Today is the first installment of a new series called "Fridays with Jeb and Felix." Of course, Jeb and Felix (a.k.a. "The Boys") are our cats. Friday is a pretty relaxed day so the subject matter seems appropriate. I am still trying to learn my way around the digital camera, which explains the red-eye. I will eventually fix it. For some hilarious photos of cats in sinks, check out Cats in Sinks [via Rebecca Goetz]. It’s a great place to "procatinate."
My work on the Crater project is moving along, though I am still having some difficulty focusing. Today I decided that it might be worthwhile driving down to Petersburg and re-connecting with the Crater battlefield. I jumped into my car, popped in Bob Dylan’s Live 1966 and I was set. I enjoy driving alone as it gives me time to think about things and solve the world’s problems. The clouds were out, but the weather report suggested that it might clear by early afternoon. I know, I should have been more realistic. As I got closer to Richmond the clouds increased and right before Petersburg it started to rain. I didn’t really mind that it rained. The weather was cool, which made for a pleasant tramp across the battlefield.
I stopped off at the PNBP Visitors Center to pay my entrance fee and headed directly to the Crater. My first stop was the Union lines by the Taylor Ruins and Fort Morton where Ambrose Burnside made his headquarters. The view of the Crater is direct though it takes a bit of imagination to block out the trees. This first photograph is from Fort Morton looking towards the Crater.
From there I headed over the Norfolk and Petersburg R.R. – which was surveyed by William Mahone before the war – and parked next to the trail that winds over to the tunnel. Rather than head straight for the tunnel I decided to walk up the Baxter Road to where it intersects with the Jerusalem Plank Road. There is a monument to Massachusetts soldiers, who served in the Petersburg Campaign, that was erected at the turn of the century. Massachusetts veterans traveled to Petersburg, and specifically to the Crater on a number of occasions. Their close interaction with the local A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans fueled interest in preserving the battlefield for future generations that stretched beyond the Commonwealth. Right across from the monument are two guns that are positioned to represent Henry B. Flanner’s Battery which saw a great deal of action on the morning of July 30, 1864. They were situated directly behind the Crater right along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Federal units that managed to advance beyond the confines of the crater felt the full force of this particular battery. This is a photograph taken from the position of the battery and looking towards the Crater. I then walked along the Jerusalem Plank Road towards Blandford Cemetery to locate the entrance to the Covered Way that Mahone’s division used in their counterattack which took place some time around 9:00a.m. It’s not easy to find and the actual path is difficult to follow since it winds through the woods. For some reason I decided to wear sneakers and shorts today and needless to say I ruined the former. It is indeed a strange feeling to follow the route used on that particular day knowing the result of the movement. The walk was very quiet, but for the sighting of two young fawns. I came out in the shallow area that David Weisiger’s Virginia brigade used as cover while they organized their ranks. It is difficult to get a feel for the topography of the battle since the landscape was transformed dramatically following the war. The property remained in the hands of the Griffith family until it was purchased by the Crater Battlefield Association and turned into an 18-hole golf course. Here is a view of the Crater from a point just beyond where the counterattack formed. Notice the tree line on the left and you will see the shallow area that was used. Beyond that you can see another slope and the Mahone monument. I used to think that it was this further slope that was used, but that would put Mahone’s men too close to the advanced Federal units.
The Mahone monument is a fairly prominent marker on the battlefield. Visitors sometimes wonder why there aren’t more monuments, but it should be remembered that the field remained in private hands until it was incorporated into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936. While many are familiar with Mahone’s name in connection with the battle, it is important to keep in mind that his postwar political career landed him in a great deal of trouble not only with his fellow Virginians, but with members of this own command. Mahone’s Readjuster Party constituted one of the most successful bi-racial parties in the postwar South. The monument was originally supposed to be located in a more prominent location, but owing to the protests of various groups it was decided to place the monument on the battlefield. The monument is located at roughly the Virginia brigade’s right as it advanced towards the Crater. Along the path of the counterattack I veered off to the left to walk part of the Confederate line that was occupied by McAfee’s North Carolinians. Although they are covered by woods you can still make out the outline of the position.
The only part of the battlefield that I did not photograph was the actual crater. I guess if you’ve seen one hole you’ve seen them all. Not quite, but for some reason I failed to snap a shot. Sorry about that, but I am sure you can find one on the Internet somewhere. On my way out I noticed one of the NPS Rangers leading a tour so I joined to get a sense of what people walk away with. The guide focused a great deal of time on the actual digging of the tunnel – time that could have been better spent. At the actual crater the guide suggested that the soldiers who fought within its confines were not fighting for union or secession, but for their comrades. I don’t really know what to make of this. Perhaps it was an attempt to steer clear of divisive topics or offered for some kind of dramatic effect. All in all I had a great day. The weather could have been nicer, but I do feel better for having gone.
I want to add one more post to this most recent series in this on-going debate surrounding the direction and proper scope of Civil War battle studies. As to the question of the proper balance between both approaches, I really have nothing to add. There is no answer to the question; it is a false dichotomy. In the end, my interests are in not simply understanding factually more, but understanding better, and to achieve these ends you must ask a broad range of questions.
The majority of my posts on this subject have focused on what the traditional battle narrative fails to include. I thought I would take a different approach here and concentrate on what I take to be the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of the traditional narrative and why there is so much resistance to some of the new approaches that academic historians have introduced over the past few decades. I should add that these thoughts are not directed at any one group or individual. They are based on my own observations of Civil War culture.
My concerns with the traditional narrative actually have not as much to do with what they fail to include, but with the historical context that continues to fuel its popularity. I tend to see the traditional battle narrative as falling squarely within the context of postwar reunion and reconciliation. As the nation bound up its wounds and worked towards sectional reconciliation by the turn of the century, histories of the war came to reflect a growing unwillingness to engage the tough moral issues such as emancipation, race, and blame. If the participants of the war tended to see themselves on an equal moral plain with their one-time enemies and not as political beings that harbored strong political beliefs and a deep hatred, then it is not surprising that our early histories focused on a sanitized view of the battlefield. If our collective goal is to see ourselves as unified and the war as part of the inevitable march of freedom, then it is not surprising that our historians ignored the darker aspects and unresolved issues that related to the war. (In fact, many historians at the turn of the
century contributed to the disfranchisement of African Americans by ignoring their role in the story and exacerbating the racial components of the Lost
Cause.) I can see this clearly in my work on the battle of the Crater. Battles were slugfests that could be captured in all their glory and majesty without having to worry about the many political and social issues that animated the men in the ranks. Americans chose to celebrate the war and we continue to do so today. We really do want to be entertained by our Civil War. I tried to make this point in much more detail in a recent paper, “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” which was presented as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book back in March.
Gary Gallagher is fond of pointing out that most people don’t just simply want to hear the same stories, they want to hear the same stories told well. And those stories tend to satisfy our deep desire to relish in a narrative that is progressive and brings out the best in the American character. It shields us from having to acknowledge the dark underbelly of our history. Perhaps the human cost was not worth it in the end. In light of the war in Iraq, perhaps we can see more clearly that the war did not really end in 1865, but simply took on a different form. The questions that have come out of the academy have allowed me to explore the Civil War with a bit more sophistication. More importantly, it has given me a more mature understanding of how the war both reflected progress and regression for various groups. I do not want simply to be entertained by history. I want to be challenged and surprised.
I recently discovered a very interesting blog that falls very close to my own reading and research interests. The blog is called "not in memoriam, but in defense," which as many of you know is a reference to the 1930 Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. Here is a bit from Sarah’s first post:
Beginning on June 14, I will begin my
thesis research on Confederate monuments in three Southern cities: Richmond,
Stone Mountain, and the tiny town of Moulton, Alabama. From this research I hope
to understand how myths of the South have changed in recent years. Specifically,
I want to figure out how Confederate monuments have fared in cities in which
there has been a dramatic demographic shift. According to the 2000 census,
Richmond is almost 60% black. Stone Mountain, a city outside of Atlanta, is
nearly 70% black. Both of these cities are home to two of the most famous cites
of Confederate memorializing: Monument Avenue in Richmond, and the face of Stone
Entries catalog both her travels and research. You will find a link to this site with the other Civil War bloggers.
Continuing the themes expounded on in yesterday’s posts I wanted to take just a minute to make a few observations. First, I think it is safe to say that the choice between traditional or the New Military History is a false dichotomy. We can and do have first-rate studies that utilize both approaches. There is no reason to think that the questions that tend to dominate recent social and cultural histories will drown out the traditional tactical battle study. In fact, as I see it, they can only enhance this approach. Historians ask questions about the past and the range of questions asked can show us much that we did not already know and that is relevant for understanding the battlefield. In making this point, let me quote at length from Ken Noe’s excellent battle study, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. In his post from the other day Eric cited this book as an example of a traditional battle study published by an academic press. I disagree with his assessment; the book utilizes a great deal of these more recent trends in the field and is much better for doing so:
In the 1980′s, a new generation of historians attempted to bridge the two historiographical paths, creating something called the "new Civil War History." One obvious result has been an explosion of home front and community studies, the most obvious intersection of the war and American society. Women and African Americans are gaining their rightful places in the story of the war. In regard to the soldiers, historians have borrowed the techniques of social history to examine their motivations and activities in innovative ways. Regiments or armies, in the end, were societies with their own set of rules and expectations, as well as extensions of larger communities back home. Social historians and military historians finally realized that they each had something to offer, and both have been enriched.
Battle history has proven the genre most resistant to new trends, but now even it begins to bear the marks of the new Civil War history, as a fine recent study of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek attests [Wilson's Creek by Piston and Hatcher]. What follows here is, in most cases, a rather traditional and, I hope, accessible battle narrative. However, it also exhibits my interest in the new Civil War history. Readers of this book, for example, will note my concern for those civilians caught in the wake of the armies, and not only those who stood in harm’s way, but also friends and relatives back home whose lives also changed course that October day. Toward the end, the last chapter carries the narrative far beyond 1862, and back to the soldiers’ hometowns and families. I place the battle within the wider political and social context of Civil War Kentucky, and I consider the way Americans, especially Kentuckians, remembered and commemorated Perryville in the years following the battle.
Noe’s book is clearly one of the best examples of this new approach and shows that the two approaches are not necessarily in conflict. Anyone who has paid a minimal amount of attention to the evolution of the war in Iraq can see the problems with the narrow approach of the traditional battle narrative. You can’t even begin to understand the nature of the resistance or the choices of strategy and tactics on the part of the U.S. Army without examining in great deal events off the battlefield. There are the heated debates going on here in the United States and among the people of Iraq, not to mention the timing of elections and various polls. Understanding the history of the region and in specific localities is crucial to the decisions as to how to interact with civilians and distinguish between friend and foe.
As I stated above, the answers that historians provide are only as good as the questions asked. In this respect the study of history has something in common with science. Yes, the methodologies diverge, but the role of the imagination and the willingness to take chances are crucial to our ongoing quest to better understand our world.