The other day I blogged briefly about a disagreement over a reference I made to a “real
Kevin Levin has selected an excellent subject to study Civil War memory. Among other things, the battle of the Crater marked the first time that units in the Army of Northern Virginia fought (and massacred) United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). Levin insightfully explains how the presence of black soldiers signified everything that Confederates fought for and against without excusing the atrocity. His analysis of the career of Gen. William Mahone, the Confederate hero of the Crater, may be Levin’s greatest contribution. As leader of the biracial Readjuster Party after Reconstruction, Mahone threatened white supremacy and the Lost Cause myth. Levin shows how postwar Virginians’ memories of the Crater not only pitted whites against blacks and northerners against southerners but also former Confederates against each other at a time when political divisions fractured the state. Tracing the memory of the battle into the twentieth century, Levin describes the rise of white memory and efforts, since the civil rights movement, to add a black counter- memory to scholarship and site interpretation. Public historians in particular will benefit from this book.
Despite its laser focus on the memory of a single battle, the book misses important aspects of its subject. Following David Blight’s thesis, Levin insists that the presence of racism explains the absence of race in memories of the Crater. Prejudice has always shaped Civil War memory, but a persuasive argument for the absence of race must recognize the presence of other elements that overshadowed it. Simply put, the Crater has always meant more than racial warfare. For starters, it was called the Crater for a reason. The battle displayed the awesome and ingenious use of explosives and how ruinous they could be to the earth. Even during the battle, men stopped to gawk at the spectacle of destruction and collect souvenirs. Levin discusses how the explosion scarred Petersburg’s landscape in ways that attracted tourists but obstructed progress in a place that was eager to bury traces of war. More research in this direction could have engaged recent environmental histories of the conflict. The battle also symbolized incompetent military leadership. Levin hardly mentions the fact that the officer in charge of the assault, Brig. Gen. James Ledlie, and the division commander of the U.S.C.T. regiments, Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, stayed behind to drink brandy in a bombproof. Their dereliction framed how many Americans remembered the colossal failure: the Union brass wasted hundreds of lives and a golden opportunity to end the war. This memory would have been more apparent if Levin had studied how most Union veterans remembered the battle. He stresses the disappearance of black Union troops in historical memory while contributing to the disappearance of white Union soldiers in historiography—a problem that historian Gary Gallagher has recently noted. Black units constituted only 21 percent of the Union force engaged at the Crater. How did 79 percent of the Union troops at the Crater remember the event?
Levin provides passing references to white Union veterans attending reunions at Petersburg, but he does not analyze how these men and their communities recalled the debacle. A military court of inquiry into the disaster generated testimonies that constitute the first “official” memory of the Crater, but Levin does not interpret these sources either. When he studies the Crater’s centennial, he predictably envelopes the event within the civil rights movement but misses how the Cold War also shaped public memory of the battle. Levin notes that the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce created a centennial brochure that marked the site as the “birthplace of total war,” but he does not consider what that idea meant to people who recently experienced the Cuban missile crisis (p. 114). One hundred years after the Crater, many Americans faced the same injustice that black soldiers suffered: to be murdered for supporting racial equality. Yet at the same time, every American risked the horrid death that Confederates suffered at the Crater: to be awoken before dawn by a massive, fatal explosion. This point does not diminish African American courage and memory. Instead it suggests how overlapping historical contexts can eclipse the heroism of minorities without resorting to racism.