A View of the Crater in 1867

The first time I took my wife to visit the Crater she was less than impressed.  If I remember correctly she said something along the following lines: “This is it?  This is what you’ve been spending your time on?”  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much.  There are a number of points in the broader history of this site that I would of liked to have visited.  Of course, to see the actual battle would have been interesting, but I also find the 1903 and 1937 reenactments to be attractive as well.  Perhaps a round of golf in the 1920s would have been enjoyable.  The only other time that I find attractive is right after the war.  From all the reports I’ve read the battlefield was still an absolute mess, littered with weapons, bones, and other signs of the horrific fight.  I’ve collected a number of accounts from various sources that are included in my manuscript, but nothing comes close to the following description from The Southern Opinion on June 29, 1867:

The crater was between twenty and twenty-five feet deep before it was closed over the dead, but now the average depth of the cavern is not more than eight feet or ten feet, with walls of slippery clay, in which has lately been discovered some valuable properties, equal in every respect to meerschaum clay.  Tim Griffith, youngest son of the proprietor, has become a very artistick worker in the material, and has taken many impressions of relicks, such as United States belt plates, the eagle, and the corps mark of Burnside’s army corps, of which great numbers were to be found.  Colonel Moore, of one of the government departments, Washington, has examined the clay, and pronounced it unequaled for modeling purposes–the best in the world.  Some visitors affirm that the clay received its moulding and adhesive qualities from the blood of the slain buried there, which assertion seems to receive some support from the fact that veins of red permeate the compost.  One fact has been demonstrated, which is undeniable, that the soil possesses great preserving qualities.  On the 30th of July, 1866, three hundred bodies were taken out of the crater, and the corpses were as perfect in flesh as the day they were consigned to the pit, two years before.  They were fresh and gory, the blood oozing from their wounds, and saturating still perfect clothing.

I have numerous accounts of bodies being re-interred into the 1930s, but nothing comes close to the descriptive quality here.  The Griffith family, which owned the land on which the battle was fought, took full advantage of public interest in the site following the war.  They kept a register book, which in 1866 alone includes the names of 8,000 visitors, which suggests that the number was even higher – a testament to its early popularity as a tourist site..  A visit to the Crater today really is a walk in the park.

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Black Confederates on Film

Well, my summer has officially started and it promises to be quite busy.  I have a couple of talks to give, a number of writing projects to finish, and somewhere in between, I need to relax and do nothing at all.  I am loathe to add anything to my plate, but I would have been foolish not to accept an invitation to be interviewed for a documentary on the history and memory of “black Confederates.”  The director of the documentary teaches at East Carolina University.

The project is in the beginning stages so I don’t have much to report.  Admittedly, I was skeptical after receiving an email from one of the director’s assistants, but a couple of phone conversations alleviated my worst fears.  My biggest concern is not having control over my interviews, specifically in terms of how they will be edited and placed in the documentary.  As you all know this is a controversial and widely misunderstood subject and the last thing that I want to see happen is my own words used to further some of the more pernicious myths.  Even with those concerns, however, I still think it would be a mistake to pass up this opportunity.

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Shelby Foote’s Greatest Hits

This is an incredibly helpful video that compiles all of Shelby Foote’s interviews from Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  I use The Civil War extensively in my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War Memory.  It is still in my mind the best Civil War documentary available.

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The Louisiana Tigers at Gettysburg

Here is my review of Scott Mingus’s excellent book, The Louisiana Tigers in the Gettysburg Campaign (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).  This review is forthcoming in Louisiana History.

Unit histories tend to fall into one of two camps.  The first one, and by far the most prominent in the field emphasizes the battles and campaigns in which the unit participated.  This should come as no surprise given the interest of most Civil War enthusiasts. By focusing on one unit the historian is able to provide a level of tactical detail that is usually absent from broader studies.  The best of the bunch may even be able to point out crucial aspects of a particular battle that work to revise our understanding of its outcome and significance.  At the same time an increasing number of historians are beginning to look beyond the battlefield exploits of individual units to questions surrounding the social, cultural, and political dynamics of the men who served together and endured the hardships of war for long significant stretches of time and away from loved ones.  For these historians, military units such as regiments and brigades reflect the communities from which they were raised and must be explored if we are to understand the experiences of individuals and the overall experiences and effectiveness of the unit.

Scott Mingus’s study of the Louisiana Tigers during the Gettysburg Campaign fits neatly into this first camp.  He offers the reader a brief history of the unit, beginning with the raising of Company B under the command of Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat in New Orleans in 1861.  Mingus briefly touches on the unit’s early history before the battalion was assigned to the First Louisiana Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Harry T. Hays in 1862.  From there it is a quick jump to the spring of 1863 following the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  Mingus does an outstanding job of following the unit on its march north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and covers the unit’s involvement in the battle of Second Winchester in great detail.  The book’s appendices include Official Reports, casualty tables, weather analysis, and a helpful chronology of the entire campaign.

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Slavery Was a Hot Topic Even Twenty Years Prior to the War

Here is a short video of this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at our local Confederate cemetery on the campus of the University of Virginia.  It’s a few blocks from my school and I bring students to the site every year.  There are over 1,000 soldiers buried here, who died in the Charlottesville hospitals during the war.  Up until a few years ago there were only a few headstones.  The local chapter of the SCV plans to place a headstone for every soldier.  By the looks of things in this video and a recent visit that I made with one of my classes it looks like they are making steady progress.

The video include a short interview with Kimberly Mauch, president of the Turner Ashby chapter, No. 184, United Daughters of the Confederacy of Winchester Virginia.  I find her level of understanding of the war and slavery to be appalling.  A transcript of the Q&A follows the video.

AS A YANKEE- WE GENERALLY ASSOCIATE THE CONFEDERACY WITH SLAVERY. IT’S HARD TO OVERCOME THAT. “I understand that. Yes, slavery was a very hot topic back then you could say, even twenty years prior to that, even, especially in the Kansas-Missouri border states, the abolitionists and all that went on out there. It was fought more- states’ rights started everything, I feel. The South wanted to do things their way and the North wanted to control that and that’s what fueled the fire for South Carolina to secede from the Union to begin with. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING IN THE UNION TODAY? “I love it.” THINGS WORKED OUT FOR THE BEST? “Who knows what it would be like? Nobody can say it would be better or worse but it’s still a great country.”

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