Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder

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Purchase this book on Amazon.“In this stunning and well-researched book, Kevin Levin catches the new waves of the study of memory, black soldiers, and the darker underside of the Civil War as well as anyone has. That horrible day at the Crater in Petersburg, its brutal racial facts and legacies, all tangled in the weeds of Confederate Lost Cause lore, have never been exposed like this. Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.”–David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

What is the book about?

The Battle of the Crater is known as one of the Civil War’s bloodiest struggles—a Union loss with combined casualties of 5,000, many of whom were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Union Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The battle was a violent clash of forces as Confederate soldiers fought for the first time against African American soldiers. After the Union lost the battle, these black soldiers were captured and subject both to extensive abuse and the threat of being returned to slavery in the South. Yet, despite their heroism and sacrifice, these men are often overlooked in public memory of the war.

In Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War is Murder, Kevin M. Levin addresses the shared recollection of a battle that epitomizes the way Americans have chosen to remember, or in many cases forget, the presence of the USCT. The volume analyzes how the racial component of the war’s history was portrayed at various points during the 140 years following its conclusion, illuminating the social changes and challenges experienced by the nation as a whole. Remembering The Battle of the Crater gives the members of the USCT a newfound voice in history.

Abraham Lincoln Book Shop Interview

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Interview with David Thomson of The Civil War Monitor


“Levin, known to many historians for his acclaimed blog Civil War Memory, deftly explores the role of race in this battle for memory.” –Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Eastern Illinois University, [Review at The Journal of Southern History]

“Levin offers something new and valuable in this book. His approach of unpacking the complex telling and forgetting of the events surrounding one battle allows him a focus and specificity that even many very good treatments of historical memory often lack. Remembering the Battle of the Crater stands to make a real and lasting contribution to the field of Civil War memory studies.”–Anne Marshall, author of Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State

“[Remembering The Battle of the Crater] centers on the well documented ‘massacre’ of the United States Colored Troops by Confederate soldiers during and after the battle, carrying the story on through the eras of the Lost Cause, Virginia’s Reconstruction and Readjuster Movement. Levin’s work offers a refreshing and inquisitive look at the battle and how the role of the USCT’s is now coming into light in subsequent preservation and interpretation efforts.”–Chris Calkins, Former Chief of Interpretation/Historian (Ret.), Petersburg National Battlefield

“Remembering the Battle of the Crater is a well-researched and well-written book. Civil War buffs should find it to be an especially interesting read– one of the many important new studies that are being published to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the conflict.”–Roger D. Cunningham [Review at Journal of America’s Military Past]

“Levin has done a superb job of charting a course through the complex and sometimes perplexing details of this story. His research is exhaustive, and his critical eye encompasses such diverse elements as John Elder’s famous painting of the battle, the many reunions and reenactments held on the battlefield, the creation of the Petersburg National Battlefield, and the ways in which park personnel have tried to interpret the engagement to succeeding generations since 1932. Levin also has done his homework in consulting relevant secondary sources on everything from histories of family vacationing in America to military studies. His command of the relevant primary sources, both published and archival, is equally impressive. His command of what actually happened in the Civil War, in contrast to that of some historians who essay to write studies of memory, is sound and assured as well.”–Earl J. Hess, [Review at Journal of the Civil War Era]

“So-called “memory studies” have come to the forefront in recent years, thanks to the work of distinguished scholars like David Blight, Lesley Gordon, and Carol Reardon. Add to their number now Kevin M. Levin, whose new book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, provides an outstanding look at how people North and South, participants and their cultures, dealt with the awful recollection of those hours of carnage and brutality in the Crater.”–William C. Davis, Virginia Tech [Review at History Book Club]

“In examining a single battle across such a wide expanse of time, Levin has given us a wonderful insight not only into the ever-evolving nature of Civil War memory, but he has also helped illuminate the interplay between race and politics in our collective rendering of the war.”–Caroline Janney, Purdue University [Review at Civil War Monitor]

“The work offers compelling evidence supporting the findings of previous studies of how racial attitudes and postwar concerns continue to shape our view of the nation’s bloodiest war.”–Ethan Rafuse, [Review at America’s Civil War]

“While acknowledging a debt to David Blight’s Race and Reunion, Levin’s succinct and thought-provoking book makes its own contributions to our understanding of the Civil War’s place in the public consciousness.”–Francis MacDonnell, [Review at Civil War Book Review]

“Levin’s main contributions are in his careful excavation of local Virginia racial politics, revealing important divisions between former Confederates regarding the memory of the Battle of the Crater…. The result is a solid academic book that firmly establishes Levin as an important scholar and public voice on the Civil War, race, and memory.”–Chad L. Williams, Brandeis University [Review at Journal of American History]

“Remembering the Battle of the Crater is crisp, cogent, and persuasive. Levin has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing revision of how we think about the Civil War and its legacy. He also makes a compelling case for the value of reflecting on the evolution of the popular memory of Civil War battles.”–Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [Review at North Carolina Historical Review]

“Levin’s carefully researched book offers readers a valuable, concrete study of how Americans  have shaped, and continue to shape, their memory of the war.”–Robert S. Shelton, Cleveland State University [Review at Society of Civil War Historians Newsletter]

Key Points of Interpretation and Highlights:

  • The Confederate response to black Union soldiers was not simply a function of rage.
  • Confederate heritage commemorations at the Crater were not unified expressions, but often reflected deep divisions within society.
  • African Americans maintained a vibrant memory of the battle and relied on it as a form of racial uplift through the era of Jim Crow.
  • The preservation of the battlefield had little to do with reunion and reconciliation between white northerners and southerners.
  • Brings the story surrounding the Crater and historical memory all the way to the present day.

Catch up on previous blog posts about the book: