The siege of Petersburg, Virginia, dragged on for 10 months, the longest siege in American military history. Beginning in March 1864, Union forces tried and failed to break the entrenched Confederate forces. By July, the Federals believed that they had seized on a plan that just might break the Rebel lines––they would dig a tunnel underneath the Confederate fortifications, then detonate a massive bomb, allowing their forces to rush into the breach and break the stalemate.
The engagement was catastrophe, as black and white Union soldiers would end up trapped in the crater fighting for their lives, while white soldiers turned on their comrades and sought mercy from the Rebels. Black Union soldiers were fighting for a Republic whose principles did not yet apply to them.
Black Union soldiers were meant to be key to the operation from the beginning. The decision to recruit them was controversial––many white Union soldiers did not want to serve alongside blacks. But the Civil War had become a fight for abolition, and black Americans were eager to prove themselves. As historian Richard Slotkin writes in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, recruiters told black men that valor on the battlefield would “sink the opprobrious epithet nigger into eternal oblivion.” Black men chose to fight for the Union while many of their white counterparts––such as those Irish Americans in New York City who reacted to the draft with a massive pogrom targeting blacks in Manhattan––resisted putting on the blue by any means available.
“You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you,” Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at an 1863 rally he was unable to attend. When victory finally comes, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
Last night, America’s communities of color sought to purchase the Republic a precious opportunity by foiling the ambitions of an incompetent would-be strongman and alleged sexual predator in Donald Trump. They did not fail, but they were failed, much like the black Union soldiers at Petersburg were failed. They were failed because the principle of American pluralism that they were willing to defend in the face of an authoritarian tide was not shared by enough of their countrymen to make a difference.
The idea that by fighting for the Union, blacks could extinguish the flame of racial prejudice was unduly optimistic, but even the Confederates recognized the symbolism of black troops fighting for union and emancipation. In April 1864, Confederate General and later Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest had presided over a massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. Forrest wrote after the battle that he hoped the atrocity would prove to “the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
Black Union recruits were eager to prove Forrest wrong. As Slotkin writes, the mine detonated at 4:45 on July 30, 1864, the explosion forming a mushroom cloud as a “rain of earth, boulders, beams of wood, human bodies, and body parts” filled the air. The initial advance of white Union troops failed––they lay trapped in the crater, pinned down by enemy fire, casualty to poor organization and leadership. Struggling through the crater, an advance by black troops managed to push the Confederates back, as they cried “Fort Pillow, no quarter!”
Forrest’s thesis was quickly disproven. Confronted by the sight of armed black Union soldiers, many Confederate soldiers were gripped by utter panic. As Slotkin writes, “At the sight of the Black troops, some of them grabbed their guards and begged them “not to let the niggers bayonet them.” One cried “For God’s sake, boys, don’t let the niggers kill me!” The men of the 17th South Carolina regiment begged the white Union commander “to protect them from the ‘niggers.’”
Yet the Union lacked the numbers and the leadership to prevail. The Confederate counterattack pushed the Federals back into the crater, where some white Union soldiers turned on their black comrades. “Small groups of Whites turned on and mobbed Blacks fighting nearby, crying out whatever words they knew that might tell the Rebels they shared their disgust, never wanted this comradeship with niggers, asked only to be allowed to surrender.”
Enraged by the presence of black troops, perhaps ashamed that they had earlier been unable to withstand their advance, the Confederates, indiscriminately massacred the black wounded. In the words of one Rebel officer, “Nothing in the war could have exceeded the horrors that followed. No quarter was given, and for what seemed a long time, fearful butchery was carried on.”
The Battle of the Crater was an unmitigated calamity––one that some white Union soldiers were eager to blame on their black comrades. According to Slotkin, the more than 4,000 Union casualties were more than twice those of the Confederates, whose dead, wounded and missing numbered just under 1,500. Burdened with incompetent leadership, black soldiers had nonetheless shown incomparable valor in defense of the Republic.
The Union was preserved in 1865 in part because of the sacrifice of black soldiers who were willing to charge, sometimes literally, into the breach to defend a country that did not recognize their fundamental rights. Tuesday, voters of color tried to rescued the American experiment in all its imperfection once again, seeking to deny the presidency to a candidate who had vowed explicitly to use the power of the state against ethnic and religious minorities.
The anti-war Democrats of the 1860s cried “the Union as it was, the Constitution as it is,” seeking to restore the racial hegemony of antebellum times. Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” largely by restoring second-class citizenship to the voters who wished to prevent him from taking office. He won the presidency not just by railing against corrupt elites, but by telling Americans their social and economic troubles were largely the fault of people who were not like them.
Like the black soldiers at Petersburg, those voters found that the idea they were willing to defend when few others would was not shared by their comrades. The white Federals turned on their black compatriots, appealing to the Confederate on the principle of white supremacy, which they shared. Those white soldiers were willing to fight for the Union, but at Petersburg, they were not willing to die for niggers.
By rushing into the breach, voters of color sought to save America from itself once again. They have done what so many of their countrymen were unwilling to do, to stand for the Constitution’s unfulfilled promise of tolerance and pluralism that the Republican base chose to abandon in a fit of rage, and Republican elites jettisoned in an act of historic cowardice.
Hillary Clinton is no Lincoln––she was a deeply flawed candidate with a record of questionable judgement, particularly on matters of war. But unlike her opponent, she accepted the principle of pluralism that should be the minimum standard for the office. And when voters of color flocked to the polls for her, they, like the black soldiers at the crater, were defending a core American ideal that has yet to truly include them. No, their sacrifice was not as great. But what they tried to defend was no less important.
Donald Trump’s campaign was an attack on the American idea, the principle that out of many, we are one. That was the principle upon which Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream stood, it was the core of the promissory note that the Civil Rights Movement sought to redeem. It is the core of the integrationist idea, without which, a more perfect union can never be achieved.
Yet the Battle of the Crater was not the final chapter for black Union soldiers, or black Americans. Their struggle to force America to live up to its ideals did not die with the end of Reconstruction, and the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks for generations. It did not die during Jim Crow, and it did not die during the darkest days of the Drug War and mass incarceration.
Pluralism is the best of America, and today, with Donald Trump’s victory, its future is uncertain. But it is a flame worth keeping alive.