‘Well, Gen. let me kill one more’

Published:July 13, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Private Louis Martin, Co. E, 29th U.S. Colored Infantry

At the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, approximately 3,800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, 1,327 of whom were members of the United States Colored Troops. One of those wounded was the man pictured above, Private Louis Martin of Company E, 29th U.S. Colored Infantry. He lost his right arm and his left leg in the morning’s fight and this photograph is a graphic reminder of his sacrifice.

It’s not too graphic, though. I’ve cropped it so that you can’t see the stump that was once his leg. I did that because our blog’s formatting makes a horizontal photo easier to place than a vertical one, but I might have just as well done it because no one needs to see such an image first thing on a Monday morning.

Which reminds me of something else we’ve been thinking about here at Encyclopedia Virginia as we’ve worked on our Battle of the Crater entry (which is off, now, to fact-checking): How graphic do we want some of these entries to be? I once wrote a fifth-grade social studies textbook and encountered similar questions with regards to slavery. Reminiscences of former slaves can offer bone-chilling details on their lives before emancipation, details that are crucial to understanding life as a slave but that may nevertheless be disruptive in a classroom.

Of course, Encyclopedia Virginia is not a classroom, but we are freely available to all, including children. And we very much hope to become a resource for teachers and students alike. So how to deal with that portion of the Battle of the Crater that involved Confederate soldiers murdering many of their black Union captives?

In a letter to his wife sister, a Confederate colonel named William Pegram uses language that is cool and matter-of-fact to talk about what happened. He said that “it seems cruel to murder [the black soldiers] in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so.” From Pegram’s point of view, part of that cause included his own troops’ morale. “I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army,” he wrote. “I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.”

Wow. Like I said, what strikes me about that passage is how matter-of-fact he is. It’s as if the murders aren’t real to him, or at least real or consequential enough to describe in any detail. Not so for another Confederate soldier, William Cowan McClellan of the 9th Alabama. He described the battle’s aftermath to his brother, and this is the passage we debated whether to keep:

They were the worst looking set you ever saw, yankees layed the defeat to the Negroes, Negroes were disposed to lay it on the yankees. We captured 250 Negroes, all of whom were wounded in some way: Bayoneted, knocked on the head by the butts of muskets. all would have been killed had it not ben for Gen. Mahone, who would beg our men to spare them. one fellow in our Brigade killed several. The Gen. told him for gods sake stop. Well, Gen. let me kill one more, he deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut ones throat. Great many of the yankees officers, even Negroes, were killed on the spot.

This brings the matter home, don’t you think? In the end, we decided to keep it. Its value as history is too important to be deterred by the possibility that it might make some readers uncomfortable. In the end, our primary audience is adults, not children. Still, if you disagree with our decision, let us know . . .

IMAGE: From the National Archives and Records Administration (h/t)