The 1937 Crater Reenactment

Here is a little taste from my ongoing Crater project.  This short section is from chapter 5 which explores events in Petersburg during the first few decades of the twentieth century.  The images are located at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  The first image is a map of the Crater site at the time it was owned by the Crater Battlefield Association which turned it into an 18-hole golf course.

The acquisition of the Crater site by the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936 should be understood within a broader context of economic revitalization. Public officials in Petersburg continued to look for ways to use its Civil War battlefields as a way to attract both businesses and new residents. The PNMP urged residents to see its history as not simply a way to commemorate the “valor of the Blue and the Gray.” The park would attract tourists, conventions, “permanent investments,” employment, and finally, it would “open new territory available for suburban subdivisions . . . and will increase the value of the land around the park.” The Pine Gardens estate sale which took place in September 1929 drew a direct connection between residential development and preservation: “It behooves every one who had a relative to serve or die in this great conflict of the Civil War to own at least a small portion of this sacred and beloved soil.”

With the Crater site under park supervision, officials spent most of the summer and fall of 1937 removing golf traps and greens; [Crater was turned into an 18-hole golf course] the planting of trees and shrubs was done to shield the field from modern structures along nearby highways. A restoration of the entrance to the mine shaft was also started in 1937. Workers uncovered shell fragments, nails and other articles as the work progressed. Excavations indicated that the starting point of the tunnel corresponded with the location of the stone monument placed there by the veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania in 1907. In November 1937, the remains of two Union soldiers were found.

In addition to physical improvements to the landscape, Park officials erected markers that outlined the battle. The content of these markers reflected an interpretation that by the turn of the century had become standard. The overall mission of the PNMP was to “commemorate the valor and devotion of the American soldiers of the Revolution and the War Between the States.” Visitors were expected to interpret the battlefield “on which the manhood of the North and of the South, each contending for high ideals, engaged in the final decisive struggles of the war of 1861-1865.” Such an interpretation left no room to acknowledge the battle as a moment for African-American soldiers to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice their lives for freedom. Neither was there mention of the rage exhibited by Confederates at having to fight black soldiers or the well-documented incidents involving their execution following their surrender. Mahone’s Virginia brigade was singled out as the most important component leading to Confederate success: one marker, titled “Mahone’s Charge,” was described as including “800 men of Weisiger’s Brigade” and “composed mainly of Petersburg men.”

The Park Service wasted little time utilizing the Crater to attract people to the battlefield On April 30, 1937, a reenactment was held for an estimated 50,000 spectators. An immense amount of planning and publicity work was required, and during the month preceding the reenactment, Park employees devoted most of their time to the affair. Preparations included the construction of a stand, an enclosure for invited guests, six latrines, two enclosures for the press, two structures to represent bombproofs, temporary imitation earthworks and battery positions. Workers went to great lengths to create a realistic visual for the audience; monuments on the fields were camouflaged, and arrangements were made to prohibit airplanes from flying over the area during the day.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reported to its readers that they could “see reproduced the greatest fiasco in modern warfare.” Once again the attention would be on Mahone’s brigade; those in attendance would see how they “came to reinforce the Crater’s defenders and how they dashed into the Crater themselves, screaming the Rebel yell, goaded to insane fury by the faces of a Negro division Burnside had thrown into the fight”—one of the few references to Confederate rage at having to face black soldiers. Six thousand seats for spectators were sold for 50 cents, though general admission and parking came with no charge.

With national reunion solidified, press releases from the Park Service and other public offices in Petersburg advertised an event that would celebrate the heroism of the American soldiers and the battle in neutral terms. Historian, Raleigh Taylor described the reenactment as a commemoration of an “important phase in American history.” When describing the failed Union attack, Taylor made it a point to mention that their “Regiments and brigades served gallantly.” Finally, Taylor hoped that visitors would walk away with a better understanding of the “costly folly of war.” James Latimer of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce touted the reenactment as an opportunity to “commemorate the military operations . . . in that historical city in 1864 -65, and to preserve the earthworks and fortifications erected there during what proved to be the longest and bloodiest siege operations in the history of the American Republic.”

The concentration on battlefield heroics and an attempt to attract visitors from beyond the Commonwealth left no room to commemorate the deeds of African Americans who fought at the Crater. In a radio address presented on two occasions in the days leading up to the reenactment, Raleigh Taylor discussed the history of the battle and included an account by Confederate veteran George Bernard in his War Talks of Confederate Veterans. Bernard remembered meeting a “darky” during the countercharge who “begged to be spared, and, on being told he would not be shot, immediately began fanning a wounded Confederate as a way of showing his change of sides.”  As in the case of the 1903 reenactment, African Americans were presented as docile, and more importantly, not committed to fighting for their freedom. Event organizers once again failed to include any overt references to African Americans in their recreation of the battle.

A total of nearly 3,000 men, including 650 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute and 1,200 Marines, played the roles of the combatants.  Rehearsals took place on April 30 to ensure accuracy; a 38-pound charge was exploded in imitation of the mine explosion that had signaled the start of the battle. For the Marines the “sham battle” was an opportunity to finally play the role of the victors: “They obligingly have met defeat in their role of Union troops in several previous Virginia reenactments of battles of the ‘60’s.” Preparations also benefited from programs in Franklin Roosevelt’s NewDeal. Replicas of the flags carried into battle were made by women in the Works Progress Administration, many of whom were descendants of participants in the battle, and camps for the reenactors were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Celebrations commenced with an opening address by Congressman Drewry, who introduced several of the prominent guests, including Virginia Governor George C. Peery. Douglas S. Freeman provided historical background to the events of July 31, 1864, and with the help of a telephone system pointed out landmarks on the battlefield. Only four men from Mahone’s brigade were in attendance; one of the four was 93-year-old Francis M. Ridout of Petersburg. Invitations to Union veterans who took part in the battle went out, but none attended owing to age. Park officials judged the reenactment a success and were especially pleased that little damage had been done to the grounds. Franklin W. Smith, president of the Petersburg Battlefield Park Association, believed “it was one of the greatest things ever held in Petersburg.” Two days later, a Petersburg paper reported that one army officer still “has not gotten over his thrill of witnessing the reenactment.”

The day before the reenactment an editorial appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch expressing concern over the upcoming event. The writer believed that it would be unfortunate if the National Park Service’s goal was to simply “impress onlookers with the feeling that war is glamorous or in any sense an alluring spectacle.” “We hope the lesson to be learned from it,” continued the writer “will be that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.” On the eve of World War II, the memory of the Crater had taken an interesting turn. Because so much time had elapsed since the battle, the significance of the Crater could no longer be understood simply in historical terms. The generation of Americans that had fought the war was all but gone, and a younger generation stood poised to be sent back to foreign battlefields. Within this context, the writer of the editorial acknowledged that those who attend the reenactment “will doubtless be deeply impressed with the bravery and sacrifice of our forefathers.” At the end of the day, however, “we hope they will highly resolve that no such heroism shall be asked of this generation of Americans.”


Explaining The Fugitive Slave Act

The other day I mentioned that I enjoy presenting my students with examples that highlight the complexity of race in American history.  They are shocked to learn that Marth Washington’s personal servant is also her half-sister or that Sally Hemmings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife.

One of my favorite historical periods to teach is the twelve year between the end of the Mexican-American War and Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860.  Students get to think about the all-important issue of slavery and race along with a barrage of important events and colorful personalities.  One of those significant events is the Compromise of 1850 and the inclusion of a new and stronger Fugitive Slave Act.  I try to bring out the significance of this piece of the compromise beyond simply saying that it provided a means for Southern slaveholders to retrieve their property from Northern states.  Plate9_1 More importantly, however, the Fugitive Slave Act can be used in the classroom to explore the complexity of race in 19th Century America.  In doing so I use a relatively obscure book titled The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look At The Slavery Issue by Lawrence Tenzer.  The book was published back in 1997 by Scholars’ Publishing House which is located in Manahawkin, New Jersey.  I met the author through my father at about this time; we corresponded for a bit, but unfortunately we lost touch.  Tenzer essentially argues that the Civil War can be explained through a careful analysis of Northern fears that they themselves would become enslaved at some point.  There are some problems with the book, including points of interpretation that are questionable.  And the writing style sometimes loses its analytical edge.  Here is a review by Earl J. Hess which appeared in the Lincoln Herald, which should give you a sense of the book’s overall scope. 

First, it is important to acknowledge the means by which Southerners were able to carry this out:

The new law was designed to address the shortcomings of the previous 1793 legislation.  To begin with, a mere affidavit from the claimant or his agent even if given in absentia was now sufficient to establish title to an alleged runaway slave.  The weakest ex parte evidence was considered enough to convict.  Once captured, those claimed to be the fugitive being sought were not allowed to speak at all in their behalf and were denied legal representation.  Neither a jury trial nor a formal hearing of any kind was permitted.  Specially appointed federal commissioners were directed to attend to cases "in a summary manner."  Moreover, these officials had authority to issue certificates which would instantly place the black or mulatto into slavery without any due process whatsoever.  Commissioners received ten dollars (in 1850s dollars) for issuing the certificate authorizing immediate enslavement and only five dollars for the paperwork to set the captive free. [The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War by Lawrence Tenzer) 

I remind my students that it is the federal government which operates within the states with full compliance from local authorities to retrieve suspected fugitives.  This is important because what we essentially have here is a case of Southerners pushing for the strong arm of the federal government as opposed to a states rights argument.  Somehow we’ve come to believe that white Southerners were born attached to this argument.  In fact, in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act some Northern states passed Personal Liberty Laws which essentially stated that they did not have to comply with this federal law – a case of Northerners utilizing the states rights argument. 

What I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book was Tenzer’s analysis of the threat the Fugitive Slave Act posed to free blacks, mulatto’s and whites:

Imagine yourself in this scenario: A free black or a free mulatto, who has been living in your community in the North for years in peace, and who is known by the community at large to be law-abiding and decent, is mistaken for a slave being sought.  One-sided word-of-mouth evidence is presented to a commissioner and the order goes out for the immediate capture of the long-time fugitive.  A circumstance arises whereby a marshall or deputy seeks to enlist your assistance to aid in the capture, and you refuse.  By not cooperating when legally required to do so, you would be subject to a $1,000 fine.  If you complied, you were turned into a slave catcher on the free soil of your own state!  No wonder this law was so unpopular.  Slavery could no longer be looked at from afar. The North was now involved. (p. 84)

It is possible to take Tenzer’s scenario one step further to suggest that even white Northerners with dark complexions stood to be "kidnapped" if they happen to fit a slave-catcher’s description.  What I find interesting is the way Tenzer’s example challenges our preconceptions of race and color.  It forces us to imagine a population that can no longer be strictly defined along the color line owing to generations of interracial sexual contact.  Congressman Amos P. Granger raises this possibility in an 1856 speech:

In defiance of at least three positive provisions of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Law grabs somebody, black or white, for it makes no distinction of color–demands of him a life’s labor–suspends "the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus"–denies him "trial by jury"–and "deprives him of liberty without due process of law" and works him, or whips him, or sells him, as it likes. (p. 95)

I don’t agree with Tenzer that the Compromise of 1850 and, more specifically, the Fugitive Slave Act constituted the "beginning of the end" in the lead up to war, but I do agree that the issues involved are significant and make for some interesting discussions in the classroom.


5th Year Wedding Anniversary: The Best Decision I Ever Made


Little Black Sambo

In addition to spending a good deal of time with my classes exploring the ways that slavery shaped American history in the 19th Century I also introduce them to various ideas of race that proved popular at different times.  We look at images of “Jim Crow” and “Sambo” and discuss the historical background of minstrel shows.  Of course, many of these images and ideas are introduced at very early ages.  On Friday one of my students surprised me with a volume from the Little Golden Books series published by Simon and Schuster.  Apparently it belonged to one of his parents.  This particular volume is titled Little Black Sambo (1948) and was authored by Helen Bannerman who was also responsible for Little Black Quibba and Little Black Bobtail.  The entire series was overseen by Mary Reed, Ph.D who taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University.  These books are highly collectible.

The opening lines of the book are as follows:

“Once upon a time there was a little black boy, and his name was Little Black Sambo.  And his Mother was called Black Mumbo.  And his Father was called Black Jumbo.”


Plagiarism And Peer Review: A Response To Savas And Rotov

In his most recent post Dimitri Rotov shares some thoughts by publisher Ted Savas on the recent plagiarism scandal involving Fred Ruhlman and the University of Tennessee Press.

According to Savas:

As for plagiarism: I see it all the time in manuscripts, so what Carmichael is talking about I can’t say. I can often spot it in casual reading. Maybe I have a good radar for that. Goodwin got off; Ruhlman won’t. I have confronted several authors over the past couple of years regarding a wide variety of submissions. Some apologize (falling back on the Goodwin/Ruhlman non-defense defense), others never respond, and a few are so clueless they ask what plagiarism means!

It’s not clear to me at all what Savas means when he says that he sees it [plagiarism] all the time.  The more interesting question is what we are to do with an observation from a publisher who deals mainly with non-academic titles.  This is not meant in any way as an insult since I think that Savas provides an excellent service for those Civil War enthusiasts that are interested in well written and thoroughly researched campaign and battle studies as well as for those who wish to write them.  My point is that Savas’s comment should perhaps be considered in the context of who is submitting manuscripts for consideration at his shop compared with who is submitting to academic presses.

Dimitri goes on to comment on peer review and cites a question that I posed in my original post on the Ruhlman case:

Kevin Levin had asked why University of Tennesse Press did not send the Ruhlman MS to Andersonville author Marvel for comment. I have two problems with that. First, it makes new writing hostage to old reputations (more on this in a minute). Second, if you don’t have the in-house expertise to evaluate a manuscript like this yourself, yours is a house of generalists susceptible not only to plagiarism but trash.

I am not going to pretend to understand the peer review process that goes on within academic presses.  That said, I have had extensive experience with academic journals and my guess is that the process is similar and rightfully so.  Now I know that Dimitri looks at Civil War publishing as a collection of little cabals which are somehow steered by sinister minds such as James McPherson and Gary Gallagher.  I’ve submitted numerous manuscripts to journals – most of which have been rejected – and those that have made it through the first round have all been sent to experts in the field.  All of them have come back with comments that attest to the expertise of the reviewer involved.  There may indeed be an element of a gate-keeper mindset, but that isn’t necessarily troubling.  In fact, it may be just what the system needs.  Remember, most academic presses and journals send their manuscripts out to at least three reviewers which means that the kind of mentality that Dimitri is so concerned about will have little chance to do any damage.

Dimitri also cites an interview between former North and South magazine editor Keith Poulter and Civil War Talk Radio host and historian Gerry Prokopowicz:

If you agree with the idea of shopping new manuscripts to the established experts, I urge you to listen to Gerald Prokopowicz
interview Keith Poulter, former editor of “North & South” magazine. Poulter, like any editor, rejected a lot of work. However, there was a category of work the content of which he was not sure about. Was it revisionism? He describes a system by which he would send such submissions to subject matter experts. Gerald astutely asked how many of these got through this expert screening process. Poulter answered none. That would be zero among (IIRC) 40 such.

Now is this supposed to support Dimitri’s earlier claim that peer review renders new ideas beholden to old reputations?  All that comes out of this exchange for this reader is that N&S magazine has a pretty good peer review system in place.  Hell, I’ve had a couple of manuscripts rejected by them, and with every rejection I received some helpful feedback.

Perhaps it would help if the questions being asked or criticisms being leveled stemmed from some first-hand experience with the process itself.