I haven’t commented in quite some time on my on-going Crater manuscript. The project is close to completion as I am trying to knock out the last chapter which covers the period from roughly 1940 to the present. By 1940 the Crater – now under supervision by the National Park Service – was being interpreted as it had been going back to the turn of the century. The broad outline of the battle focused on strictly military aspects of the battle, including the role of Mahone and his Virginia brigade. Apart from references to Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade which bore the brunt of the initial explosion other Confederate units were only being briefly referenced. More importantly, the presence of United States Colored Troops was almost entirely ignored as well as the broader issues of race and emancipation, which by this time had been supplanted by themes of national reunion and reconciliation. All of this was reinforced in the public eye as a result of two well-attended reenactments that took place on the battlefield in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. [I’ve placed a number of related articles on my website, including most recently, "The Battle of the Crater, National Reunion, and the Creation of the Petersburg National Military Park: 1864-1937" which appeared recently in the Virginia Social Science Journal (2005): 13-27.]
Between 1940 and 1960 the Park Service worked to improve access to the Crater and to provide interpretive markers as well as a recorded narrative that would outline the battle as visitors walked the grounds. High-ranking military officers such as Dwight D. Eisenhower as well as others from such countries as Germany, England, and France walked the battlefield during the postwar years. Very few African Americans visited Petersburg or any other Civil War battlefield during this period. By the mid-twentieth century the purging of any reference to emancipation and black participation in the war had been completed. More importantly, Jim Crow legislation had not only divided the races into separate schools, it kept African Americans from challenging a battle narrative that was geared to whites only. Federal institutions such as the National Park Service was staffed by whites and the interpretation of the battle that was inherited from the turn of the century was defined by an agenda set by white Southerners or by a shared set of values among white Americans generally that promoted nationalism.
The challenge to this agenda began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued into the 1970’s. Without going into too much detail, by challenging the racial hierarchy of much of the country African Americans began the long process of becoming more involved in state and national politics which in turn presented a challenge to the way the public remembered its past. More immediate to the 1960’s, however, the Civil Rights Movement interrupted white America’s celebration of the Civil War Centennial. While events in 1961 such as the reenactment of First Manassas proved successful, by 1963 interest was waning. I need to do more research on what was going on in Petersburg as community leaders began planning a reenactment to commemorate the Crater in late 1963- early 1964. What I do know is that plans were scrapped and in its place a simple stone marker was unveiled on the battlefield in a quiet ceremony on July 30, 1964.
The most sustained challenge to the way the Crater was being interpreted took place in the 1970’s. 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.”
I am going to bring the story up to the present with a discussion of Cold Mountain and the possibilities of interpretive revisions given the National Park Service’s recent steps to broaden the way its battlefields are interpreted.