Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (Hardback)Gregory J. W. Urwin (editor)
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Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
Number of pages: 336
Weight: 572 g
Dimensions: 229 x 152 x 25 mm
Urwin, a professor at Temple University and an award-winning author or editor of seven books on military history, has pulled together a fascinating examination of what he refers to as "the war's central cause and most convulsive issue." Urwin contends that the Civil War community's collective amnesia is an outgrowth of an intentional effort on the part of Southerners to ensure that their loss on the Civil War's battlefields could be redeemed in the aftermath. He notes that organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and United Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied to ensure that a pro-Confederate history of the war was taught in Southern schools. In my years teaching military history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I often was amazed at how successful that effort had been, as cadets from southern states almost uniformly identified simple "states' rights" as the seminal cause for the war, denying that slavery had any role.
With Black Flag Over Dixie, Urwin seeks to open the path to not only a fuller understanding of the war, but also of our nation. His effort makes a good start, but also highlights the limited scholarship to date. Of the twelve essays (including the introductory and concluding essays), only four represent new scholarship. The oldest essay is the 1958 Albert Castel piece, "The Fort Pillow Massacre," which is still among the best examinations of the evidence of that massacre, even given its age.
The Confederate treatment of the blacks in Union blue and their white officers is as varied as the different units and individuals who came into contact with the black soldiers. It is clear that there were those on both sides of the conflict who simply could not countenance the idea of blacks as soldiers. It is equally evident that the Lincoln Administration, albeit hesitantly and with fits and starts, came to recognize the benefits of the black presence in the ranks. Even if the United States Colored Troops (USCT) units never fought a single engagement, the fact that nearly two-thirds of their ranks comprised escaped slaves meant an equal loss to slaveholders in the rebel states. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the South, which had gone to war to ensure the right to keep its black population subjugated, would find the thought of those same blacks under arms criminal.
The official Confederate position on the status of the black soldiers was constantly evolving. In December 1862, Jefferson Davis had ordered that any blacks captured under arms (and their officers) were subject to state laws regarding servile insurrection. However, as a practical measure, determining which state each USCT soldier came from proved impossible, especially as many in the ranks were free blacks from northern states. Subsequently, Davis and the Confederate Congress amended the declaration to make the government of the state where the black troops were when captured responsible.
This meant, to some extent, that the Confederate officers were not certain of what to do with their captured blacks. For some, apparently, the simplest answer was to kill them rather than have to answer the question. After the Fort Pillow massacre and its subsequent inquiry by the Committee on the Conduct of the War, "Remember Fort Pillow" and "No Quarter" became rallying cries for many USCT units and the thought that the black troops would be enslaved if captured lent a different tone to their battles.
Whether it was predisposition, reaction to armed blacks, official sanction, or some other reason, Urwin and his colleague demonstrate that the battles between black troops and Confederates had a significantly different level of lethality and, in many cases, a demonstrable pattern of irregularity in accounting for the disposition of the USCT soldiers in the battles' aftermath.
Each of the essays included brings something to the table, and those interested in the full story of the Civil War will benefit from this collection. Some of the material will be familiar to even those with a passing interest, such as the essays on Fort Pillow and on the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg. Some of the others examine less heralded conflicts such as Plymouth, North Carolina's massacre in April 1864 and the Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865. Together, they form a troubling, and for some, perhaps a troublesome view of Confederate behavior in the war and its immediate aftermath. In his introduction, Urwin notes that after he had written an editorial in 1988 advocating the erection of monuments to Southern blacks who fought for the Union, he received a letter from the SCV "commander-in-chief" Ralph Green. Green charged that Urwin had "betrayed his profession as historian."
It is precisely this line of thought that makes Black Flag Over Dixie an essential addition to Civil War historiography. The idea of intentionally overlooking uncomfortable or disturbing elements of our history belies the value that history provides. If legend is all that we seek from the past, then there probably is no place for Urwin's work. However, if we truly seek to understand why the nation was compelled to force of arms to settle its sectional dispute, then examinations such as this are critical to that understanding. Mark Grimsley ends his essay with this thought, that "until the shadow is accepted and understood, its power to harm everyone - the nation included - is vast." If we would continue as a great nation, we must be willing to undertake a critical self-examination. Black Flag Over Dixie is an excellent lens through which to conduct a part of that examination.
--Versalle F. Washington"Civil War Book Review" (10/02/2008)
In the not too distant past, almost all Civil War publications seem to have consisted of rehashes of selected major battles and leaders. Sadly, some scholars would like to see this genre return to those "good old days" and avoid such topics as slavery, women, internal political, dissention, (real) intelligence gathering, etc. However, the story of these "other Civil Wars" will not be denied.
This particular work looks at the subject of military racial atrocities during the Civil War; it is a collection of essays ranging from Albert Castel's 1958 article on the Fort Pillow massacre to works prepared specifically for this volume. The title refers to the traditional symbol for no quarter being offered. In a war about racism and slavery, the use of black soldiers, many of them former slaves, raised numerous issues in the opposing armies but especially about the treatment of black prisoners of war and their white officers. Some of the eleven chapters, such as Bryce Suderow's piece on the killing of black soldiers in the Battle of the Crater, seem exceptionally concise, but all of these contributions represent in depth research and balanced conclusions.
This book also has remarkable scope for such a compact work. Howard Westwood discusses the aftermath of the battle at Charleston made famous in the movie "Glory "and David Frisby joins Castel in looking at the Fort Pillow massacre. However, Anne J. Bailey, David J. Coles, Gregory J. W. Urwin, and Chad L. Williams look at far less-well-known incidents, such as the battles of Plymouth and Olustee, in Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, and other theaters that have lacked adequate study. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.'s contribution discusses the executions of white officers of black troops, and Mark Grimsley draws conclusions on the broad topic.
"Black Flag Over Dixie "does have limits that hopefully future volumes will address, as hinted at by some of the above essays. For example, Georgia's Colquitt's brigade had the distinction of fighting black soldiers in battle in Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia. How this unique experience affected the men of this unit from often anti-war North Georgia would make an interesting topic. The treatment of the largely Georgian black Forty-fourth United States Colored Infantry following the fall of Dalton, Georgia, in October 1864 deserves a place on any roster of Civil War racial atrocities. However, that list should also include the actions by black soldiers under the fanatical abolitionist Gen. Edward Wild in Wilkes County, Georgia, and elsewhere.
This reviewer looks forward to the volumes that will expand on the excellent work begun here, although they will have a tough act to follow.
--Robert Scott Davis"Georgia Historical Quarterly" (10/02/2008)"