The Future of Petersburg National Battlefield

As I make my way through my manuscript on historical memory one last time before sending it in, I am reminded of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way we remember and commemorate the battle of the Crater.  Much of that change has taken place over the past forty years as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.  Before 1970 you would be hard pressed to find references to the story of USCTs in both written accounts and in the way the battlefield itself was interpreted.  My manuscript ends with a few reflections about the Civil War Sesquicentennial, but when I peer into the future it is this image that I see.  This is a photograph of Emmanuel Dabney, who works as a park ranger at the Petersburg National Battlefield.  He is a native of Dinwiddie County and has fully embraced its rich history.  Emmanuel has a degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and recently completed an advanced degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  If Emmanuel has his way he will spend his career educating the public at PNB.

In many ways, Emmanuel is a big part of the story that I tell about the Crater.  On the one hand, the fact that he is African American situates him at a crucial moment in the overall life of the battlefield and our broader understanding of the Civil War.  At the same time Emmanuel has been a huge help to me throughout the research and writing process.  Even this past weekend he helped to track down information about one of the Crater’s wayside markers.  One of the joys of working on this project has been the opportunity to meet people, like Emmanuel, who share my passion for history and education.

[Photograph from Petersburg Progress-Index]

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On This 146th Anniversary of the Battle of the Crater…

I am pleased to report that I have a completed manuscript.  Over the next few days I need to run through and check the endnotes.  More importantly, my wife needs to read through the entire manuscript with the critical eye that she brings to everything I write.  No doubt, Michaela will find some things that I need to address.  The plan is to send the manuscript back to the publisher by Wednesday followed by what I would like to think is a well-deserved vacation. How I got here:

  • “William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History,” [Essay completed for Robert Kenzer's Research Seminar at the University of Richmond, 2003].
  • “‘On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame:’ Confederates Remember the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903,” in Southern Historian 25 (2004): 18-39.
  • “The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory, 1864-1937,” [M.A. Thesis, University of Richmond, 2005].
  • “William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History,” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 113 (2005): 379-412.
  • “‘The Earth Seemed to Tremble’: Confederate Reactions to the Battle of the Crater,” in America’s Civil War (May 2006): 22-28.
  • “The Battle of the Crater, National Reunion, and the Creation of the Petersburg National Military Park, 1864-1937,” in Virginia Social Science Journal 41 (2006): 13-34.
  • “‘Is There Not Glory Enough To Give Us All a Share?’: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the Battle of the Crater,” in Aaron Sheehan-Dean ed., The View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 227-248.
  • “‘Until Every Negro Has Been Slaughtered’: Did Southerners See the Battle of the Crater as a Slave Rebellion?” in Civil War Times (October 2010): 32-37.

This has been a long and, at times, draining process.  In all honesty, this project should have been completed two years ago and a few people have even been critical of me for not publishing a book sooner.  Hopefully, the extra time spent and the critical feedback received on previous publications have improved the overall ms.  One thing I’ve learned is that writing history that is meant to contribute to the scholarly community is a joint effort and a matter of meeting high standards.  We shall see if this final version meets those standards.  For now I just want to enjoy the feeling of not having the weight of this project bearing down on me.

[Note: ms. length is not quite as long as above image]

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The Intersection of Historical Memory, Hollywood, and Commercialism

This full-page advertisement appeared in the February 1991 issue of Ebony magazine.  There was clearly a resurgence of interest in the history of black Civil War soldiers following the release of Glory. Numerous articles/reviews of the movie can be found in Ebony and Jet magazines.

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Tim Lewis’s “Great Lie”

Apparently, Tim Lewis lives here in the Charlottesville are, but I have never heard of him. In this video, Lewis offers his own understanding of Civil War memory as it relates to slavery and a poem, “The Great Lie.” The poem is from his book, The Virginiad: 400 Years of Virginia History in Poetry.  Make of it what you will.

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George Washington Williams’s Crater

One of the most important sources within the early historiography of the early black counter-memory of the Civil War and the Crater is George Washington Williams’s, A History of the Negro Troops in The War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1888).  Williams benefited from publication of the Official Records and includes entire reports to supplement the narrative.  [Click here for a short biographical sketch.]  A History of the Negro Troops is an incredibly detailed history of black volunteers that covers all of the major engagements from the Civil War in which they were involved.  Williams discusses discrimination in the army, the difficult relationship between enlisted men and white officers, as well as their performance on the battlefield.  Along the way Williams takes every opportunity to wax poetic about the significance of his subject:

The part enacted by the Negro in the war of the Rebellion is the romance of North American history.  It was midnight and noonday without a space between; from the Egyptian darkness of bondage to the lurid glare of civil war; from clanking chains to clashing arms; from passive submission to the cruel curse of slavery to the brilliant aggressiveness of a free soldier; from a chattel to a person; from the shame of degradation to the glory of military exaltation; and from deep obscurity to fame and martial immortality.  No one in this era of fraternity and Christian civilization will grudge the Negro soldier these simple annals of his trials and triumphs in a holy struggle for human liberty.  Whatever praise is bestowed upon his noble acts will be sincerely appreciated, whether from former foes or comrades in arms.  For by withholding just praise they are not enriched, nor by giving are they thereby impoverished.  (xiii-xiv)

On the Crater

At the critical moment, when the enemy could not only hold this opening in his works, but threatened to sweep through and rout Meade, the Black Division was ordered to charge and gain the crest beyond the crater.  Three veteran white divisions had been hurled back in confusion, but these Negro troops were sent forward to contend with an infuriated, brave, and numerous foe.  They were gallantly led, and nobly followed where duty and devotion were terribly tested…. They had borne themselves with conspicuous gallantry, and having done all that was required of them were withdrawn to their works….(249) The Negro soldiers’ valor was, after this engagement, no more questioned than his loyalty, and the reputation secured at such a high price was kept untarnished to the end of the campaign. (250)

What I find interesting is that Williams does not reference the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle.  Based on the sources utilized for his study it is clear that he was aware of it.  Perhaps Williams wanted to keep the focus on the bravery and manliness of the men, which would have been lost with descriptions of helplessness at the hands of angry Confederates.  I am going to have to give it some more thought.

Of course, I refer to Williams in my manuscript, but it is sad to think of just how much of what I have collected over the past few years will not make it into the book.  Oh well, I guess that is what the blog is for.

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