Category Archives: William Mahone/Crater

Corroboration in Historical Studies: Chandra Manning and the Battle of the Crater

My wife is a neuroscientist who constantly reminds me that the value of any individual research project’s conclusions relates directly to whether those results can be replicated by independent parties.  Unfortunately, we don’t have anything comparable in historical studies.  We can take steps to ensure that our conclusions have been challenged by peers who may question the sources utilized or the interpretation of those sources.  When done correctly and honestly the peer review process can lead to stronger conclusions.  Still, there is a certain amount of underdetermination between evidence and interpretation.  We do our best.

I’ve finished with Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War War Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. I have much to think about, especially in connection with my work on memory and the Crater.  In one of the chapters I make an argument about how Confederates interpreted the presence of USCTs in the battle and specifically about why they were so enraged.  I was pleasantly surprised to read that Manning found many of the same themes in the letters she surveyed of Confederates who either faced USCTs in battle or who took the time to write home about what their service meant to their view of the war.  Manning argues that Confederates – both nonslaveholders and slaveholders – understood the war as a defense of slavery.  While other issues certainly animated Confederates at different times, according to Manning, the issues of race and slavery served to focus the army.  Internal fissures may have threatened the unity of the Confederacy, but these problems never trumped the importance of defending the “peculiar institution.”  Regardless of status white Southerners held to the belief that the maintenance of slavery guaranteed their respective place in the political/social hierarchy.  More importantly, defeat would mean race wars and miscegenation.  My archival sources indicated that the experience of having to fight USCTs at the Crater reinforced the importance of continuing the fight, but I was surprised to discover in Manning’s study just how early in the war Confederates were focused on the issue.  Confederates in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia focused their attention on the recruitment of black soldiers from the beginning of 1863.  This is important because the battle of the Crater is the first time they faced USCTs which suggests that the rage exhibited must have been building for quite some time.

Here is just a short section from my Crater manuscript which touches on how Confederates responded to the presence of USCTs:

Lee’s officers and men were already engaged in heated combat by the time Edward Ferrero’s black division entered the battle, and it did not help that many of them, according to Thomas Smith, “charged me crying no quarter, remember Fort Pillow.  Private Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird of the 12th Virginia recalled proudly that “The negro’s charging cry of ‘No quarter’ was met with the stern cry of ‘amen.’” Writing after the war, one Union veteran was surely correct when he noticed that for a Confederate soldier, “It seemed to add increased poison to the sting of death to be shot by a negro.”  The Confederates considered such an act as violating all rules of warfare and the sacred rights of humanity.”  For many of the men fighting in the vicinity of the Crater, this was their first experience fighting black soldiers, and their response suggests a heightened sense of rage and purpose.  “It had the same affect upon our men that a red flag had upon a mad bull,” was the way one South Carolinian who survived the initial explosion described the reaction of his comrades.  David Holt of the 16th Mississippi remembered, “They were the first we had seen and the sight of a nigger in a blue uniform and with a gun was more than ‘Johnnie Reb’ could stand.  Fury had taken possession” of Holt, and “I knew that I felt as ugly as they looked.”

Many Confederates relished retelling of their experiences in the Crater fighting Ferrero’s division.  “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the but[t]s of there [sic] guns and every other way,” according to Labnan Odom, who served in the 48th Georgia, “until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.”  Another soldier in the 48th Georgia described the hand-to-hand combat: “the Bayonet was plunged through their hearts & the muzzle of our guns was put on their temple & their brains blown out others were knocked in the head with [the] butts of our guns.  Few would succeed in getting to the rear safe.”  Even after acknowledging the bravery of the black soldiers in the crater who “fought us till the veary last,” John Lewis who served in the 61st  North Carolina of Hoke’s division and participated in the final attack of the day, was satisfied that “[W]e kild asite of nigers.  Both the horror of battle and rage at having to fight black soldiers must have been apparent to the mother of one soldier as she learned that her son “shot them down until we got mean enough and then rammed them through with the Bayonet.”  Another soldier admitted that, “Some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.”  Lieutenant Colonel William Pegram described moments on the battlefield in great detail for his wife where black soldiers “threw down ther arms to surrender, but were not allowed to do so.  Every bombproof I saw had one or two dead negroes in them, who had skulked out of the fight, & killed by our men.”

The presence of black soldiers served as a rallying cry for Confederates who did not participate in the battle; writing about the battle served as an outlet through which they could express their own resentment and anger over the use of black soldiers.  Describing how, “Our men bayoneted them & knacked ther bra[i]ns with the but[t] of their guns,” as did Lee Barfield who served in the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, may have been the next best thing to being there.  Even A.T. Fleming, who served in the 10th Alabama but missed the battle due to illness, could not help but allow his racist preconceptions to pervade a very descriptive account in which Confederates “knocked them in the head like killing hogs.”  Perhaps commenting on the dead black soldiers on the battlefield or the prisoners, Fleming described them as the “Blackest greaysest [greasiest] negroes I ever saw in my life.”  While stationed at Bermuda Hundred during the time of the battle, Edmund Womack wrote home to his wife, “I understand our men just chopped them to pieces.”

Once the salient was retaken, Confederate rage was difficult to bring under control.  Accounts written in the days following the battle rarely shied away from including vivid descriptions of the harsh treatment and executions of surrendered black soldiers.  Jerome B. Yates of the 16th Mississippi recalled, “Most of the Negroes were killed after the battle.  Some was killed after they were taken to the rear.”  Another soldier admitted that “the poor deluded devils were butchered right and left.”  Lieutenant Freeman Bowley of the 30th USCT wrote, “As the Confederates came rushing into the Crater, calling to their comrades in their rear, ‘The Yankees have surrendered!’ some of the foremost ones plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded.”  “The only sounds which now broke the silence,” according to Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird, “was some poor wounded wretch begging for water and quieted by a bayonet thrust which said unmistakably “Bois ton sang. Tu n’aurais de soif.” [Drink your blood. You will have no more thirst]. James Verdery simply described it as “a truly Bloody Sight a perfect Massacre nearly a Black flag

Confederates who took part in the battle or heard about the presence of black soldiers secondhand were forced to explain away what some perceived as acts of bravery and skill on the field.  John C.C. Sanders, who commanded the Alabama brigade in Mahone’s division, was forced to admit that the “Negroes. . . . fight much better than I expected.”  However, he was quick to qualify this statement with the conviction that “they were driven on by the Yankees and many of them were shot down by the latter.”  J. Edward Peterson, who served as a band member in the 26th North Carolina, described the black soldiers at the Crater as “ignorant” and like Sanders assumed they were forced to fight by the Yankees.  Peterson went on to conclude that because of this they did not deserve such harsh treatment by Confederates following the battle.

As a result of their experience fighting black soldiers, many Confederates experienced a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the cause.  Years after the war, Edward Porter Alexander remembered that the “general feeling of the men towards their employment was very bitter.”  “The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof,” according to Alexander, “of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.”  William Pegram also acknowledged the perceived threat as stated by Alexander when he noted that “I had been hoping that the enemy would bring some negroes against this army.”  And now that they had, “I am convinced . . . that it has a splendid effect on our men.” Pegram concluded that though, “It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood,” the men who did it had “very good cause for doing so.”  According to Pegram’s most recent biographer, the experience facing black troops during the war renewed his commitment to the values of the antebellum world, “which had given birth and meaning to his nationalistic beliefs.”  The experience of fighting black soldiers for the first time served to remind Lee’s men of exactly what was at stake in the war—nothing less than an overturning of the racial hierarchy of their antebellum world.

Newspapers added to the growing chorus of rage upon learning of the presence of African-American soldiers on the battlefield.  Editors not only used the opportunity to share the details of the battle and the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow,” but also reflected on the broader meanings of black participation.  One newspaper pointed to the hypocrisy of Northern claims of equality between the races and concluded that “hatred of race never dies out.”  “The white man will never fall down to the level of the negro, nor the negro rise up to the level of the white man.”  The upshot of such discussion, according to this writer, was “miscegenation, which is but another name for amalgamation.”  “Saturday was the first occasion on which the Army of Northern Virginia ever fought against negro troops,” wrote the Richmond Dispatch, “and it is hardly probable that Grant’s darkeys will be over-desirous to run against that army again.”  The author of this account could not resist pointing out that “our men, enraged by the cry of ‘No Quarter’ slaughtered them like sheep.”  “Comparatively few were taken prisoners, while hundreds were slain.”  Perhaps out of a need to explain away what appeared to be fearless behavior exhibited on the battlefield by black soldiers, this writer reduced their conduct to the influence of alcohol: “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long as they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”

The presence of black soldiers at the Crater and other battlefields directly challenged notions of Southern paternalism and racial hierarchy.  In addition to citing alcohol as a stimulus to fight, others blamed Northerners who “fill the hearts of these confiding poor creatures with vindictive rage and thirst for revenge against their people, their masters, who have treated them with kindness and humanity.”  Commentators avoided any acknowledgment that African Americans were engaged in a fight for their freedom and chose instead to contrast Northern “outrages” with the noble Southern soldiers and Robert E. Lee, whom they regarded as “the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.”  The fighting on July 30 was not to be understood simply as another instance of indescribable bloodshed, but rather as a fight for survival against an enemy that was now reduced to inciting formerly loyal slaves against their loving masters.

The View From the Ground: Only for Academics?

I was wondering this morning how long it might take for reviews of The View From the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers to appear.  I decided to do a search and found a very short review in the Charleston Post and Courier.  The review was written by Richard Hatcher who works as a historian for the NPS at Fort Sumter and is co-author of an excellent book on Wilson’s Creek.  I was struck by his evaluation of the book and given that the review is so short it is presented here in full:

The title suggests this book is composed of a series of letters, diary or journal entries, or even reminiscences of Union and Confederate soldiers.  It is not. It is, in fact, a collection of nine academic essays on a number of contemporary issues soldiers faced.

These essays cover a variety of subjects, each of them between 18 and 20 pages. Union soldiers’ views on slavery and race and the manner in which Christians handled temptations of camp life present two general subjects. Discussions of how soldiers of the Fourth Texas Infantry accepted their officers, and which states’ troops deserved or earned the honor of victory at the Battle of the Crater represent more specific topics. Nine separate authors have contributed to this work, and while their styles differ widely, each reads as if it was directed toward an academic audience and not widespread Civil War readers.

It is likely that ‘The View From The Ground’ will appeal only to a limited number of readers outside the ranks of professional Civil War historians.

First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this volume will only appeal to a select group of readers.  That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review any book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you.  Now maybe I am being overly sensitive given that I am a contributor to this volume, but Hatcher’s comments touch on one of the primary motivations behind my research and this blog.  I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.

Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book.  After all aren’t many people interested in the religious and political lives of soldiers?  If you can’t say that the essays would help deepen understanding in these areas than say why, but to suggest that only fellow academics will find these essays interesting implies that there is no room for the general reader to further their understanding.  I do not write only for fellow academics.  Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.

A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible.  God knows we desperately need it.

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: How Americans Have Commemorated and Remembered the Civil War

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 13th annual Civil War conference hosted by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I was honored to be asked to take part by historian and conference organizer Mark Snell.  The conference will take place between June 21-24.


"Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn."  Most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War either, but many who do have a manufactured memory of what has been called the "crucible" of American history.  How has popular media manipulated, portrayed, or romanticized the Civil War?  How did the war’s veterans, post-war politicians, and interest groups remember the war or reconstruct its memory?  Why does the Civil War still conjure sectional, class, and racial tensions?  Why has a red, white, and blue flag, garnered with stripes and stars, evoked such emotion through the years?  This fascinating period of history still inspires debate and consternation, as well as admiration and respect.

During this long weekend of study and learning, we will focus on the forces which interacted to develop modern memory of the American Civil War.  Expert historians will help us to examine how perspectives have been shaped over more than 140 years of input and adaptation by various groups and schools of thought.


John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, will be with us for the entire weekend to guide the learning process and contribute his expertise during talks and tours.  In his keynote lecture, he will identify and elaborate upon some of the variables that account for conflicting memories of the Civil War — using the battle flag controversy as the primary case study for that analysis.  John will also chair Sunday’s ever-popular panel discussion, during which much insight and wisdom flows, some questions are settled, and others are ignited.

Kevin M. Levin teaches history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts a blog called Civil War Memory.  His extensive background in history and philosophy has given him searing insights into the idiosyncrasies and the implications of Civil War history and memory.  In his talk, "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory," Kevin will examine the ways Southerners reinterpreted this pivotal episode during the Battle of Petersurg throughout the postwar.  Memories of the Crater and Confederate Major General William Mahone proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, and the drive towards national reunion.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we more clearly can understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

William Blair is Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and Professor of American History at Penn State University.  Blair’s presentation, "The Politicization of Memorial Days," places the development of memorial holidays, Emancipation Day celebrations, and other remembrances in the context of Reconstruction politics and race relations in the South.  His research examines these civic rituals and demonstrates that the politics of commemoration remained far more contentious than has been previously acknowledged.  Blair’s analysis shows that some festive occasions that we celebrate even today have a divisive and sometimes violent past as various groups with conflicting political agendas attempted to define the meaning of the Civil War.

Thomas Clemens is a renowned expert on the Battle of Antietam and the editor of the Ezra Carmen papers, a post-war compendium of recollections by the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Leading the tour of Antietam National Battlefield, Tom will combine his knowledge of the battlefield and the memories of the battle’s participants to comment on the formation of battle legacy, commemoration, and interpretation.

G. Kurt Piehler is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.  During his presentation, he will recount American efforts to commemorate wars by erecting monuments, designating holidays, forming veterans’ organizations, and establishing national cemeteries.  Kurt’s experience with history and memory is extensive, having worked previously gathering more than 200 interviews with military veterans for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.  He is author of Remembering War the American Way.

Click here for the Registration Form

Rediscovering Civil War Roundtables

Last night I gave a talk to the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable and I had a great time.  Somewhere around 50 people showed up and I tried my best not to disappoint.  Most Roundtable attendees are not familiar with the subject of Civil War memory so it is always a gamble in terms of whether they will respond enthusiastically.  I encouraged the audience to ask questions during the talk rather than at the end.  A roundtable discussion ought to be interactive; there is nothing worse than having to sit and listen to someone read a paper. I can read the paper on my own if you are willing to make a copy.  I used 20 slides, including both popular images of the battlefield and a number of documents that I’ve collected during the research process, as a way to frame the talk.  I touched on various aspects of memory as it relates to the battle, including the postwar career of William Mahone and the disappearance of U.S.C.T.’s from public accounts of the battle.

A number of people came up to me to say thank you for the talk.  I was surprised by how many people admitted that they never thought about Civil War interpretation as a process that evolves over time.   Given that most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in straight-forward battle accounts or hagiographic sketches this is not surprising.  On one level the process should seem obvious if we reflect on how each of us constructs self-narratives.  I actually began the evening with a brief reflection on this connection.  We constantly reshape or reinterpret narratives about our lives.  I can think of a number of traumatic moments in my life and I am very confident that how I understood the event at the time is very different from how I now conceptualize it.  These reinterpretations are as much a function of where the interpreter is at the time as it is about the event in question.  In that sense each of us is a work of history that is continually being revised.  Given this observation it should come as no surprise that groups and even nations navigate through a similar psychological process. 

The largest numbers of people are over 60 years of age so you can easily measure how well you are doing by how many are sleeping.  I can honestly report that only a few people dosed off.  I hope to have the opportunity to speak with more Roundtables in the near future.  By the way, I’ve been asked to take part in a three-day conference on Civil War memory that will be open to the public and involve both lectures and tours.  Details forthcoming soon.  Now if I can only wake up and get ready for classes…

Crater Book Proposal

I was going through some files today and came across the original book proposal that I used for my Crater manuscript.  Given that only a few people have read it I thought it might prove helpful to those of you out there who are contemplating a project of this size.  Since I didn’t have any experience writing a proposal I followed the guidelines of the individual who asked me to submit the project for consideration.  This version dates from the beginning of 2005 and does not include any mention of the final chapter which takes the story of the Crater through the Civil War Centennial.  Feel free to comment as I am very interested in any advice that you can offer for future purposes.

Book Proposal: The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory [temporary title] referred to in proposal as “Remembering the Crater”

Non-technical summary of the project

The battle of the Crater, which took place outside Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864 proved to be one of the bloodiest engagements in the final year of the Civil War.  The attempt on the part of Union commanders to break the growing siege between the two armies by tunneling under a Confederate position and exploding 8,000 pounds of explosives created a battle environment unseen elsewhere.  The novelty of the mine explosion, the close hand-to-hand fighting, extensive casualties, the decision to include United State Colored Troops in the attacking columns, and a decisive Confederate victory guaranteed that the battle would not soon be forgotten by those involved.

This study examines the ways southerners reinterpreted the battle of the Crater throughout the postwar years (1864-1937).  Like those of “Pickett’s Charge,” memories of the Crater proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, the drive towards national reunion, and finally the tenets of Lost Cause ideology.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we can more clearly understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

Review of Appropriate Literature

Few accounts of the Crater exist. Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel’s The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” (1989) is the most complete account of the battle and serves as a foundation for interpreting wartime primary sources.  Though less detailed, Noah A. Trudeau’s The Last Citadel (1991), J. Tracy Power’s Lee’s Miserables and William Marvel’s Burnside (1991) provide relevant information on the battle itself and the decisions made by key officers.  This study does not challenge any of the standard interpretations as they relate to decisions made in connection to the battle or the movement of troops throughout the duration of the battle.  The relevant literature in connection with this study which focuses on memory is much more extensive and can be divided into two camps.  The first camp concentrates broadly on postwar conditions that brought about reconciliation between North and South.  Recent studies by David Blight Race and Reunion (2001) and David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War (2002) examine the role reconciliation played in shaping early histories of the Civil War including its cause and the importance of emancipation.  For the purposes of this study, their analysis of the disappearance of African-Americans from many battlefield accounts is central to this study since their participation at the Crater proved to be a salient fact.  The disappearance of African-Americans from Southern accounts can be seen clearly in two reenactments which took place in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937.

The second camp of memory studies focuses on individual battles. Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (1997) and Thomas A. Desjardin’s These Honored Dead (2003) are the best examples of this second group.  More recent studies of the history of individual battlefields include Timothy B. Smith’s The Great Battlefield of Shiloh (2004).  I intend to integrate the best features from these studies.  Reardon’s focus on Pickett’s Charge is perhaps the closest model for my own. She concentrates on the evolution of memory by analyzing how a specific version, albeit a Virginia-centered account, emerged by the beginning of the twentieth century.  Reardon’s analysis of how that story evolved is understood as the result of internal debates between Confederate veterans, the influence of Lost Cause ideology, the drive towards sectional reconciliation, and the practice of monument building on the battlefield.  This study will also analyze the creation of the Petersburg National Battlefield  Park, which includes the Crater.  Smith’s study of the  development of Shiloh National Military Park focuses entirely on the role of reunion and the politics of Civil War battlefield preservation and serves as a model for this study.

Purpose of the study

“Remembering the Crater” takes as its starting point the accounts penned by Confederates in the period immediately following the battle and seeks to uncover the salient points contained in their letters and diaries.  Robert E. Lee’s men achieved a certain amount of agreement in their assessment of the Crater fight.  In addition to providing detailed coverage of the close hand-to-hand fighting, Confederates were unanimous in their horror and disgust at having to fight African-American soldiers.  Many shared with fondness the treatment accorded to these soldiers once surrendered.  Victory at the Crater reinforced the belief of many in the ranks that Ulysses S. Grant’s continued assaults around Petersburg could be dealt with and that Confederate independence remained in their grasp.  Finally, the battle reinforced the belief within the army and outside that Lee embodied the Confederacy’s only real chance for success.  Though many of these points continued to appear in postwar accounts, “Remembering the Crater” focuses on the ways in which later accounts diverged and attempts to explain why. “Remembering the Crater” examines how interpretations of the battle evolved as a result of various conditions within Virginia and outside the Commonwealth throughout the postwar years.  As one of the few remaining sites from the Petersburg siege, the Crater attracted a steady stream of visitors following the war.  Starting in 1875 and continuing into the twentieth century, Confederate and Union veterans met on the battlefield to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier and to promote sectional reconciliation.  This study focuses specifically on the steps taken by visitors on both sides to bring about a national park in Petersburg that would include the Crater site.  An important component of this focus will be to show the extent to which African-American participation in this battle was ignored for the purposes of reconciliation. The disappearance of African-Americans from the historical terrain can be seen clearly in two reenactments, which took place in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. Reenactments provided a unique opportunity not only for veterans to meet with former comrades, but also for the community to construct and maintain a collective memory. Much of that collective memory underscored principles embodied in the Lost Cause and tended to reinforce white supremacy.  It is not surprising that in such an environment the role United States Colored Troops played in the battle would be ignored.  Analysis of the 1903 reenactment will examine the intersection between the politics of history, race, and public memory at a time when Virginia was already in the process of reorganizing its society around a Jim Crow framework.

The largest section of “Remembering the Crater” focuses on disagreements between Virginians over how the battle should be remembered.  The most contentious point centered on former Maj. Gen. William Mahone who led the Confederate counterattack which resulted in the retaking of the crater salient.  Mahone used the notoriety that went along with a successful military career to further his own postwar projects, first as a railroad magnate and later as a politician.  By 1883, William Mahone had become one of the most controversial and divisive politicians in the country.  As the organizer and leader of the Readjuster Party (named for its policy of downwardly “readjusting” Virginia’s state debt), Mahone led the most successful independent coalition of black and white Republicans and white Democrats. Readjusters governed the state from 1879 to 1883, electing a governor, and two United States Senators, and served six of Virginia’s ten congressional districts.  The legislative agenda of the Readjusters and Mahone’s prominent role within the party and U.S. Senate generated heated attacks in newspapers and more personal forms of communication.  Similar to former Confederate General James Longstreet, Mahone incurred the wrath of a growing “Lost Cause” movement that in addition to rationalizing Confederate defeat sought to maintain Democratic Party solidarity by fostering white supremacy and states’ rights.  Lost Cause advocates such as Jubal Early and others assumed an aggressive posture against ex-Confederates like Mahone who threatened their own conservative social and political agenda.  That Mahone was not an outsider, but a successful Confederate general, had to be dealt with severely and they dealt with him by attacking his war record, including his leadership at the battle of the Crater.  A closer look at Mahone’s postwar difficulties sheds light on the heated debates surrounding the political limits to which the Confederate past could be utilized.  And in doing so it undermines the notion that “Virginia history” and “Confederate history” became nearly synonymous during the first few decades following the war.  Finally, it reminds us that James Longstreet was not the only target (perhaps not even  the most important target) of the Lost Cause crowd’s wrath.

The four years of Readjuster control and the accompanying debates about Mahone’s conduct at the Crater did not exhaust other areas of disagreement between former Confederates relating to central questions about the battle.  Perhaps the most important question concerned which unit could claim responsibility for saving Petersburg and the Army of Northern Virginia on July 30, 1864.  Veterans of Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade and North Carolinians in Robert Ransom’s brigade felt ignored in a story that primarily celebrated Mahone’s brigade for reclaiming the salient.  Even brigades in Mahone’s division complained that Virginians were taking an inordinate amount of credit for success and were unwilling to acknowledge the roles played by other units in retaking the Crater salient.  “Remembering the Crater” examines why in the end Virginia’s version of events emerged as the standard account.

Significance of the study

“Remembering the Crater” will integrate the various approaches to understanding how memory connects and often affects our understanding of Civil War battles.  While the battles of Shiloh and Gettysburg have received a great deal of attention from historians interested in memory, focusing on the Crater reminds us that lesser-known battles loomed large in the minds of those working to use the recent past to achieve specific goals.  Finally, by focusing on the years up to 1937, this study encompasses a span of time much larger than previous studies and allows for an investigation of how the Civil War continued to impact popular culture on the eve of World War II.

Research design (Methods and procedures)

“Remembering the Crater” relies heavily on the scholarship of David Thelen and Michael Kammen.  Thelen popularized the study of memory in his 1989 Journal of American History article which integrated the latest findings in the fields of psychology, neurology, and philosophy.  According to Thelen and Kammen, memory is a present-focused construction dependent upon the assumptions and perspective from which the rememberer views events.  It is assumed that memory always serves the individual’s present needs.  The focus in this study on competing accounts of the Crater provides a window into the ways in which memories of events are constructed by social groups according to the group’s changing needs and how the memories of different social groups are often in conflict for dominance.

Project time line

This study is being written as an M.A. thesis for the University of Richmond and will be defended by May 2005.  The research for the thesis is complete except for examination of a few collections housed at the University of Virginia.  An article-length overview of this project was published as “On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame: Confederates Remember the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903” in Southern Historian (Spring 2004).  The chapter on William Mahone’s postwar career has been accepted for publication in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (forthcoming 2006).  Sections of the thesis have been presented at conferences over the past year, including the 2004 Regional Meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  A section of the thesis will be presented at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History.  Next summer I plan to collect archival material from the city of Petersburg relating to the Crater and the establishment of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  I plan to revise the thesis into 2006 and should have a completed manuscript by the end of the year.