Response to Critics

I received my author copies of the most recent issue of Civil War Times magazine, which includes my feature story on the Crater, so I assume it is now available at your local newsstand.  A few days ago Dana Shoaf passed on an email and asked me to respond for the next issue.  It’s an interesting comment and one that I suspect others have struggled with.

I was very disappointed in Kevin M. Levin’s article on the execution of black Union soldiers by the Confederate Army after the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg siege.  Mr. Levin gives quite a good accounting that explains the motivation of the Confederate troops.  However, he utterly fails to differentiate between explanation and excuse. The Confederate troops perpetrated a war crime, as there is no other way to describe the wanton murder of captured American soldiers in uniform. As such, these Confederates join the ranks of the German SS troops who murdered American prisoners at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge and those Japanese soldiers who did the same on countless occasions to captured Americans in the Pacific Theatre.  I fail to see any difference between these incidents. I can only imagine the disgust felt by your African-American readers; mine is fairly high.

PS:  I view slave revolts as the legitimate right of the enslaved.

Sincerely,

Jack

Response:

Thanks to Jack for the thoughtful response to my essay.  The reader criticizes me for failing to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse in my analysis of why Confederates massacred black Union soldiers at the Crater.  While the essay received a positive assessment for the explanation offered, this reader was left with the impression that I had excused the actions of Confederates at the Crater.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My essay was intended as an explanation of what happened and why and should not be interpreted in any way as condoning or condemning what took place.  Such conclusions and/or comparisons with related incidents from other wars are best left to the readers of this essay.  That said, I suggest that this reader runs the risk of obscuring the complexity of historic events by reducing the killing of black Union soldiers to the murder of American soldiers by foreign soldiers.  I consider this article a success if it assists readers in better understanding the nature of fighting at the Crater in July 1864.  Finally, it may be helpful to point out that this article is part of a much larger project on the Crater and historical memory, titled, Remembering Murder As War: The Battle of the Crater.

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9 comments… add one

  • Margaret D. Blough Aug 14, 2010

    Kevin-Excellent response to a thoughtful and serious question. BTW, can one order individual issues of the magazine? I’m just not interested right now in adding another subscription no matter how good the publication.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010

      Hi Margaret,

      I assume you can purchase individual copies, but I don’t know how to go about it. Perhaps you can find some information on their website or you could try their Facebook page.

      • Harry Aug 14, 2010

        The magazine can be found in such out of the way places as Barnes and Noble, Borders, and even Wal-Mart.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010

          I noticed that the website has yet to be updated. My last article on military executions was available online so perhaps this one will be as well.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 14, 2010

    I guess I don’t understand the critic’s point. An explanation of what happened and why is not an excuse for it happening. Understanding what went through someone’s head is not the same as justifying it. It would seem to me that if the reader’s repulsed by the actions Kevin’s described, then Kevin’s offered a powerful description without telling readers–regardless of their race, by the way– what to feel. What would readers make of a narrative where Kevin was telling them how to feel, as if they couldn’t arrive at that point on their own?

    One of the real challenges any historian faces is in trying to explain why people did the things they did and why they believed what they believed. Such explication is not endorsement, and it is not excuse-making. The critic confuses understanding and justification.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010

      Brooks,

      I am not surprised given the tendency of many to view the war as a morality play. Actually, given the constant accusations that I am engaged in “South-bashing” this comment is a breadth of fresh air. For once I am being interpreted as pro-Confederate or something along those lines. :D

      • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 14, 2010

        If the article identified where you taught, perhaps an assumption was made about your political/historical beliefs. :)

        I had that happen once. Harold Holzer once took me to task decades ago in a review for pointing out how Andrew Johnson viewed the advice he was getting (and how some people were giving it), as if I was some neo-Confederate white supremacist (he wrote about my “suspected sympathies.”). No doubt he jumped to that conclusion in part because the Johnson Project was located in Tennessee, and often people associated with projects are seen as apologists for their subjects (as Holzer’s edited several Lincoln collections, he ought to tread lightly with that assumption). I thanked him for that, because it served to confirm that early in my career I had already attained some success in being objective and dispassionate. I was kind: he also misused the term “Liberal Republican.” He’s never warmed up to me since. :)

        It’s just not the war as morality play: it’s moral posturing poorly disguised as historical criticism.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010

          Brooks,

          The article briefly mentions that I teach history in Charlottesville, but does included a URL for the blog. Well, as we’ve seen some folks out there have great difficulty distinguishing historical criticism from politics/morality. :D

    • Harry Aug 14, 2010

      I think it’s just a reflection of the times. When it comes to certain topics (Naziism and race are two that come most quickly to mind), a disclaimer seems to be a requirement for some folks. For instance, to say that Germany under Hitler built some mighty fine highways, without qualifying that the writer is in no way endorsing Naziism as an acceptable ethos, will be viewed by many as some sort of endorsement. It’s sad, but it’s just the way things are.

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