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.

Of course, you can judge for yourself if you choose to watch the program. My talk in Petersburg will air on C-SPAN on Wednesday, August 20 at 10:09pm.

19 responses... add one

I noticed the same thing, Kevin. It struck me how many speakers mentioned the confederacy fighting for states rights and nobody said they were fighting to preserve slavery. I thought Brooks’ address was awful. If it was a commercial, he should have gotten some advice from the Public Affairs Officer.

Doesn’t spark confidence when you admit to your audience at the beginning that you don’t know much of anything about the event that is being commemorated.

Haven’t watched the ceremony yet, but sounds almost exactly like the modes, roles and themes of what I heard at Manassas in 2011.

Hi John,

I don’t want to be entirely dismissive here. As I said in the post, I don’t have any access to the range of factors that shape the planning and execution of these types of ceremonies. There are people in Petersburg who are very defensive about any mention of the racial aspect of the battle and the tough questions associated with it. I like to think that my talk provides a useful counterpoint and park rangers did discuss it during their tours.

Can I push a little here, Kevin?

Just because there are people who are defensive about mentioning race and its unquestionable role within the battle landscape there doesn’t mean it should be dodged. Ever. In fact, I’d posit that if there are people who don’t want to confront the “tough questions,” or as I’m more apt to put it, simple discomfort, there are signs of a wound that needs dressing, healing and care. To not discuss things just because they’re tough could, no… will lead to further festering.

I’m glad they had you, Emmanuel, Brooks and a few other folks in the mix to help confront the discomfort with the raw historical truth. I’m just not a fan of the, “if you want to confront that truth, you can head over there to discuss it,” school of thought. It feels like a form of ghettoization or balkanization, a way to help those who want to avoid a conversation with the truth of American society today to walk on by.

I’m beginning to mull over the idea that Jesse Jackson Jr. was wrong; we don’t need to discuss the cause and context of the war in our museum exhibits and films – we need to discuss the cause and context, the stakes, pervasively within everything we do in the resource we’ve chosen to preserve because it is such a powerful meaning making tool. In essence, he didn’t go nearly far enough in the least with the “Hold the High Ground” initiative.

If these ideas that led to the war are the central questions of the war’s combat, they need to be the central questions of all those moments we choose to discuss this war and its combat. The focus might shift from macro to micro, sharp to soft, but if they’re not there at the center of the whole discussion (and not just an avoidable element of it) we are blatantly dodging discomfort.

OK, I’ll drag my soapbox back over to my own street corner now. I know I’m a radical among radicals. Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. ;-)

Hi John,

I really appreciate the follow up. We pretty much see eye to eye on these issues. There are ways to pull the superficial surface back and address the tough questions in a way that leads to serious reflection. In my view, these events ought to make us feel just a little uncomfortable. The NPS is going to commemorate a number of smaller battles during the Petersburg Campaign, but everyone knows that the Crater was the big opportunity.

When you say people in Petersburg are defensive about the racial aspect, are you referring to the city’s residents 80% of who are black or to the NPS folks or to some other folks.

I think I had in mind a relatively small group of white residents, but there is enough defensiveness and mistrust to go around. The NPS in Petersburg has done an excellent job of reaching out to the community, which you noted is predominantly black, but there is still a certain level of mistrust. It’s going to take time and any meaningful progress in connecting the community to its past is going to be built on continued economic improvement.

You are asking for something very difficult, I think—to openly discuss some very tough and touchy issues at a public event organized as a commemoration. To do it right you would essentially have to cast aspersions on the host city’s historical view of itself. I can see the headlines—”NPS event insults Petersburg’s history”. That is just not going to happen. What can happen, and I suspect did, is for some reflection on the less fortunate events during other events of the day or surrounding days. I’m sure you touched on the salient issues in your talk.

You are asking for something very difficult, I think—to openly discuss some very tough and touchy issues at a public event organized as a commemoration.

Yes and I certainly don’t want to minimize some of the difficulties involved. That said, I’ve seen it done at other parks. I also don’t want to make this sound as if it was a complete failure. Superintendent Lewis’s comments are well worth serious reflection.

So, I watched the 150th on CSpan and I was struck by James Blankenship’s presentation. I realize he had a short time to present. Although he said that he had “ten minutes”, he actually spoke for 17 minutes and 25 seconds, but that is a relatively short time.

However, he spent a lot of time on some things, and very little time on others.

Here is my breakdown of the speech with the minute markers and the total time spent on each subject in parenthesis (minutes:seconds):

“Hello” and “too little time” to give an adequate presentation- 39:00-39:25 (00:25)
Weeks Prior to Mine-39:25-39:50
Planning and Digging The Mine-39:50-41:00 (01:10)
Plan of Attack and Confederate Dispositions-41:00-42:50 (01:50)
The Explosion-42:50-44:00 (01:10)
The Initial Union Assault-44:00-44:30 (00:30)
Mahone’s Counterattack and Ferrero’s Advance-44:30-50:40 (06:10)
Native Americans Fighting Native Americans-50:40-51:40 (01:00)
The Aftermath of the Crater (Gore and Casualties)-51:40-54:30 (02:50)
Killing After Surrender-54:30-55:20 (00:50)
Conclusion and Farewell-55:20-56:25 (01:05)

I am transcribing Blankenship’s remarks on the killings after surrender and I will post them next.

Here is my transcript of James Blankenship’s full remarks on the killing of blacks after surrender at the Battle of The Crater:

“Now, in most Civil War battles people who surrendered, some of them do get killed after they surrender, it happens all the time. It happened here. Some of the African Americans were killed after they surrendered. Killing the enemy soldiers after they surrendered though is more common than you think. Both sides did it. All races did it. It happened at least at four other battles during the Siege of Petersburg. It happened on June 15, the first day of fighting. It happened here at the Crater. It happened on September 29 at Fort Archer. It happened again at Fort Gregg on April 2. So, it happens in all wars. You hear about the Germans killing Americans after they surrendered, well one of my distant cousins was over there in World War II and he said they weren’t the only ones doing it. The Americans did it too.”

When I get a chance later, I will offer a few comments on these 50 seconds of the 17 minute and 25 second speech.

One of the first things that struck me is that James Blankenship never describes the executions. These are the only two instances where he even mentions them:

“Some of the African Americans were killed after they surrendered” and “It happened here at the Crater.”

These were the only two site-specific mentions of the killing of blacks trying to surrender at the Crater. There were mentions of the killing of people at other places and other times, but these were the only mentions of the killing of blacks at The Crater in his discussion of that topic.

James Blankenship spends most of the brief time he devotes to the executions insisting that American soldiers often execute prisoners. “It happens all the time”, was his description.

It occurs to me that he could have inserted the same line into every section of his talk. Generals planned the battle “it happens all the time”; men march across a battlefield “it happens all the time”; men get killed in combat “it happens all the time”, yet the only time he uses the phrase is in the segment of his speech regarding the killing of blacks. In fact in the other segments of his speech he presents evidence for the uniqueness of the plan, the battle, and the suffering. That, frankly, is what I am used to hearing from an NPS historian at a site.

I still don’t understand the purpose behind this short overview of the battle. If audience members were interested they should have taken advantage of the tours being offered that day.

My concern with JB’s discussion of the massacre of black soldiers was that it was framed around around the goal of explaining it away rather than offering remarks about why it should be remembered and how. The message conveyed is that there is nothing to learn about the massacre of black soldiers or anyone else for that matter because it happened elsewhere. But the job of a (public) historian is to explain it and in a way that infuses meaning into the event in question.

James Blankenship words seemed to be deracializing the killings after surrender. He says:

“Killing the enemy soldiers after they surrendered though is more common than you think. Both sides did it. All races did it.”

It appears from this that those Confederates killing blacks were meting out the same treatment to blacks as they would to their white enemies. This was simply not the case as primary sources from both Union and Confederate soldiers and officers demonstrate.

In addition, Mr. Blankenship himself says that of the 504 Union soldiers killed, 430 were black. 85% of Union dead were black, according to Mr. Blankenship.

Finally, while Mr. Blankenship offers a large number of primary source quotations of the gore of battle, some so graphic that he warns the audience in advance, he does not offer any quotes from primary source material from Confederates which indicates quite clearly that they intended to execute blacks. This would have been powerful and it would have allowed the Confederates to speak for themselves. If he wanted to also offer primary sources describing some USCT as saying “No Quarter” that might also have been appropriate.

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