I received my author copies of the most recent issue of Civil War Times magazine, which includes my feature story on the Crater, so I assume it is now available at your local newsstand. A few days ago Dana Shoaf passed on an email and asked me to respond for the next issue. It’s an interesting comment and one that I suspect others have struggled with.
I was very disappointed in Kevin M. Levin’s article on the execution of black Union soldiers by the Confederate Army after the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg siege. Mr. Levin gives quite a good accounting that explains the motivation of the Confederate troops. However, he utterly fails to differentiate between explanation and excuse. The Confederate troops perpetrated a war crime, as there is no other way to describe the wanton murder of captured American soldiers in uniform. As such, these Confederates join the ranks of the German SS troops who murdered American prisoners at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge and those Japanese soldiers who did the same on countless occasions to captured Americans in the Pacific Theatre. I fail to see any difference between these incidents. I can only imagine the disgust felt by your African-American readers; mine is fairly high.
PS: I view slave revolts as the legitimate right of the enslaved.
Thanks to Jack for the thoughtful response to my essay. The reader criticizes me for failing to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse in my analysis of why Confederates massacred black Union soldiers at the Crater. While the essay received a positive assessment for the explanation offered, this reader was left with the impression that I had excused the actions of Confederates at the Crater. Nothing could be further from the truth. My essay was intended as an explanation of what happened and why and should not be interpreted in any way as condoning or condemning what took place. Such conclusions and/or comparisons with related incidents from other wars are best left to the readers of this essay. That said, I suggest that this reader runs the risk of obscuring the complexity of historic events by reducing the killing of black Union soldiers to the murder of American soldiers by foreign soldiers. I consider this article a success if it assists readers in better understanding the nature of fighting at the Crater in July 1864. Finally, it may be helpful to point out that this article is part of a much larger project on the Crater and historical memory, titled, Remembering Murder As War: The Battle of the Crater.
One of the highlights of my time in Boston was meeting 54th Massachusetts reenactor, Gerard Grimes. The monument to the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is by far my favorite Civil War monument and no trip to Boston can conclude without a quick stop. The site is a wonderful case study of just how far removed the memory of black Union soldiers is from our national memory of the war. On the one hand, the monument is in the most prominent location, just across from the state house, but for many people it seems to have little significance beyond a bus stop. Michaela and I chatted with Mr. Grimes for quite some time. He’s been reenacting for a number of years and spends his summers camped out in front of the monument to talk with visitors. During the rest of the year, Mr. Grimes works as a grade school teacher. Not surprisingly, Mr. Grimes knew nothing about this monument as a child growing up in the Boston area. In fact, he chuckled when suggesting the number of times he must have walked by it without understanding its significance.
Mr. Grimes clearly feels a moral obligation to educate the public about what is still a little known topic in American history. And the best part is watching his face light up when discussing the history or perhaps I should say his history.
I am sitting in the Philadelphia Airport waiting for my flight to C-Ville. My wife and I spent the past nine days in Boston and Bar Harbor, Maine. We had an amazing time. The food was wonderful and the weather in Maine was a nice relief from the heat and humidity of Virginia. Bar Harbor was a bit too touristy for my taste, but the beautiful walks in Acadia National Park more than made up for it. Best of all I got to spend quality time with my best friend.
I feel relaxed and ready to finish two small writing projects before heading back into the classroom. This has been a great summer all around.
The manuscript is now on its way to the publisher and I couldn’t be more pleased. I don’t really have a sense of how long the wait will be given that what I sent back today is a revised manuscript. My guess is that the publisher will send it out to one of the reviewers before making a decision. Regardless of what decision is made it is nice to bring this phase of my research to a close. The timing was perfect. Back in January I decided to order a new bass from Sadowsky Guitars. Roger Sadowsky has been making basses for some of the top players since the 1970s and his preamps totally rock. It was an expensive investment, but with a 6-month waiting time (mid-June/July) I thought it might be a nice gift to myself on the completion of the manuscript. Well, don’t you know the bass took longer than expected to complete as did my manuscript. As if things couldn’t get any better, today the company forwarded me a couple of pics of my new Ultra-Vintage ’70s Metro. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
As you might expect I am going to take a little break from blogging for about ten days. To be honest, I don’t want to read or think about the Civil War during that time. I am hoping to begin the next book, which I’ve tentatively titled, Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory, very soon. The first thing I am going to do is begin work on the article about Silas Chandler with his great granddaughter. This is going to be the perfect jumping off point for the larger project. Our goal is not to use the Chandler story to debunk the kinds of claims that are all too prevalent Online, but to demonstrate that these stories are much more complicated and interesting than what is typically asserted. We have a wealth of documentation about Chandler and it shows that almost nothing that you’ve read is accurate. If, however, we succeed in throwing light on the quality of research that goes into just about every example through a close look at Chandler then so be it.
Since I won’t be posting for two weeks I thought I might issue a little challenge. I would like you to share any references you may have come across in archival collections or printed wartime sources authored by Confederate soldiers discussing their black comrades in arms. Please don’t waste my time with pension records and other postwar sources. I’ve been reading accounts for close to 10 years and I’ve never come across an example where a soldier refers to a black comrade. For those of you convinced that I am out to destroy all things sacred this is your chance to stick it to me and teach me something new. And in the process you will help me write a better book on the subject. Remember, I am not looking for accounts that reference laborers or servants. We’re talking about legitimate black Confederate soldiers. Good luck.
Thanks again to all of you who helped with suggesting a title for my Crater book. It needed something that conveyed the overall theme of race and memory without coming off as too academic. As I mentioned to a friend last night, I want this book to appeal to folks who rarely look at anything beyond a stiff interpretation of Gettysburg. Here are a few more titles that friends have suggested: “Big Hole in the Ground,” “A Change in the Landscape: Race, Politics, and Memory at the Battle of the Crater,” “Crawling From the Wreckage,” “The Crater of Race,” and “Lies White People Tell.” My wife suggested that I call it, “First in Flight: A Southern History of a Different Kind”.
After serious consideration I decided to go with, “Murder Remembered as War: The Battle of the Crater”. Thanks to Peter Carmichael for the suggestion. It’s relatively short, to the point, and I like that it completely avoids the academic jargon. My wife is finishing proofreading the ms. in time for delivery tomorrow.