Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.
Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences.
There was one planned to mark the 100th anniversary, but as I speculate in the book, it is likely that event organizers did not want to deal with the fallout of distorting the racial element of the battle at a time when Petersburg was very much on the front lines of the civil rights movement. What about 50 years later?
Would you consider a reenactment of the Crater as part of the 150th commemoration to be an appropriate form of commemoration? Would a realistic recreation of the explosion followed by the close hand-to-hand fighting between Union and Confederate soldiers honor those that died and survived this battle? Now let’s add into the mix Edward Ferrero’s “colored” Fourth Division. Would you consider a carefully choreographed reenactment of their involvement, including the massacre (both during and after the battle) of unknown numbers of these men at the hands of enraged Confederates, to be appropriate? What about the forced march of black and white Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the following day? Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that a small number of black prisoners ended up in the hands of local slaveowners. All of this is part of the battle.
If there is educational value in watching a recreation of the battle of Gettysburg from the sidelines I assume the same can be said for the Crater. Or can it? I wonder whether we are perhaps more comfortable staging the more popular type of battle that is heavy on the movement of troops in formation over open fields as opposed to the messiness of Petersburg. On top of that we have the highly volatile issue of race to add into the mix.
I would feel very uncomfortable and for the same reasons that I expressed yesterday with watching such an event play out before my eyes. What do you think?