149 Years Ago Today

Battle of the Crater Painting

The battle of the Crater was fought 149 years ago today. Here is a letter written by Henry A. Minor, who served as a surgeon with the 9th Alabama Volunteers. The 9th Alabama took part in William Mahone’s counterattack, which proved to be decisive in achieving a Confederate victory that day. The letter is one among scores of Confederate accounts I have in my collection that didn’t make it into my book. It offers a great deal of detail as to what transpired on that day and how the battle was assessed.

H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864 [Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.]

We have been here over six weeks, have had several fights with the enemy but as I have written to Brother Lute concerning all up to the middle of July, I will only tell you of one we had the day before yesterday.  I send papers giving an account of the affair and will be very brief in my remarks.  Peter was not in the charge, he being a sharp shooter.  He with his comrades were left to hold the line on our right while the Division went to the center to retake our lost position.  It is said to have the most brilliant charge of the War, the charge of our brigade.  The line was kept properly, the men moved rapidly and quietly reserving the fire until close up and then delivering it with terrible effect.  Here for the first time our men fought negroes.  The Yankees put the negroes in the front and are said to have forced them forward.  The massacre was terrible.  The ditches were almost filled with dead.  Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet.  Such a sight was never seen before. Continue reading “149 Years Ago Today”

“It Is An Invasion To End a Rebellion”

For many visitors to Civil War battlefields overseen by the National Park Service the orientation movie provides a much needed overview of the relevant history and a clear statement as to why it is important. Unfortunately, many of these movies are out of date, though in recent years individual parks have worked hard to bring their stories in line with more recent scholarship. Shiloh National Military Park is one such example. The first words spoken in their new movie remind visitors that United States soldiers were engaged in nothing less than the suppression of a rebellion.

I’ve never been to Shiloh. In fact, I’ve not visited any of the battlefields outside of the Eastern Theater apart from the Mobile area. In a few weeks I will be co-leading a group of history teachers from Nashville to Washington, D.C. as part of what I assume is one of the last Teaching American History sponsored programs. I will be leading a few tours in the Virginia – D.C. area, but the 10-day trip will finally bring me to places like Franklin, Fort Negley, Stones River, and Chickamauga. I can’t wait.

Is This Group Ready to Reenact Olustee?

Jimmy Price notes that reenactments of engagements in which black soldiers participated have already taken place, though on a smaller scale. Even in these cases, however, it is not at all clear as to how the racial element was choreographed/interpreted. He also questions whether the general public would only “stomach” reenactments in which African Americans proved victorious. I don’t know.

A number of you have questioned whether a sufficient number of Confederate reenactors could be organized to reenact battles in which blacks took part. Does this video of the 2012 re-dedication of the Florida Division, UDC’s monument on the Olustee battlefield help?

One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to do so in such a setting. Then there is the question of how they should discuss these issues. Perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character, but whatever benefits are gained from such a presentation its limitations are pretty clear.

I guess what I am saying is that most people need significant interpretive scaffolding before being exposed to such a reenactment and the wide range of emotions that would no doubt surface.

Gettysburg 150 (from someone all but certain to love it)

Garry Adelman
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

What follows is a guest post from my good friend, Garry Adelman, who shares his thoughts about last week’s Gettysburg commemoration.

I had been looking forward to the Gettysburg 150th commemoration for years. I knew—all Civil War people knew–it would be a big deal. Some could not wait to go; some treated it like the plague. That is Gettysburg. Fascination with the place, and resentment about its status as the Civil War Mecca of sorts, date back to the war itself as Gettysburg increasingly took its place as the war’s best-known battlefield.

Being obsessed with Gettysburg, I try my best to take a historian’s look at the place I love—I don’t call it the most important battle in, or the turning point of, the Civil War. Pickett’s Charge was not the biggest, bloodiest, or most consequential attack of the war.  But nonetheless, almost like a cliché, the Gettysburg Battlefield remains my favorite place—and not just among battlefields. It is my favorite place of any sort. So, I was all but certain to have a great week. And I did. Thing is, it was much, much more enjoyable, meaningful, cool and enlightening than I ever expected. In an adult life full of great Civil War experiences across the country, the Gettysburg 150 week topped them all. I am giddy as I write about it. Continue reading “Gettysburg 150 (from someone all but certain to love it)”

Should the Battle of the Crater Be Reenacted Next Year?

1937 Crater Reenactment

Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences. Continue reading “Should the Battle of the Crater Be Reenacted Next Year?”