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A Crater Narrative That Does Not Offend

The Crater by Tom Lovell

I am almost finished reading Newt Gingrich’s co-authored historical fiction on the Crater and I have to admit that it’s not half bad.  The attack has commenced and not going well.  The book is almost entirely about the 28th United States Colored Troops with Major Garland White as one of its principal characters.   There are a few scenes set in Confederate earthworks and a very short section set in Lee’s headquarters following the explosion, but the rest of it focuses on the black soldiers with the help of a fictional character by the name of James Reilly, who works as a sketch artist.

Even without having finished the book, what is clear is that Gingrich and Forstchen do everything they can not to offend, which is quite an achievement given the nature of the subject.  Let me just give you one example.  All of you have read that the Fourth Division went into the battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  That reference appears twice in the battle sequence, but take a look at how it is framed by the authors:

There was no quarter.  The pent-up rage, the insanity of a world that had driven them to this moment, was unleashed, both sides screaming “No quarter, no prisoners! as they shot , cut, and slashed at each other. [p. 259]

Both sides were screaming foul oaths of hatred and rage.  Centuries of slavery and the cruelty and fear it engendered, combined with three years of bitter war with no end in sight, unleashed a pent-up fury on this day as both sides screamed: No quarter, no prisoners!” [p. 266]

They certainly were, but we also know based on the historical record that the black troops screamed, “Remember Fort Pillow.”  That, of course, is conveniently left out as is pretty much any reference to the racial hatred that animated Confederate troops during the battle.  There is a context for understanding cries of “No quarter” that animated the black men in blue that is crucial to this history.  They knew what was at stake if captured.  The same holds true for Confederates who faced the attack of the black troops as well as those who heard about it.  Their rage took a specific form that had its roots in white supremacy and fears associated with slave rebellions that extended back into the antebellum period.  Unfortunately, it looks like this theme will continue to be ignored in what remains of the book.  More later.

Silas Chandler Makes the Cover of Civil War Times

Civil War Times (February 2012)

I just received my author copies of the latest issue of Civil War Times, which should hit newsstands any day now.  As you can see Silas Chandler made the cover.  I love the fact that he is pictured alone and out from behind the shadow of Andrew Chandler.   It’s powerful.  Kudos to whoever made this decision.  What Myra Chandler Sampson and I tried to do in this short article was tell as much of the story from Silas’s perspective as possible rather than the mythical story that has come to dominate popular memory.  That narrative’s treatment of Silas as a loyal slave and/or soldier is little more than a self-serving attempt to ignore or minimize the place of slavery and race in the Confederate war.  He has a much more interesting story to tell if we are only willing to listen.

Myra and I want to thank Dana Shoaf and the rest of the editorial staff for their hard work and for their agreeing to take on this manuscript.  I have no doubt that their inboxes will be flooded in a matter of weeks.  I can already anticipate the reaction.  This is my third feature article in CWT in the last year and I have nothing but the highest praise for the work they do.  Finally, congratulations to Civil War Times on this their 50th anniversary.  Included in this issue are articles by Harold Holzer, Scott Patchan, and Jacqueline G. Campbell.  They also published an essay by Glenn Tucker on James Longstreet that originally appeared in their very first issue, which I think is a great idea.

Newt Gingrich’s Crater

Update: After hearing from one of my readers I decided to pick up a copy of the book and write a detailed review for a major publication. Stay tuned.

One of my readers was kind enough to forward a review of Newt Gingrich’s new co-authored book, The Battle of the Crater: A Novel.  I am not a fan of Mother Jones, but the review is actually quite interesting and clearly reflects that politicization of one of the most racially significant battles of the Civil War.  No, I have not read the book and I don’t have any intention of doing so.  Consider the following:

The novel is intended in part to honor the black regiments that saw action at the Crater and help correct the narrative that says they cost the North the battle. (In fact, they nearly won it.) But in correcting one narrative, it whitewashes another, because none of the rebels we meet in Crater carry with them much animus to black soldiers. The only Confederate we see in any level of depth is a former journalist who, as a matter of principle, never owned any slaves. Our rebel points out, accurately, that not all black POWs were murdered—but that’s sort of splitting hairs when you consider that battlefield accounts describe white Confederates bashing in the skulls of surrendering and wounded black soldiers “like eggshells.”

I guess this is just what one would expect when the goal is to attract the African American community while at the same time not alienating white constituents, who are not likely to be interested in reading about how Confederates responded to the presence of an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  It’s not as if the authors didn’t have access to archival records; in fact, I came across the “eggshell” reference more than once in the course of my own research.

The significance of the battle for Confederates (both slave and non-slaveowners alike) has everything to do with its racial aspect.  Even a cursory glance at the archival record demonstrates that they did not make any effort to conceal what they did and why.  They wanted their loved ones back home to understand just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat.  It’s not just Confederate attitudes that appear to be ignored, but by Union soldiers as well.  Their response to the participation of the 4th Division was mixed as opposed to the consensus achieved by Confederates, but you can find plenty of blame and racial invective hurled in their direction.  [Of course, I go into great detail about all of this in my forthcoming book on the Crater.]

How far will Newt and Forstchen go to tailor a story to meet the demands of a presidential campaign?

Instead, the authors veer in the other direction. Gingrich and Forstchen even craft an imaginary scene in which General Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Southern honor, instructs his subordinates to make clear that black soldiers at Petersburg are to be treated like any other opponent. But there’s no historical evidence that Lee gave any instruction of the sort. Nor did Lee intervene in the immediate aftermath, when his army pushed to return black POWs to their former masters.

Even in the world of historical fiction this takes things way off the deep end.  There is no exaggeration in the passage quoted above.  At no point did Lee intervene in the immediate wake of the battle when it is likely that the largest number of black soldiers were massacred nor did he attempt to prevent the return of prisoners to former masters.  Why?  Because in the wake of emancipation and a protracted defense of a civilian population in Petersburg the July 30 battle reaffirmed nightmarish images of defeat at the hands of armed black men.

I guess none of this helps much in Newt’s presidential bid.

The Confederacy, Southern Unionists, and Civil Liberties

This video is part of the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point.”  It tackles the complex subject of southern unionists and the protection of civil liberties during wartime.  Questions surrounding civil liberties often come up in reference to the steps Lincoln took at various points during the war, but rarely comes up in the context of the Confederacy.  It’s nice to see the VHS tackling these subjects and for a short clip I think it does so effectively.  What do you think?

The best book on the subject is Mark Neely’s, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (University of Virginia Press, 1999).

Acquisitions, 11/28

I have a huge stack of books that have yet to be cracked open, including the titles listed below, but I put them all on hold to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010).  It’s beautifully written and I can’t put it down.

William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, eds., Virginia at War, 1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Richard Newman and James Mueller, eds., Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

William Kauffman Scarborough, The Allstons of Chicora Wood: Wealth, Honor, and Gentility in the South Carolina Lowcountry (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green, eds., The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).