Category Archives: William Mahone/Crater

What, No Battle of the Crater Re-enactment?

Georgia Civil War Commission Chairman John Culpepper has announced which battles will be reenacted as part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The decision was made by 75 representatives from around the country.  The major battles endorsed by the convention are 2011-Manassas (Va.) Shiloh (Tenn.); 2012-Second Manassas (Va.) Vicksburg (Miss.); 2013-Chickamauga (Ga.) Gettysburg (Pa.); 2014-The Wilderness (Va.) Atlanta; 2015-Bentonville (N.C.) Appomatox (Va.).  I have no idea who the people and organizations involved speak for.

Looks like a nice balance between Union and Confederate victories as well as the inclusion of one siege.  The only problem, as I see it, is the failure to include an engagement that will highlight the service of United States Colored Troops.  I’ve only been to a few reenactments in my life, but to be honest, they all look the same to me.  How about reenacting a battle that gets at the heart of what the Civil War was about?

Richard Slotkin’s Crater

cemeteryridge_evm00001255The following review of Richard Slotkin’s new book, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 is now available in the latest edition of Civil War Book Review.

With the publication of three books on the battle of the Crater in the past two years, one might reasonably ask if there is a need for yet another. These previous treatments (written mainly by non-academic historians) have collectively addressed the tactical complexity of the battle, including the early morning explosion of 8,000 pounds of black powder under a Confederate salient and they have provided an exhaustive account of the close-quarter combat and blood-letting that ensued for close to eight hours on a battlefield that was ripped open by the initial blast. Such a focus is a staple of traditional military history. But as much as we have learned about the nature of combat in the trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 there are key aspects of this battle that have not been sufficiently addressed by the previous literature.

Continue reading

“History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

The latest post by Ta-Nehisis Coates beautifully captures the frustrations that many African Americans experience when visiting America’s Civil War battlefields and specifically those places where African Americans participated.  A recent visit to the Petersburg battlefields, including the Crater, by Coates and his children highlights the continued challenges facing museums, the National Park Service, and other historical organizations in working toward a narrative that acknowledges the contributions of African Americans and situates the Civil War within the broader history of freedom and race.  When you take a moment to step back it is shocking to think that a war that resulted in the end of slavery and emancipation of 4 million people would be remembered in a way that divorced the descendants of those very people from being able to fully engage and consume the historic sites from that struggle.  And yet, that is where we are on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Before proceeding here are a few passages from Coates’s post:

Continue reading

“A Bloody Affair”

[My review of John Schmutz's recent book on the Crater is now up at H-Net]

The last several years has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of studies focused on the final year of the Civil War in Virginia and specifically the Petersburg Campaign.  Much of this can be traced to a renewed scholarly interest in the evolution of the conflict from “limited” to “hard” war, the role of emancipation in redefining the purpose of the war, and a general consensus among historians that the post-Gettysburg period cannot be understood simply as leading directly to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.  Given this sharp increase in attention to the Petersburg Campaign–plus the popularity of the movie Cold Mountain (2003), which included a vivid recreation of the battle–it should come as no surprise that historians would take a much closer look at the Battle of the Crater, which took place on July 31, 1864.  The novelty of the mine explosion, the use of an entire division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the attack, and the close-quarter fighting that ensued present the historian with the ideal case study for understanding the broad parameters of the war in 1864.

This study by John F. Schmutz is the most recent and the most thorough contribution to this growing body of literature on the Crater.[1]  Readers looking for a detailed account of the ebb and flow of battle as well as the broader strategic and operational decisions involved will be pleased.  Schmutz has mined an extensive amount of archival sources as well as published accounts and provides a minute-by-minute account of the battle.  His account includes the challenges involved in the construction of the mine, the destruction of the early-morning explosion of the mine, and the bloody fighting which followed.  Although the author’s attention to tactical detail is impressive, the lack of detailed maps that might have focused on the regimental level and taken into account the complexity of Confederate defenses renders the narrative at times difficult to follow.

Continue reading

“The Question of Atrocity” for Richard Slotkin

I am just about finished reading Richard Slotkin’s new book on the Crater, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, and have enjoyed it immensely.  The book is very different from the two previous studies of the battle in that Slotkin provides a much needed analysis of the racial components of the battle rather than a traditional military history.  Yes, there is more to a battle than moving from place to place.  I am in the process of writing up a formal review for Civil War Book Review, but wanted to share something that I learned for the first time.

Although I wish Slotkin had gone a bit further in his analysis of the massacre of USCTs he does an excellent job of presenting both the immediate and long-term conditions that help explain the scale and complexity of the violence.  First, Slotkin correctly references the proportion of dead to wounded in the battle in comparison with other Civil War battles.  On average, the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to 1.  At the Crater, the overall ratio for Union troops was 3.7 to 1, though for black soldiers it was 1.8 to 1.  Slotkin’s analysis of the tactical ebb and flow of the battle reveals a number of moments where soldiers on the battlefield were executed and not just black soldiers.  [It should be pointed out that Slotkin is not the first historian to point this out.  In 1987 Bryce Suderow published an article in the journal, Civil War History, which was later included in a collection of essays on Civil War massacres.]  The first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended “to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination.” (p. 339)  White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy.

Continue reading