The Crater Battlefield and Me

I enjoyed reading Brooks Simpson’s personal thoughts about his attraction to Gettysburg. As I mentioned in an earlier post I am envious of people who have a connection to Civil War battlefields that go back to childhood. There are no pictures of me as a boy posing in the rocks that make up the Devil’s Den. My vacations were spent almost entirely on the beach which was just five blocks from my home in Ventnor, New Jersey. I guess you could say that I am a late bloomer when it comes to the Civil War. As a result I don’t have any sentimental connection with any particular battlefield.

Over the past few years I have spent a considerable amount of time at the Crater battlefield in Petersburg. I even made it a point to get up early one morning while attending a conference in Petersburg to walk the battlefield. It is an eerie place early in the morning. It takes some effort to imagine away the trees and fill in the landscape with the complex chains of trenches that dotted the area, but it can be done. The Park Service has made it somewhat easier by outlining the location of the forward positions. My favorite spot is the position behind the Confederate works where Brig. Gen. William Mahone’s division prepared for its famous countercharge which took place around 9:00am. The view from this position is impressive and it is easy to imagine Col. David Weisiger and Mahone prepared for the charge. The postwar debates between these two men during the Readjuster years mean little during these moments. I also enjoy the view from the area around Burnside’s headquarters. From here one can imagine the scale of the initial explosion and the Union attack which followed.

The actual battle site holds mixed feelings for me as I find it difficult to conceptualize the scale of the crater. Part of the problem is that there is so little of it left. I can just as easily imagine white Southerners golfing through during the 1920’s as I can picture the close hand-to-hand combat between black soldiers and infuriated Confederates. That said, I like the gestalt between picturing the horrors of the battle and the postwar events, including reunions, reenactments, and monument dedications that took place on the same ground.

On a number of trips I’ve made it a point to sit and listen to the stories told by visitors as they make their way along the path from the tunnel entrance to the crater. I remember one particular story told by a father to his wife and children who in front of the Mahone monument proceeded to describe just how important the general was to the Confederacy during those final few months of the war. I thought about pointing out that the monument was initially supposed to be placed in downtown Petersburg, but owing to Mahone’s controversial postwar political career city leaders decided to place it on the battlefield. Rather than ruin this man’s story I decided to hold onto that little nugget. It’s a short walk to Cemetery Hill and the small chapel with its famous Tiffany windows. This to me is “ground zero” of the Lost Cause Movement. A walk through the cemetery reveals a number of important men from the battle, including Mahone, George Bernard, and David Weisiger.

The Crater battlefield clearly doesn’t hold the same attraction for me compared with the rich childhood experiences described by others. I still love the place just the same.

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