Embracing the Safety of Reconciliation in Petersburg
Here is the link to the commemoration ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. The event was organized by the National Park Service and held on the Crater battlefield this past July 30. A nice size crowd attended the event and I was quite impressed by the number of African Americans who were in the audience. Yes, that fact bears mentioning if you’ve spent enough time at these events. Overall, the speakers did a good job and there were a few highlights for me, but overall the speakers struck a reconciliationist tone that avoided the tough questions that the anniversary of this particular battle raises.
The focus of the ceremony was the unveiling of the United States Postal Service’s commemorative stamps for 1864, which included an image of USCTs charging Confederate earthworks on June 15, 1864. In fact, the service of African Americans was front and center throughout the ceremony, but at times there was a conscious effort to avoid the really hard questions associated with their presence at the Crater. Superintendent Lewis Rogers’s thoughtful speech touched on the pain of growing up without a strong identification with the nation’s history and even the principles for which it stands. He talked eloquently about the importance of finding stories in history and popular culture that reflect your own racial identity and that help to foster a strong emotional identification with the broader country’s values. Lewis’s words struck a reconciliationist tone with the racially mixed audience. It was an eloquent speech, but it avoided the tough questions of what happened on that hot July day.
Historian Jimmy Blankenship was given the task of outlining the battle in ten minutes. Jimmy did as good a job as can be expected under such conditions, but what stood out to me was the effort he made to explain away the massacre of black Union soldiers at the Crater. He emphasized that it wasn’t the only massacre of the Civil War and even went out of his way to make a connection with the Second World War, which I still don’t understand. The keynote address by Colonel Paul Brooks from Fort Lee didn’t touch on the battle at all and instead offered what can only be described as a commercial for the United States military today.
The intention (intended or not) was clear: let’s not offend or upset anyone. I appreciate that commemorative ceremonies are tricky and perhaps there were mitigating factors specific to Petersburg that shaped the program. Park employees did talk about the racial aspects of the battle during the tours of the battlefield, but the ceremony itself offered a unique opportunity to ask a racially mixed audience to step out of the comfort zones briefly to reflect on the nature of the violence witnessed that day. I can’t help but think that it was a missed opportunity.