Robert E. Lee and Union Black POWs

Several weeks ago Kevin Levin posted some comments about a book by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen on the battle of the Crater.  One of those posts caught my interest, and not just because of the colorful title.  In the post in question Kevin quoted a passage from pages 281-82; I’ve focused on the issue at hand:

[Lee talking to William Mahone]

“And General…”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
“Yes, sir.”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his soldier. “I want the full honor of war observed.  Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight.  We are Christian soldiers, sir.  Do you understand me?  Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle.  If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir?”
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.”

Fiction.  Absolute fiction.  We know exactly how Robert E. Lee felt about the status of black U.S. POWs.  Why?  Well, because several months later Lee and Ulysses S. Grant exchanged letters on the treatment of captured United States soldiers of African-American descent.

USCT regiments participated in an attack on Forts Gilmer and Harrison southeast of Richmond in late September 1864.  One black brigade attacked Fort Gregg, near Fort Gilmer.   Several soldiers were captured by Confederates.  Soon after the battle, at the beginning of October, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners to Grant.  The Union commander agreed to the exchange, provided it be limited to soldiers captured during the battles in late September.  He was very specific as to why: noting that some of the Union POWs in Confederate hands were black, he said: “I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as White soldiers.”

Lee tried to finesse the issue.  Although he was willing “to include all captured soldiers of the U. S. of whatever nation [or] Colour” under my control,” he added that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not Considered Subjects of exchange & were not included in my proposition.”  That was enough for Grant: as his government was “bound to secure to all persons received into her Armies the rights due to soldiers,” he declined any exchange that would not include all Union soldiers.

Several weeks later, Grant learned that Confederate forces were employing black U.S. POWs to build fortifications in areas that were within range of Union fire … in short, using those men as human shields.  Grant immediately approved Benjamin F. Butler’s proposal to employ Confederate POWs in the same fashion, then confronted Lee with that information.

Lee backed down.  He removed the black U.S. POWs from front line labor.  He claimed that their use was simply a result of an administrative snafu; however, he added that Confederate law provided for the reenslavement of former slaves now in U.S. military service.  They should be returned to their masters “like other recaptured private property.”  Meanwhile, he planned to put more U.S. POWs in harm’s way by placing them in a pen at Dutch Gap, which was under Union artillery fire, should Grant not relent with his plans for retaliation.

Grant would have none of this.  To him, it was the color of the uniform, not the color of the person in it, that was important.  It was, he told Lee, “my duty to protect all persons received into the Army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality.”   As Lee had removed the black U.S. POWs from harm’s way, he would do the same with the Confederate POWs under Butler’s control.  However, should Lee or his subordinates misuse black U.S. POWs again, Grant promised to retaliate.

Perhaps Gingrich and Forstchen should have done their homework.

That said, we see here Lee defending Confederate policy, where status and race were of critical importance in the treatment of U.S. POWs; here’s a clear case where Confederates were not above using POWs as human shields, something worth remembering.  It was Ulysses S. Grant who defended the rights of United States prisoners of war, regardless of their race.

You can find the full correspondence here on pages 258, 263, and 323-26; it’s discussed in Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, pp. 65-67, and Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 381-82, 384.

History’s more interesting than fiction.

Bad News for Civil War Coin Collectors

According to this article, production of the presidential dollar coin series for regular circulation will cease with the James A. Garfield coin.  That means that several Civil War veterans who became president, namely Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, as well as general-by-appointment and president-by-assassination Chester A. Arthur and substitute-employer Grover Cleveland, will find themselves relegated to collectors-only production.

I told you to get your coins while they were hot.

No word yet on whether the SCV will sue the federal government for its failure to produce a Jefferson Davis coin.