Newt Gingrich Pushes For Monument at the Crater Battlefield

Mahone's Counterattack by Don Troiani

Well, not really.  It looks like a reporter for the Petersburg Progress-Index just finished reading Newt’s Civil War novel on the battle and decided to follow up on a call to place a monument to United States Colored Troops, who fought at the Crater. Gingrich and his co-author, William Forstchen wrote in their afterward that the staff at the Petersburg National Battlefield,

are delighted to work with us to fulfill a long-held dream of ours to see a monument placed on the site of the Crater in memory of the thousands of USCTs who fought on that field. As far as we can have been able to find out, not a single battlefield monument to any USCT regiment exists on ground they fought for. We hope to rectify this long-overdue honor and acknowledgment.

Of course, anyone who has actually taken the time to visit Petersburg knows that there is a monument to black soldiers at the site of their successful assaults on the city, which took place in June 1864.  It’s hard to know what to make of their supposed “long-held dream” given that discussions between Newt’s literary agent, who happens to be his daughter and the NPS lasted only for a few months.  In short, as far as I can tell there are no serious talks to speak of here.

It seems to me that this is nothing more than a publicity stunt to suggest that the authors have taken the lead in uncovering a narrative that has supposedly been suppressed or marginalized.  If we look at the situation on the ground in Petersburg as well as recent scholarly studies nothing could be further from the truth.  While looking for monuments might be one way to gauge where we are in terms of our collective memory of the war, spend some time in Petersburg and it is clear that the story of black soldiers and African Americans generally are front and center.  This constitutes a dramatic transition in park interpretation since the 1970s.  And anyone familiar with recent studies of the battle as well as broader studies of race in the Civil War can’t help but conclude that we know more about these men than at any time in the past.

Do we need a monument to USCTs at the Crater?  I think this is a perfect example of relying on stone to arrive at some desired interpretive balance.  I do like the idea of wayside markers that trace the route that the Fourth Division took into battle.  It would be nice to have their furthest advance marked.  Than again, given the strapped budgets of many of our NPS sites I wonder if Gingrich is willing to set aside additional funds for such a project.

Whatever they decide to do at Petersburg, it goes without saying that the interpretive component of any future project will not be vetted or influenced in any way by Newt’s camp.  As I’ve said already, I have mixed feelings about their book.  On the one hand, it is nice to see a book focus on the black soldiers and Garland White, but their handling of the actual battle is a gross distortion of what occurred and why.  As I mentioned in my review of the book, Gingrich and Forstchen go out of their way to ignore the atrocities that occurred both during and especially after the battle.  They even go so far as including a scene between Lee and Mahone where the former issues specific orders that captured black men are to be treated as soldiers.

At that moment the book and I suspect their calls for a monument at the Crater leave the realm of history and enter that murky world of political posturing.  Sort of like…

It would be interesting to listen in on Gingrich trying to explain this response to Garland White.

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9 comments… add one
  • John Maass Apr 17, 2012 @ 9:10

    Related to Petersburg, Derick Stackpole of James Madison University will present “From the American Civil War to the First World War: A Comparative Study of Trench Warfare at the Battle of Petersburg and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive” on Friday, April 20 at 330 in Jackson 107 on the JMU campus. The Regional Studies Seminar presentations are free and open to the public. Folks who wish to have more info on this can contact Dr. J. Chris Arndt, office: (540) 568-3993.

  • Michael Rodgers Dec 30, 2011 @ 4:02

    Please post this video again, calling more attention please to the reactions of the crowd to the question and to the answer. The crowd reactions demonstrate where we are currently in South Carolina, which says a lot.

    • Andy Hall Dec 30, 2011 @ 8:20

      Hey, Michael.

      Gingrich’s answer is politically pitch-perfect for a South Carolina GOP audience (“too small for a republic. . . .”). Any answer that is a variation on “states’ rights” is going to get that reaction, and that would be exactly the reaction in my state, as well.

      I suppose it is good to have him on the record explicitly opposing slavery. 😉

      But as an expression of policy, his answer is, as Bill Maher would say, not wrong. It is an issue that should be decided by the people of South Carolina through their elected officials, as happened in 2000 when a compromise was reached to take it off the State House and move it to the monument on the grounds. Neither “side” in that debate was really satisfied, as I understand, but that’s the nature of compromise.

      It’s too bad that the audience member gave him an open-ended question about the flag, she should have framed it as calling for a flat yes or no response. His actual answer, I’m sure, would have been identical, but it would at least have been more obvious to all that he’d ducked the question.

      I’d be surprised if many South Carolinians are actually riled up about that issue one way or another, but as with all things Confederate, a relatively small group of folks make a lot of noise. It doesn’t really matter though; Ron Paul is their man regardless.

      It sure would’ve been interesting to have Cain still in the race; considering the angry blowback he got when he made a relatively mild criticism of the name of the hunting camp Rick Perry’s family used for years, it’s a real minefield out there, and the True Southrons™ (and the more rabid elements of the GOP base generally) are doing their preferred candidates no great favors by pushing them to adopt positions that they will have to walk back or disavow later in the general election. It’s a common theme among Southrons about how this or that politician has “betrayed” them by reversing himself on some Confederate heritage issue. (Rick Perry became the latest example of this, when he refused to support the proposed SCV license plate here. Perry’s reputation as a pro-Southron politician is based entirely on statements made more than a decade ago about restoring some UDC plaques to a state building, when the decision didn’t actually rest with him; in more than ten years years as governor he’s done nothing that I know of to justify their support.) What they, like hard-core single-issue voters of all political persuasions, miss is that by demanding that the candidates tow the line on issues like this, they’re doing themselves more harm that good by forcing their candidates to adopt positions that simply don’t appeal to the general electorate.

  • Lyle Smith Dec 29, 2011 @ 6:10

    There should be a monument constructed at Port Hudson… and somewhere on it it is probably going to have to say “before Fort Wagner and the Crater”.

    More power to Gingrich if he can help create a monument for these guys. The National Park Service could then interpret it for the public for years to come.

    I think Gingrich would publicly support raising the money privately to build such a monument. It could be a great project.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 7:22

      Like I said, I am definitely not against new monuments and Port Hudson would definitely be on my short list of appropriate places for one. I have no doubt that Gingrich could lead the charge to raise the necessary private funds, but the real work of interpretation is being carried out by a federal agency. You want to impress me with wanting to preserve the memory of these men, then support increasing their budget.

      As far as I can tell the talks between the two parties were not very serious.

      • Lyle Smith Dec 29, 2011 @ 9:13

        Yeah, I’m definitely pro-National Park Service. Expanding their budget is not an easy thing to do though when there isn’t enough budget to go around… especially so during an economic malaise. However, I would love to see continued private fundraising for the NPS to supplement what the Congress already allocates. Encouraging donations, etc…

        I’d like to think I’d support expanding the NPS’s budget, but when the economy is in a trough… it may not be the best thing to do. To each their own though.

    • David Woodbury Dec 29, 2011 @ 10:00

      One of the lovely things about Port Hudson — which is a state park — is the lack of monumentation. It stands in stark contrast to Vicksburg, up the road, where monuments dot the landscape in every direction. Both parks are moving in their own way, but it’s nice (in my humble opinion) that not all battlefields are covered with memorials. That said, I think they do cover the USCT well in their fine visitor’s center.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 10:04

        Nice to hear from you, David.

        The publication of their novel is itself a reflection of just how far we’ve come in our understanding of USCTs and the African American experience in the Civil War.

      • Lyle Smith Dec 29, 2011 @ 10:37

        You make an excellent point about the lack of monumentation at Port Hudson and elsewhere.

        A good spot for a proposed monument at Port Hudson may not actually be on park property, but on private land along the four lane state highway that the entrance of the park is off of. More people would see it and frequently, and it would still be on ground that was part of the siege. If there is never any monumentation, that’s probably okay too.

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