Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.

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New Encyclopedia of African-American History Now Available

Over the past few years Oxford University Press has been collecting entries for a 3-volume encyclopedia of African-American history.  Volume 2 is titled The World of Frederick Douglass, 1817-1895 and can be purchased separately for a whopping $120.  Wait for the sale.  The entries cover a broad range of topics, but even topics that focus on national issues make it a point to refernce Douglass.  I took on the entry for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  It would have liked to have taken on a few more, but time simply didn’t permit it.  The series is edited by Paul Finkelman and promises to be the most complete collection of entries and primary sources available.  Here is a description from the OUP website:

Douglassoxford The Encyclopedia covers an extraordinary range of subjects. Major topics such as "Abolitionism," "Black Nationalism," the "Civil War," the "Dred Scott case," "Reconstruction," "Slave Rebellions and Insurrections," the "Underground Railroad," and "Voting Rights" are given the in-depth treatment one would expect. But the encyclopedia also contains hundreds of fascinating entries on less obvious subjects, such as the "African Grove Theatre," "Black Seafarers," "Buffalo Soldiers," the "Catholic Church and African Americans," "Cemeteries and Burials," "Gender," "Midwifery," "New York African Free Schools," "Oratory and Verbal Arts," "Religion and Slavery," the "Secret Six," and much more. In addition, the Encyclopedia offers brief biographies of important African Americans-as well as white Americans who have played a significant role in African American history-from Crispus Attucks, John Brown, and Henry Ward Beecher to Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Sarah Grimke, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Phillis Wheatley, and many others.

All of the Encyclopedia’s alphabetically arranged entries are accessibly written and free of jargon and technical terms. To facilitate ease of use, many composite entries gather similar topics under one headword. The entry for Slave Narratives, for example, includes three subentries: The Slave Narrative in America from the Colonial Period to the Civil War, Interpreting Slave Narratives, and African and British Slave Narratives. A headnote detailing the various subentries introduces each composite entry. Selective bibliographies and cross-references appear at the end of each article to direct readers to related articles within the Encyclopedia and to primary sources and scholarly works beyond it. A topical outline, chronology of major events, nearly 300 black and white illustrations, and comprehensive index further enhance the work’s usefulness.

I am going to try to convince my librarian to purchase the set.  It’s been a real pleasure taking part in such a worthy and scholarly project.

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H.K. Edgerton and Nathan B. Forrest: Brothers In Arms

Things are heating down at Middle Tennessee State University where students have petitioned to change the name of one of the buildings which honors Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest.  There are in fact two student petitions, one in favor of a change and one against.  As I’ve commented before in reference to debates about the Confederate flag this is not simply about how to remember the past, but about broader cultural and social changes currently underway in the South. 

Edgerton_1 H.K. Edgerton, a black man who is known for wearing a Confederate uniform in honor of his "black Confederate" ancestors recently traveled to Murfreesboro in support of maintaining the current building name.  "How very proud I am of them. They are standing against Southern cultural genocide,"  Edgerton said. He went on to say that "The Ku Klux Klan under Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly not a terrorist organization," and "Forty-two black men rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest."  I’ve commented on Edgerton’s place in the Neo-Confederate movement before.

The question of whether the building’s name should be changed ultimately does not interest me.  This is a matter for the college community to decide.  My interests are in the broader story that is currently being written, or perhaps re-written, as the South continues to evolve to more broadly reflect an interracial and multi-ethnic citizenry.  This of course is very difficult for many who are committed to a traditional "Lost Cause" interpretation that reduces Southern history down to short career of the Confederacy.

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John Elder vs. Don Troiani and Cold Mountain

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past few days.  I actually managed to buckle down and finish the last chapter of my Crater manuscript.  I know at least one person who reads this blog who will pleased to hear this.The final chapter covers the period between 1937 and the present and touches on the Civil War Centennial and more recent interpretive revisions that connect to the Crater.  I still need to go through the manuscript and make some changes and add a short conclusion.  It is so nice to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve decided to briefly examine the movie Cold Mountain and Don Troiani’s 2003 painting of the charge of the 6th Virginia Infantry at the Crater.  Both allow me to make some final points about how interpretations have evolved.  Cold Mountain highlights the challenges associated with raising issues of race in popular culture; while the opening sequence includes glimpses of black Union soldiers what stands out is the deletion of a scene following the battle which shows a disgruntled Confederate shooting a severely wounded black soldier.  The movie stands in contrast to Troiani’s painting which as you can see shows a very confused scene of both black and white Union soldiers either standing to meet the Confederate charge or trying to flee from the scene.  One black soldier stands defiantly while holding the Stars and Stripes.  Black soldiers are depicted as full participants in the battle and reflect the same range of emotions that one would expect to find in the heat of battle.  The emphasis that Troiani places on black Union soldiers can be contrasted with the 1869 release of John Elder’s famous painting, which was commissioned by William Mahone.

The content of the painting reflects the beginning of a radical transformation in the public memory surrounding the Crater fight. The painting was completed just as former Major General William Mahone and the “Hero of the Crater” was consolidating his various railroad lines into what became the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad. Consolidation was a divisive issue in the state legislature and among Virginians generally. An examination of his correspondence with Elder reveals that Mahone viewed the painting, in part, as a way to advance his business interests by reminding his fellow Virginians of his service in the war. One critic offered a colorful review: “The suspense in this . . . scene is fearful; and one dreads that the reinforcements will arrive to[o] late. But they are hurrying on. With their wild impulsive yell, so characteristic of the Southern army, regardless of rank or line, in double column, Mahone’s brigade comes pouring in.” The reference to “Mahone’s brigade” highlights Elder’s goal of concentrating specifically on his old Virginia brigade rather than on the entire division, which included brigades from Alabama and Georgia. This tendency to focus on Virginians at the expense of those outside the Old Dominion became a contentious issue among the former comrades by the 1880’s.

More interesting is the way in which United States Colored Troops are depicted. Any analysis of the racial references in Elder’s painting must be understood in the context of the noticeable inroads African Americans were making in state governments throughout the South by the end of the 1860’s.Black assertiveness was much more pronounced in the former capital of the Confederacy, as the delegates debated provisions for the disfranchisement of high-ranking rebels, the confiscation of rebel property, the structure of taxation, and the improvement and integration of public facilities. In addition to advancement within the political realm, Virginia’s black population openly celebrated Emancipation Day, July Fourth, the fall of Richmond (known as Evacuation Day), and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.Such public displays served only to remind white Southerners of their subjugation to “Yankee” rule.

The extent to which audiences viewed Elder’s painting through a political lens is difficult to gauge.Many, no doubt, simply saw the painting as an attempt to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier.This was the case for the reviewer of one newspaper who concluded that Elder had “admirably illustrated that distinguishing trait of the Southern soldier” who “paused not to count the odds, but rushed in forward to the conflict, where death stared him in the face.”While other painters concentrated on bringing to life scenes from the war that focused on Confederate generals, this reviewer praised Elder for drawing attention to the “heroism of the private soldier.

At least one reviewer understood Elder’s depiction of the Crater as more than an attempt to praise the fighting prowess of Mahone’s men, but “to rescue from oblivion one scene of our country’s glory, and to lift the veil which the conqueror has attempted to cast over our nation’s existence, and to show to posterity that, however ultimately defeated, it was only after a struggle worthy of our principles, when our half-starved, emaciated troops, in their tattered uniforms, could in the very jaws of death snatch the victory from the overwhelming numbers opposed to them.” By portraying black soldiers along with their “abolitionist” allies as either confused, killed in action, or about to be seriously harmed, Elder was able to draw in sharp contrast the growing racial division within Virginia between the white Southern population and the forced social change taking place through black political action. Elder’s depiction of Mahone’s charge could be interpreted as nothing less than a call to white Virginians to commit themselves to regaining control of the political field, which would be a first step to restructuring the social/racial hierarchy in a way that more closely reflected their antebellum world.

With this in mind it should be easy to close the manuscript with some observations that assess the evolution of our collective memory of the Civil War and the Crater specifically.

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The View From The Ground Now Available In Bookstores

Although the book is not slated for release until December I was able to pick up a copy yesterday in my local bookstore.  The full title is The View From The Ground: Experiences Of Civil War Soldiers and is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean with an afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.  The publisher is the University of Kentucky Press and the book is part of a new series called New Directions In Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, William Link, and Michelle Gillespie.  I have to say that it’s nice to see one of my essays in book form and in a collection that includes some very talented historians.  Here is the Table of Contents:

1. The Blue and the Gray in Black and White: Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
2. A “Vexed Question”: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race by Chandra Manning
3. A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy by Jason Phillips
4. “The Army Is Not Near So Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front” by Lisa Laskin
5. “‘No Nearer Heaven Now but Rather Farther Off”: The Religious Compromises and Conflicts of Northern Soldiers by David W. Rolfs
6. “Strangers in a Strange Land”: Christian Soldiers in the Early Months of the Civil War by Kent T. Dollar
7. ‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear”: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement by Timothy J. Orr
8. Popular Sovereignty in the Confederate Army: The Case of Colonel John Marshall and the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment by Charles E. Brooks
9. “Is Not the Glory Enough to Give Us All a Share?”: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the Battle of the Crater by Kevin M. Levin
10. Afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.

I will be joining Dollar, Phillips, Manning, Brooks, and Sheehan-Dean for a roundtable discussion at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2007 in Atlanta.  The session is titled, Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and will focus on different methodological approaches to researching our subjects.  The session is scheduled for Saturday, January 6 from 2:30-4:30pm in the Hilton Hotel’s Monroe Room.

In the meantime pick up a copy of The View From The Ground; it will make a great stocking stuffer.

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