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Black Flag Over Dixie

Black Flag Over Dixie

Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War

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Edited by Gregory J. W. Urwin


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
5.625 x 8.75, 21 illustrations


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About the Book

Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War highlights the central role that race played in the Civil War by examining some of the ugliest incidents that played out on its battlefields. Challenging the American public’s perception of the Civil War as a chivalrous family quarrel, twelve rising and prominent historians show the conflict to be a wrenching social revolution whose bloody excesses were exacerbated by racial hatred. 

Edited by Gregory J. W. Urwin, this compelling volume focuses on the tendency of Confederate troops to murder black Union soldiers and runaway slaves and divulges the details of black retaliation and the resulting cycle of fear and violence that poisoned race relations during Reconstruction. In a powerful introduction to the collection, Urwin reminds readers that the Civil War was both a social and a racial revolution. As the heirs and defenders of a slave society’s ideology, Confederates considered African Americans to be savages who were incapable of waging war in a civilized fashion. Ironically, this conviction caused white Southerners to behave savagely themselves. Under the threat of Union retaliation, the Confederate government backed away from failing to treat the white officers and black enlisted men of the United States Colored Troops as legitimate combatants. Nevertheless, many rebel commands adopted a no-prisoners policy in the field. When the Union’s black defenders responded in kind, the Civil War descended to a level of inhumanity that most Americans prefer to forget.

In addition to covering the war’s most notorious massacres at Olustee, Fort Pillow, Poison Spring, and the Crater, Black Flag over Dixie examines the responses of Union soldiers and politicians to these disturbing and unpleasant events, as well as the military, legal, and moral considerations that sometimes deterred Confederates from killing all black Federals who fell into their hands. Twenty photographs and a map of massacre and reprisal sites accompany the volume. 

The contributors are Gregory J. W. Urwin, Anne J. Bailey, Howard C. Westwood, James G. Hollandsworth Jr., David J. Coles, Albert Castel, Derek W. Frisby, Weymouth T. Jordan Jr., Gerald W. Thomas, Bryce A. Suderow, Chad L. Williams, and Mark Grimsley.


Gregory J. W. Urwin is a professor of history and associate director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University.


Black Flag Over Dixie is a polemic analysis of the overarching role that race played during the Civil War. Temple University professor of history Gregory J.W. Urwin assembles a


disparate collection of essays that achieve a synergistic effect in refuting the reconciliationist vision of the Civil War as an honorable contest between chivalrous opponents. Urwin's slate of twelve prominent and heretofore unheralded historians examine purported Confederate and Union Army racial atrocities in each operational theater, including battles at Milliken's Bend, Poison Springs, Jenkin's Ferry, Fort Pillow, and Petersburg. The authors contend that the psychology of "whiteness" framed southern and northern conduct of the war and frequently manifested itself in racial atrocities. Although Confederate atrocities were more frequent and larger, black soldiers retaliated when presented with an opportunity. Myriad cascading effects emanated from racial atrocities; however, two effects were most prominent. First, Radical Republicans incorporated reports of racial atrocities into their "bloody shirt" propaganda to advocate a "hard war" strategy against the South. Secondly, Union and Confederate governments failed to establish and enforce coherent policies to address racial atrocities. The lack of policies emboldened southern insurgents during Reconstruction and also facilitated the North's abandonment of African Americans in exchange for reconciliation after the war.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the introduction of black regiments threatened psychological, deep-rooted, white supremacist underpinnings and exacerbated southern fears of slave insurrection. The presence of black soldiers also provided southern confirmation that the war was a cultural and social revolution designed to reshape the South. Consequently, engagements between Confederate and black regiments quickly escalated into "Black Flag" conflicts of no quarter given. Although the "Fort Pillow Massacre" was not the first or largest racial atrocity, reports of the massacre became tantamount to a rallying cry of "No Quarter" for black soldiers and a Radical Republican demand for an escalation of the war. Following the "Fort Pillow" and "Poison Springs Massacres," black soldiers of the 2"d Kansas Colored Voluntary Infantry Regiment retaliated by killing wounded Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Jenkin's Ferry on the Saline River. Simultaneously, Radical Republican Senator Benjamin R. Wade of Ohio framed a propaganda campaign around the "Fort Pillow Massacre" designed to marshal public will towards pursuing a hard war against the South.

Despite the "Fort Pillow Massacre" Congressional investigation and an eventual Union strategy of "Total War," the Lincoln administration failed to adopt a coordinated and coherent policy towards Confederate racial atrocities. Similarly, the Confederate administration failed to articulate a coordinated policy on the legal status of black soldiers. The failure of both governments to develop and disseminate coherent racial policies to their field forces signaled tacit approval of racial atrocities. Chad L. Williams' essay, "Symbols of Defeat: African American Soldiers, White southerners, and the Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865," argues that white Southerners' unrelenting disdain for black soldiers coupled with their acceptance of racial atrocities provided significant impetus for a southern insurgency during Reconstruction.

In his essay, "The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Towards Southern Civilians, 1861-1865," Mark Grimsley provides a more comprehensive approach towards the role of racism in America. Grimsley asserts that racism is an American inheritance that has cast a very "Long Shadow" over America since its inception. Racial atrocities are not unique to the Civil War but are also evident in virtually every American conflict. Sheer utilitarian necessity rather than moral superiority forced the Union to field black regiments. Consequently, this ingrained American racism enabled the North to quickly forget both the contributions of black soldiers and southern racial atrocities in order to advance reconciliation.

Urwin has crafted an extraordinary book using essays of varying quality to effectively shatter the myth of the "Lost Cause" and portray the Civil War as a hotly contested social revolution. Several of the essays contained in Black Flag Over Dixie appear deliberately vague in an attempt to stimulate discussion and further research. Mark Grimsley's concluding analysis on racism and reconciliation fuses the disparate essays together and invokes comparison to David Blight's seminal discussion of race, memory, and reconciliation in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Inevitably, Black Flag Over Dixie will invite comparisons and discourse on ongoing American military operations in the current "Global War on Terrorism." Specifically, how does the American perspective on race inform its perception and conduct of the war?