Landscapes and the Lost Cause: An Analysis of the 1903 and 1937 Crater Reenactments

This is the essay that I presented at the Virginia Forum. I am thinking a great deal about the long-term consequences of the commemorative events that took place at the Crater between 1900 and 1935. As I argue in this paper, reenactments presented a version of the Crater fight to a large number of Virginians. Comments are welcome.

It was a reenactment that sent a young Douglas Southall Freeman down the road to writing his famed histories of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Freeman, along with his Confederate veteran father, attended the first Crater reenactment, which was staged in Petersburg on November 6, 1903. The Battle of the Crater, which took place outside Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864 proved to be one of the bloodiest engagements in the final year of the Civil War. The attempt on the part of Union commanders to break the growing siege between the two armies by tunneling under a Confederate position and detonating 8,000 pounds of explosives created a battle environment unseen elsewhere. The novelty of the mine explosion, the close hand-to-hand fighting, extensive casualties, the decision to include a division of United States Colored Troops in the attacking columns, and a decisive Confederate countercharge led by Gen. William Mahone guaranteed that the battle would not soon be forgotten by those involved. Following the event, Freeman noted in his diary that, “If someone doesn’t write the history of these men, it will be lost forever.” Rather than see the story lost to posterity, he resolved, “I’m going to do it.”

Freeman could not have known it at the time, but the story of those men had already been written and rewritten throughout the first few decades following the war. The A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans and other organizers of the 1903 reenactment presented the general public with a version of the battle that stood in sharp contrast to the earliest accounts penned by Confederate soldiers in the days and weeks following the battle. Gone were the references of Confederate outrage as they arrived in the vicinity of a massive crater only to realize that over two hundred of their comrades were either dead or badly wounded. Most importantly, references to the presence of African Americans on the battlefield had been removed from the day’s proceedings.

Over the past few years, historians such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century. In Blight’s view the veterans on both sides of the Potomac chose to assign the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the battlefield. The forging of bonds of valor between one-time enemies, however, required that questions surrounding emancipation and race be ignored. Battlefields played a crucial role in providing a landscape on which veterans of both sides could shape their preferred interpretations of the Civil War. Reenactments, reunions, and other commemorations that took place on the South’s battlefields allowed for the shaping of a public memory that not only promoted Lost Cause principles, but turned African Americans into what historian David Goldfield describes as “ghosts”, or “figments of white perceptions.” Understanding how public spaces such as battlefields came to be interpreted—as they were transformed into National Military Parks—and the consequences of that interpretation sheds light on the creation and maintenance of public memory.

While the emphasis on veterans’ reunions and postwar reminiscences reveal a great deal about the evolution of public memory surrounding Civil War battlefields in general, such an analysis remains limited in respect to more specific sites. The Battle of the Crater is a case in point. I argue that the reenactments of 1903 and 1937 go much further to explaining the gradual disappearance of African Americans from the public memory of this battle compared with more popular forms of commemoration such as reunions and monument dedications. Both celebrations occurred at important junctures, the former at a time when Virginia’s state legislature was instituting Jim Crow legislation, and the latter, which marked the beginning of the National Park Service’s oversight of the landscape. Compared to veterans reunions, reenactments were viewed by tens of thousands of spectators. Audiences were not simply witnesses to a casual recreation of a Civil War battle, but played an integral role in attaching the landscape with a specific meaning that implied defense in the face of alternative interpretations.

Postwar interpretations of the Crater fight stood in sharp contrast to the letters and diary entries written in the days and weeks following the battle. Many Confederates relished the retelling of their experiences in the Crater fighting Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division. “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the buts of there guns and every other way,” according to Labnan Odom, who served in the 48th Georgia, “until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.” Commenting on the dead black soldiers on the battlefield or the prisoners, one soldier described them as the “Blackest greaysest [greasiest] negroes I ever saw in my life.” While stationed at Bermuda Hundred during the time of the battle, Edmund Womack wrote home to his wife, “I understand our men just chopped them to pieces.”

Once the salient was retaken, Confederate rage was difficult to bring under control. Accounts written in the days following the battle rarely shied away from including vivid descriptions of the harsh treatment and executions of surrendered black soldiers. Robert G. Evans of the 16th Mississippi recalled, “Most of the Negroes were killed after the battle. Some was killed after they were taken to the rear.” Another soldier admitted that “the poor deluded devils were butchered right and left.” James Verdery simply described it as “a truly Bloody Sight a perfect Massacre nearly a Black flag fight.” The experience of fighting black soldiers for the first time served to remind Lee’s men of exactly what was at stake in the war—nothing less than an overturning of the racial hierarchy of their antebellum world.

By the turn of the century, Southerners had either extirpated or substantially revised the story of black participation at the Crater to compliment current racial assumptions and ongoing political realignments in Virginia. Confederate veterans reunions and increased interaction with former enemies on the battlefield served to emphasize the shared values of the common soldier and steered clear of the divisive themes of emancipation and the role of black soldiers during the fight. While African Americans continued to counter white domination of public spaces with a distinct counter memory, their commemorations and narratives rarely reached those outside the black community.

The 1903 Crater reenactment took place at a crucial moment in Virginia’s history. Not only did it further push African Americans away from identifying with the landscape and the story of what took place there, but it introduced a skewed narrative to a large number of the Commonwealth’s white population. The day began with a procession through the streets of Petersburg. Spectators watched as the aged veterans, many displaying their wounds worked their way to the crest of the crater. Finally, they made their charge with a vibrant Rebel yell into what remained of the pit. For thirty minutes they reenacted the event in which they had been participants. Speeches such as the one given by William Stewart who served as colonel of the 61st Virginia encouraged the audience and his fellow veterans to remember “that we fought for right and justice, for constitutional liberty, for our homes and for our firesides and stand up before all men as proud as a king of the uniform we wore in the Confederate ranks.” The presence of Mahone’s men on the battlefield served as a living reminder of Southern wartime heroics. Allowing the audience to interact with the remaining members of Mahone’s unit maintained a link with a distinct Confederate identity even as the nation was being pulled closer together following the Spanish-American War.

In an important sense the 1903 reenactment functioned as a forum for different generations, one representing a lived Confederate history and the other, a younger generation that eagerly embraced the stories passed down. It is also important to keep in mind the political context in which the reenactment took place. In 1900 the General Assembly of Virginia called for a referendum on the holding of a constitutional convention that would overturn the constitution imposed on it during Reconstruction. By 1902 the new constitution succeeded in cutting all but 21,000 black Virginians of voting age and went on to cut that number in half only three years later. At the same time, and following on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the General Assembly in Richmond passed its first Jim Crow law in 1900, which eventually separated the races on streetcars, railroads, and residential neighborhoods. Regulating or “managing” this newly legislated racial hierarchy would take great care on the part of Virginia’s white public officials.

The decision not to emphasize the racial component of the battle served to tie the day’s proceedings with the goals of maintaining white social and political superiority backed by Democratic Party solidarity. The presence of one “colored man” in the parade which preceded the reenactment clearly reflects this concern. The individual in question was in fact “Stonewall” Jackson’s cook and servant. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he “wore the gray of the Confederate soldier, and carried his army canteen.” The 1903 Crater reenactment could not properly depict the role of African Americans in the battle for fear of reminding the local black population of their own steps towards freedom achieved during the Civil War. Including Stonewall Jackson’s black servant in the procession of veterans leading to the Crater reinforced the goal of submission and compliance to white control. A rigid social hierarchy with whites at the top could be maintained, according to historian Gaines Foster, by encouraging Virginia’s black population to honor the “old time negro” who followed his owner into battle to care for him and remained loyal even after the war. By concentrating on black compliance and ignoring memories of bitterness associated with having to fight African Americans at the Crater, elite white Virginians were able to “manage race relations” with a philosophy of paternalism. The addresses preceding the start of the “sham” battle such as the one by William Stewart made only passing reference to the “brutal malice of negro soldiers.” Stewart’s brief reference to the behavior of “negro” soldiers served to remind his audience of black assertiveness both during and after the war and the necessity of maintaining white solidarity.

The success of the 1903 reenactment ignited a movement to bring the Crater battlefield and the rest of Petersburg’s remaining battlefields under state or federal oversight. Continued interaction between Union and Confederate veterans, the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, and private organizations such as the Petersburg Battlefield Park Association all contributed to the project, but it was not until 1932 that the Petersburg National Military Park became a reality. The Crater battlefield remained in private hands until 1918 when it was purchased by the Crater Battlefield Association, which promptly turned the site into an 18-hole golf course. The transfer of the Crater into the new Military Park was not completed until 1936.
Park Service employees spent the next year undoing the damage to the landscape wrought by years of divots and sand traps. In addition to physical improvements to the landscape, Park officials erected markers that outlined the battle. The content of these markers reflected an interpretation that by the 1930’s’ had become standard. The overall mission of the PNMP was to “commemorate the valor and devotion of the American soldiers of the Revolution and the War Between the States.” Visitors were expected to interpret the battlefield “on which the manhood of the North and of the South, each contending for high ideals, engaged in the final decisive struggles of the war of 1861-1865.” Such an interpretation or emphasis left no room to acknowledge the battle as a moment for African-American soldiers to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice their lives for freedom. Neither was there mention of the rage exhibited by Confederates at having to fight black soldiers or the well-documented incidents involving their execution following their surrender.

The Park Service wasted little time utilizing the Crater to attract people to the Park. On April 30, 1937, a reenactment was held for an estimated 50,000 spectators. With national reunion solidified, press releases from the Park Service and other public offices in Petersburg advertised an event that would celebrate the heroism of the American soldiers and the battle in neutral terms. Junior Park historian, Raleigh Taylor described the reenactment as a commemoration of an “important phase in American history.” When describing the failed Union attack, Taylor made it a point to mention that their “Regiments and brigades served gallantly.” Finally, Taylor hoped that visitors would walk away with a better understanding of the “costly folly of war.” James Latimer of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce touted the reenactment as an opportunity to “commemorate the military operations . . . in that historical city in 1864 -65, and to preserve the earthworks and fortifications erected there during what proved to be the longest and bloodiest siege operations in the history of the American Republic.”

In a radio address presented on two occasions in the days leading up to the reenactment, Raleigh Taylor discussed the history of the battle and included an account by Confederate veteran George Bernard in his War Talks of Confederate Veterans. Bernard remembered meeting a “darky” during the countercharge who “begged to be spared, and, on being told he would not be shot, immediately began fanning a wounded Confederate as a way of showing his change of sides.” As in the case of the 1903 reenactment, African Americans were presented as docile, and more importantly, not committed to fighting for their freedom. Event organizers once again failed to include any overt references to African Americans in their recreation of the battle. Consistent with the 1903 event, the continued denial of black participation not only complimented assertions within academic circles that slavery was benign and that the majority of slaves remained loyal to the antebellum hierarchy after the war, but it also allowed for the more significant and growing claims that southern blacks fought in large numbers for the Confederacy.

Celebrations commenced with an opening address by Virginia Congressman Patrick Drewry, who introduced several of the prominent guests, including Virginia’s Governor George C. Peery. A total of nearly 3,000 men, including 650 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute and 1,200 Marines, played the roles of the combatants. Douglas S. Freeman provided historical background and with the help of a telephone system pointed out landmarks on the battlefield. Park officials judged the reenactment a success and were especially pleased that little damage had been done to the grounds. Franklin W. Smith, president of the Petersburg Battlefield Park Association, believed “it was one of the greatest things ever held in Petersburg.” Two days later, a Petersburg paper reported that one army officer still “has not gotten over his thrill of witnessing the reenactment.”

The 1937 reenactment solidified a story that emphasized shared values across the Mason-Dixon Line. Compared with the 1903 reenactment, little had changed in the way the landscape of the Crater was depicted. The establishment of the PNMP and the uncritical acceptance by its research staff of an interpretation that downplayed race and highlighted the virtues of national reunion and forgiveness all but guaranteed that visitors in the coming decades would receive a skewed account of the events surrounding July 30, 1864. To a great extent white veterans on both sides, along with their preservationist allies in the public sphere shaped the way in which the landscape would be interpreted by future generations. Neither the veterans nor the public officials had any interest in reminding the nation of the important role United States Colored Troops had played in the battle, nor did they raise questions of responsibility or blame for the cause of the war. Without any reference to broader issues of race or questions involving the cause of the war, the landscape would be understood in strict military terms involving the movement of troops.

Both reenactments represented a complete victory for white southerners in their attempt to control public memory of the battle. Challenges to this preferred interpretation of the landscape persist to this day. Not until the Civil War centennial celebrations between 1961 and 1964 was there an opportunity to remind white Americans, as did the Richmond Afro-American, that “the Union might not have been saved but for the sacrifices made by colored soldiers.” The success of the Manassas reenactment of 1961 sparked some interest in duplicating the event in Petersburg to mark the 100th anniversary of the Crater, but by 1964 the centennial celebrations had been overshadowed by the Civil Rights Movement and tentative plans were shelved.

Not until the 1970’s did blacks command sufficient political power necessary to demand a more inclusive historical memory of the South. In 1978 a research team from Howard University led by Joseph E. Harris issued a report on the status of both black soldiers and slaves in the Park’s interpretive guides and other programs. Not surprisingly, the committee recommended substantial additions from the acknowledgment of individual black regiments to the addition of reading material for tourists to the hiring of black interpreters. Consultation with interpreters revealed that “little information was presented concerning black personnel since few visitors are aware of their services during the battles.” And when told that upon request information was made available it “was never stated what information was given to the visitors.” Black students at Virginia State University who were interviewed considered the primary function of the PNMP to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The teams final report “recommended that park officials not only incorporate the achievement of black personnel in their capacities as soldiers and laborers but that personnel are trained to present details concerning the black presence in greater Petersburg.”

The Park Service has made progress in the last three decades, but has met with resistance all along the way, especially from Southern Heritage groups. The difficulty involved in rethinking the Crater and its racial component can be seen clearly in the recent movie, Cold Mountain whose opening scenes included a vivid recreation of the battle. While the opening sequence did acknowledge the presence of USCT’s during the battle, the director steered clear of the more troubling aspects such as the execution of black soldiers following the battle. At least one scene set after the battle showing a disgruntled Confederate soldier executing a severely injured black soldier was cut from the final version.

The success of the 1903 and 1937 Crater reenactments goes far in explaining the extent to which our culture is willing, or in this case unwilling, to acknowledge a history steeped in racial hatred. By bringing together members of different generations on a Civil War landscape at crucial moments in Virginia’s history, event organizers were able to introduce a specific narrative that upheld established racial hierarchies by ignoring black participants. The content of the programs behind these reenactments bolstered white control of public spaces by ignoring the role of emancipation in the Civil War and more specifically by steering clear of the steps African Americans took in securing their own freedom. While other forms of commemoration achieved similar goals, reenactments allowed the audience to empathize with the participants and in doing so worked to enlist their support and those of future generations in the defense of a racially biased and dangerous history.

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