The 1937 Crater Reenactment

Here is a little taste from my ongoing Crater project.  This short section is from chapter 5 which explores events in Petersburg during the first few decades of the twentieth century.  The images are located at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  The first image is a map of the Crater site at the time it was owned by the Crater Battlefield Association which turned it into an 18-hole golf course.

The acquisition of the Crater site by the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936 should be understood within a broader context of economic revitalization. Public officials in Petersburg continued to look for ways to use its Civil War battlefields as a way to attract both businesses and new residents. The PNMP urged residents to see its history as not simply a way to commemorate the “valor of the Blue and the Gray.” The park would attract tourists, conventions, “permanent investments,” employment, and finally, it would “open new territory available for suburban subdivisions . . . and will increase the value of the land around the park.” The Pine Gardens estate sale which took place in September 1929 drew a direct connection between residential development and preservation: “It behooves every one who had a relative to serve or die in this great conflict of the Civil War to own at least a small portion of this sacred and beloved soil.”

With the Crater site under park supervision, officials spent most of the summer and fall of 1937 removing golf traps and greens; [Crater was turned into an 18-hole golf course] the planting of trees and shrubs was done to shield the field from modern structures along nearby highways. A restoration of the entrance to the mine shaft was also started in 1937. Workers uncovered shell fragments, nails and other articles as the work progressed. Excavations indicated that the starting point of the tunnel corresponded with the location of the stone monument placed there by the veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania in 1907. In November 1937, the remains of two Union soldiers were found.

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 turn of the century 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 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. Mahone’s Virginia brigade was singled out as the most important component leading to Confederate success: one marker, titled “Mahone’s Charge,” was described as including “800 men of Weisiger’s Brigade” and “composed mainly of Petersburg men.”

The Park Service wasted little time utilizing the Crater to attract people to the battlefield On April 30, 1937, a reenactment was held for an estimated 50,000 spectators. An immense amount of planning and publicity work was required, and during the month preceding the reenactment, Park employees devoted most of their time to the affair. Preparations included the construction of a stand, an enclosure for invited guests, six latrines, two enclosures for the press, two structures to represent bombproofs, temporary imitation earthworks and battery positions. Workers went to great lengths to create a realistic visual for the audience; monuments on the fields were camouflaged, and arrangements were made to prohibit airplanes from flying over the area during the day.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reported to its readers that they could “see reproduced the greatest fiasco in modern warfare.” Once again the attention would be on Mahone’s brigade; those in attendance would see how they “came to reinforce the Crater’s defenders and how they dashed into the Crater themselves, screaming the Rebel yell, goaded to insane fury by the faces of a Negro division Burnside had thrown into the fight”—one of the few references to Confederate rage at having to face black soldiers. Six thousand seats for spectators were sold for 50 cents, though general admission and parking came with no charge.

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. 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.”

The concentration on battlefield heroics and an attempt to attract visitors from beyond the Commonwealth left no room to commemorate the deeds of African Americans who fought at the Crater. 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.

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.  Rehearsals took place on April 30 to ensure accuracy; a 38-pound charge was exploded in imitation of the mine explosion that had signaled the start of the battle. For the Marines the “sham battle” was an opportunity to finally play the role of the victors: “They obligingly have met defeat in their role of Union troops in several previous Virginia reenactments of battles of the ‘60’s.” Preparations also benefited from programs in Franklin Roosevelt’s NewDeal. Replicas of the flags carried into battle were made by women in the Works Progress Administration, many of whom were descendants of participants in the battle, and camps for the reenactors were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Celebrations commenced with an opening address by Congressman Drewry, who introduced several of the prominent guests, including Virginia Governor George C. Peery. Douglas S. Freeman provided historical background to the events of July 31, 1864, and with the help of a telephone system pointed out landmarks on the battlefield. Only four men from Mahone’s brigade were in attendance; one of the four was 93-year-old Francis M. Ridout of Petersburg. Invitations to Union veterans who took part in the battle went out, but none attended owing to age. 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 day before the reenactment an editorial appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch expressing concern over the upcoming event. The writer believed that it would be unfortunate if the National Park Service’s goal was to simply “impress onlookers with the feeling that war is glamorous or in any sense an alluring spectacle.” “We hope the lesson to be learned from it,” continued the writer “will be that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.” On the eve of World War II, the memory of the Crater had taken an interesting turn. Because so much time had elapsed since the battle, the significance of the Crater could no longer be understood simply in historical terms. The generation of Americans that had fought the war was all but gone, and a younger generation stood poised to be sent back to foreign battlefields. Within this context, the writer of the editorial acknowledged that those who attend the reenactment “will doubtless be deeply impressed with the bravery and sacrifice of our forefathers.” At the end of the day, however, “we hope they will highly resolve that no such heroism shall be asked of this generation of Americans.”

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