I recently came across a rather curious reference to the Crater that appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times on April 19, 1878. It is titled, "Labor In Virginia: The Tide-Water Region-Petersburg-The Blacks and Whites – A Negro’s Speech." References to the Crater by black writers are rare or at least I have not come across many. Probably the most interesting reference to the battle was authored by the black Readjuster Robert A. Paul who noted the irony in the fact that black Virginians in the early 1880′s supported William Mahone who was responsible for leading the attack that left so many black soldiers dead on the field.
The NYT’s editorial raises a number of interesting questions about authorship and interpretation/intent. The author begins by noting the success of the former slaves in the Commonwealth: "One-third retrograde, one-third stationary, and one-third progressive." Virginia’s market relations to the North and in particular New York are emphasized as well as the shipment of vegetables and other freight, and the author mentions that "the capital of certain philanthropic Northerners" was responsible for both physical and economic improvements in the state. Clearly the author is attempting to impress upon the paper’s readers the economic benefits of doing business in Virginia and perhaps other parts of the South. I am already asking myself whether the author is really black. The author now moves to the Crater:
We visited the scene of the terrible assault by our troops on the Confederate works at Petersburg–the so-called "crater." This only relic of the war in this quarter has been preserved by the farmer who owns the land, and is exhibited for 25 cents a head. The horrible cavity where the poor colored regiments, and afterward the whites were so frightfully torn to blood, where chickens are plucking quietly about, and the rebel works which poured such a storm of shot then are waving with a peach orchard, which has sprung from the stones of peaches dropped by the Southern soldiers as they lay behind the mounds. The eve can follow the line of the tunnel to the mine which the Union troops exploded under the works, and the pipe in the rebel counter-shaft is still visible. But the scene is wonderfully peaceful, and the fields about are green with wheat or under the plow. The woman showing the place has a quantity of the relics of the terrible struggle; twisted guns, flattened bullets, skulls, bones, military ornaments, and like. [Many of these were featured in the Battles and Leaders Series] We picked up on the field a human jaw-bone and several Minie’ bullets.
Interesting that the author passes over the presence of black soldiers without any mention of the well-known accounts of their slaughter following the battle. It is enough to place them with their white counterparts and in a position where both suffered equally. However, if we read this as an attempt to secure sectional ties and establish econimic relations just over a decade following the war it makes perfect sense.
The reconciliation theme comes through very clearly here:
We afterward saw the Confederate General who led the final charge which recovered the works, the landlord of the Petersburg Hotel, a fine manly fellow. [It's not clear to me here why the author fails to distinguish between the Confederate General who is obviously Wm. Mahone and the landlord of the P-burg Hotel which is Henry Jarratt.] To him, the fearful scene was fresh as if of yesterday. But to the young we talk with it is not so. It is all history-and a long way off; scarcely nearer, often than the war of the Revolution. The fruit-trees wave on the old intrenchments, and grain-crops cover the battlefields; so now feelings and interests have covered the old passions and wounds of the war.
The author closes by driving home the observation that the "relations of the two races seem excellent." If I am right that this should be interpreted as an attempt to re-establish economic ties by commenting on relaxed racial tensions than it would fit neatly into a larger body of evidence that set out to accomplish similar goals during the post-war years. In my work on William Mahone I show that both the general and his business associates attempted to attract investors to his railroad interests throughout the North, but especially in New York. In fact, one of the most controversial biographical sketches of Mahone, which was authored by J. Watts DePeyster appeared in the New York Historical Magazine.
This leaves open the question of the racial identity of the author. There simply is nothing in the editorial that indicates that the author is black. Perhaps I’ve missed something; feel free to comment if you have any suggestions.