I am at the beginning stages of the final chapter of my book manuscript on postwar commemorations and memory of the Battle of the Crater. The final chapter will bring the analysis of memory up to the present day– specifically to the release of the movie Cold Mountain. Here is a brief overview of the project:
Chapter 1: Analysis of the battle with an emphasis on wartime sources. I am interested primarily in how Confederates evaluated the battle during the immediate aftermath. A decisive Confederate victory on July 30 reinforced their faith in Robert E. Lee and the belief in final victory. It is important not to look back on the past from a vantage point that assumes defeat. These men kept track of news throughout the summer and paid particular attention to Jubal Early’s raid into Maryland, W.T. Sherman’s march towards Atlanta and the presidential election set for November. There was much to be optimistic about at the beginning of August 1864. Their letters and diaries reveal a great deal about how these men reacted to the use of black soldiers in the Federal attack. The presence of black soldiers served to reinforce their belief that defeat meant an overturning of their antebellum world. I am struck by the emotion in their words; for many it clarified the meaning of the war.
Chapter 2: Confederate veterans engaged in a heated debate with one another over who could claim rightful ownership of Confederate victory at the Crater. Veterans who fought in the battle from outside the Old Dominion cried foul as they watched Virginians claim the victory as their own. Of course, Virginians had the advantage of location and many of the units involved were raised in the Petersburg-Richmond-Norfolk area. The debate raged into the 20th century, but was ultimately won by Virginians.
Chapter 3: William Mahone is the central figure in this story and during the postwar period he used his popularity from the Crater to market himself as a railroad entrepreneur. He commissioned paintings of the Crater, took part in reunions of his old Virginia brigade on the battlefield, and approved biographies of his military exploits. At least one authorized biography by J. Watts DePeyster brought about a nasty exchange with Jubal Early. Mahone’s role at the Crater was seriously challenged as a result of his leadership of the Readjuster Party. The political movement fractured Mahone’s old command owing to the legislative agenda of the Readjusters which brought about increased political involvement by black Virginians. David Weisiger who actually commanded the Virginia brigade on July 30 and a vocal critic of Mahone during the Readjuster years, was referred to as the “Hero of the Crater” in his obituary which was reprinted in Confederate Veteran.
Chapter 4: By the beginning of the 20th century black soldiers were rendered invisible in both published recollections and public commemorations. I’ve discussed this in previous posts. Virginians failed to give full voice to their own initial reactions in large part because to do so would have challenged their own preferred view of antebellum race relations. By 1900 Virginia was well on its way to revising its state constitution and moving down the road of Jim Crow. Again, remembering the actions of black Americans at the Crater simply did not conform to this racial outlook.
Chapter 5: The success of the 1903 Crater reenactment began a drive to establish the Petersburg National Military Park. This chapter looks at the role of national reunion and reconciliation (much of which centered on the Crater) as an crucial factor in this process. The land comprising the Crater field was in private hands up to 1918 and turned into an 18-hole golf course by the Crater Battlefield Association until it was finally handed over to the National Park Service in 1936. The change of ownership was marked by a second reenactment in 1937.
The final chapter will examine the consequences of the disappearance of African Americans from the Crater landscape. The NPS inherited an interpretation that was widely accepted by 1936 and continued to promote a narrative that gave short thrift to black soldiers. Not until the 1960’s was their a concerted effort to correct this oversight. Of course, these correctives are highly controversial as they ask us to step back and reevaluate some of our basic assumptions of the overall meaning of the war.