they represented” (p. 7). Deeming their former chattel “turncoats” and despising white Northerners for opposing slavery, Confederate leaders drew from existing state laws treating any slave uprisings as crimes and, in December 1862, President Jefferson Davis declared that white officers – who in their view were aiding slave revolts – should also be put to death.

Confederates who thus murdered black Union soldiers (and the white officers commanding them) seldom faced real repercussions, from either their own government or from occupying Union forces. Confederate policy sanctioned it, and Coles mentions that little effort was ever made to investigate most Confederate anti-black atrocities, in part because Confederate officers lied to their Union counterparts about black and white captives receiving equal treatment (pp.82-83).

Also, Confederate troops who killed black prisoners could easily deny doing so, claiming that such casualties resulted from battle, not murder. Even Union leaders were tentative; though the Fort Pillow massacre merited a Congressional investigation, not every member of Congress favored pursuing it and even Lincoln stated that “We do not today know that a colored soldier . . . has been massacred” (p. 112).

In addition, after the Plymouth massacre, no Union officer brought atrocity charges and the event went unexamined (p. 192). On the whole, Black Flag of Dixie makes clear that while accounts of atrocities were often exaggerated, black soldiers and their white officers nonetheless faced unequal and more brutal treatment than their white counterparts, and that the real extent remains unknown.

REFERENCES

Urwin, G. J. W. (Ed. ). (2004). Black Flag over Dixie. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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