PRISONERS OF WAR
Late in 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis attempted to
strike a fatal blow to the prospects of Union recruitment of African
Americans. He ordered government forces to turn over any captured black
troops to state authorities. The white officers would be tried according
to state law for inciting servile insurrection; the runaways would
return to slavery or suffer the death penalty, like their white
officers. No proviso covered the capture of free blacks in Union
uniform. As reinforcement, in late April and early May, the Confederate
Congress passed a joint resolution, also calling for the death of white
officers for inciting servile insurrection and the reenslavement of
Although this position may have comforted Southern whites, from a
practical standpoint it was unworkable. Europeans, whom the Davis
administration was courting for military assistance, found the policy
offensive. And international law, as the Lincoln administration quickly
pointed out, supported the position that these were legitimate soldiers
and must receive the same rights as white prisoners of war. Lincoln
vowed to retaliate man for man for executed Yankees, and for each black
soldier the Confederacy returned to slavery, he would place a Rebel
soldier at hard labor. Since there were more Confederate than Federal
prisoners of war, Lincoln could ultimately outlast Davis.
In the end, the Davis administration backed down, but Confederate
officers on the scene sometimes established their own policy. Either
they refused to take black soldiers as prisoners or fought under the
black flag, which indicated that they would take no prisoners, nor would
they expect the Yankees to take any.
THESE BLACK SOLDIERS IN SOUTH CAROLINA WERE TAUGHT TO READ AND WRITE.
As a result, wartime atrocities against the USCT were commonplace, as
Confederates hoped to discourage black enlistment and sought revenge for
their contributions to the Union army. The first killings were isolated
incidents. But as the war dragged on and Confederates became more and
more frustrated, atrocities in battle escalated. In 1864, at Poison
Springs. Arkansas, the Federals abandoned the field, leaving behind
wounded soldiers, many of them from a black regiment. Eyewitnesses
assured a Union colonel that Confederate troops murdered them on the
spot. During the Battle of Saltville, Confederates executed numerous
black troops who fell into their hands. Over the next two days, two
separate parties of Confederate troops entered Rebel hospitals and
executed seven wounded black soldiers in their beds.
Without doubt, the most infamous series of atrocities in the war
occurred approximately forty miles north of Memphis, at Fort Pillow. The
Federal garrison consisted of 550 soldiers, nearly one-half of whom were
black. In April 1864, 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen under the command of
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest demanded the surrender of the fort.
When the Union commander refused, Forrest's troops stormed the fort and
killed, wounded, or captured almost the entire garrison. Two-thirds of
all black soldiers at Fort Pillow were killed, compared to 36 percent of
the white Yankees.
BLACK SOLDIERS WERE CLUBBED AND STABBED BY CONFEDERATES AT FORT PILLOW.
After the battle, Federals accused Forrest and his troops of
committing all sorts of atrocities against black soldiers. Forrest and
Confederate authorities insisted that no such brutal acts had occurred,
that only black soldiers who continued to fight or tried to escape lost
their lives. The U.S. Congress's Committee on the Conduct of the War
launched an investigation and concluded that Forrest's men had butchered
black troops. Southerners, and Forrest in particular, continued to claim
that his command had done nothing wrong. But testimony from both Federal
and Confederate troops and civilians on the scene indicates that
Forrest's men did execute some black soldiers.
Atrocities only served to solidify the USCT's reputation in the Union
army and unite the white officers and black soldiers within those units.
Black regiments responded by fighting under the black flag on occasion
or executing Confederate prisoners without warning. Black soldiers
cried, "Remember Fort Pillow" as they entered battle, and in numerous
instances they gained revenge. In the assault on Fort Blakely, where
black units charged without orders, their behavior differed little from
that of Forrest's men. According to a lieutenant in the USCT, when the
black troops charged, "the rebs were panic-struck. Numbers of them
jumped into the river and were drowned attempting to cross, or were shot
while swimming. Still others threw down their arms and run for their
lives over to the white troops on our left, to give themselves up, to
save being butchered by our niggers the niggers did not take a prisoner,
they killed all they took to a man." White officers sometimes overlooked
such retribution, while other times they proved incapable of putting a
halt to it. In fact, the problem of black soldiers executing
Confederates became so widespread that black Chaplain Henry M. Turner
complained publicly about these acts of brutality.
A "WAR OF EXTERMINATION"
On April 18, 1864, approximately 3,600 Confederate cavalry overran a
forage train guarded by 1,170 Union troops at an obscure spot in
southern Arkansas called Poison Springs. The 1st Kansas Colored
Volunteer Infantry, the largest unit in the Union escort, bore the brunt
of the Rebel assault and suffered heavily. Out of 438 officers and men
engaged, the regiment lost 117 slain and 65 wounded. Several Federal
survivors claimed they saw their victorious foes killing black
prisoners, including men too badly injured to get away, which accounted
for the fact that the 1st Kansas had nearly twice as many personnel
killed as woundedan unusual occurrence in Civil War combat.
Confederate participants confirmed these atrocity stories. "The havoc
among the negroes had been tremendous," a Texas officer confided to his
journal. "Over a small portion of the field we saw at least 40 dead
bodies. . ., some scalped & nearly all stripped. . . . No black
prisoners were taken." The editor of the Washington Telegraph,
the mouthpiece of Confederate Arkansas, justified such merciless
behavior in these terms: "We cannot treat negroes . . . as prisoners of
war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend. . .
. We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our
hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty."
NOT ALL HARSH PUNISHMENT WAS HANDED OUT BY THE ENEMY. EIGHTY PERCENT OF
ALL UNION SOLDIERS EXECUTED FOR MUTINY WERE AFRICAN AMERICAN. (USAMHI)|
News of the Poison Spring Massacre soon reached Major General
Frederick Steele's 13,000-man Union army at Camden, twelve miles to the
east. Colonel Samuel J. Crawford and the officers of the 2nd Kansas
Colored Infantry grimly vowed "that in future the regiment would take no
prisoners so long as the Rebels continued to murder our men."
The 2nd Kansas Colored redeemed that pledge on April 30, 1864, when
Steele's retreating forces turned on pursuing Confederates at Jenkins'
Ferry on the south side of the Saline River. At one point in the battle,
Crawford's black soldiers charged two enemy cannon, thrusting their
bayonets into surrendering gunners while shouting: "Poison Springs!" A
private in the white 29th Iowa Infantry, whose regiment supported the
2nd Kansas, wrote his family: "One of our boys seen a little negro
pounding a wounded reb in the head with the but of his gun and asked him
what he was doing. the negro replied he is not dead yet!" During a
subsequent lull in the fighting, details from the 2nd Kansas ranged the
field, cutting the throats of Confederate wounded. "We found that many
of our wounded had been mutilated in many ways," reported the surgeon of
the 33rd Arkansas Infantry. "Some with ears cut off, throats cut, knife
stabs, etc. My brother . . . had his throat cut through the windpipe and
lived several days."
Reflecting on the racially motivated killings at Poison Springs and
Jenkins' Ferry, an officer in the 40th Iowa Infantry concluded sadly:
"The 'rebs' appear to be determined to show no quarter to Black troops
or officers commanding them. It would not surprise me in the least if
this war would ultimately be one of extermination. Its tendencies are in
that direction now."
Gregory J. W. Urwin