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.