Upcoming Talks

Just a quick reminder that I will be speaking to the Rockingham County Civil War Roundtable on Wednesday, September 19, at 7:30 p.m., in the Truman Room at the Preston Library on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.  The title of my talk is, "The Battle of the Crater and Civil War Memory" and will focus specifically on the Confederate response to USCTs.  More information here.

I mentioned some time ago that there will be a symposium on Lee’s 200th at the University of Virginia from the end of September through October.  Turns out it is being organized as a course with the School of Continuing Studies.  If you plan on attending you must register for the course, which is $110.  Speakers include Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick, Elizabeth Pryor, William Davis, and Holt Merchant.  I will be leading a discussion with Bill Bergen on the final evening.  Click here for information on the program.

White Union Soldiers, Race, and the Battle of the Crater

I am putting the finishing touches on an article which is slated to appear in the next volume of Gary Gallagher’s Campaigns of the Civil War Series (UNC Press).  I’ve gone back and expanded the focus (as well as the Crater book manuscript) to include the perspective of Union soldiers and their perceptions of race and the participation of USCTs during the battle.  My collection of sources has included Union accounts from the beginning of my research, however, for a number of reasons I resisted giving them full voice in my study. Part of the reason can be explained by the fact that the postwar focus on commemoration and memory was carried out overwhelmingly by white Southerners.  Given this I decided that my focus on the war years should concentrate on white Southerners.  Since I received the manuscript reviews back in the spring I’ve had a chance to rethink this approach and have decided to expand the focus if for no other reason than to drive home the challenge that black Americans faced from the beginning in working to place their stories within the broader national narrative. 

Recent studies by James McPherson, Reid Mitchell, Earl Hess, and Chandra Manning have highlighted the racial outlook of Civil War soldiers.  Manning has recently argued that the views of Union soldiers evolved to a point which regarded the abolition of slavery as a necessary step in ending the war.  She also contends that a noticeable change in the views of Union soldiers can be seen much earlier than previously thought.  It is important, however, to distinguish (and I believe Manning does so) between a view that connected the end of slavery with the end of the war and a change in perceptions of race.  Even with all of the evidence that Manning musters in demonstrating the way the realities of war and slave system in the South effected Union soldiers I believe we need to be cautious in drawing conclusion which purport to trace views of race over time.  A close look at the response of Union soldiers to their defeat at the Crater is a case in point. 

The other point I want to make before sharing a few wartime accounts is that my inclusion of Union soldiers is not to simply reduce their experiences to those of Confederates (white Southerners).  Racism was no doubt a reality on both sides, but the experience of fighting with or against black soldiers matter and those salient features of their respective experiences need to be taken into account.  While many Union soldiers clearly blamed the USCTs for defeat at the Crater they did not view their participation as a slave rebellion.   Here are a few samples from my collection:

Louis H. Bell to George, August 12, 1864 [4th New Hampshire Infantry, Commander 3rd Brigade]

“July 31st I witnessed the explosion of the great mine in front of Petersburg and took part [in] the charge and was among those who were run over by the panic stricken negros. [W]e used our sabers freely on the cowards but could not stop them and were driven back – pell nell.”

Lt. Hilon A. Parker to Father, July 31, 1864 [10th New York Heavy Artillery]

"Everything went favorable until at 9 o’clock when the rebels attacked our men but the attack – if we can believe reports – could have been easily repulsed had it not been for a panic which scared the Colored troops who gave way and went to the rear with a rush which was almost as baud as the charge of the rebels themselves.”

Edward L. Cook to Sister, August 4, 1864 [100th New York Infantry]

“How do the people North feel about the Petersburgh affair[?] Everybody here is down on the niggers. Our loss was very heavy but a large portion of it was caused by the white troops firing into the retreating niggers. We had Petersburgh in our power that day if the nigs had not been seized with a kind of unusual panic or if we had followed up our success in taking the first line by an immediate charge on the remaining line. The rebel force was very small in comparison to our own as it is proved that only 1 corps was in Petersburgh.”

Alonzo G. Rich to Father, July 31, 1864 [36th Massachusetts Regiment]

“A charge was then made. We gained the fort and the first line of breastworks without a very great loss. They were then halted. We were doing nicely. It was too much glory for white men. Niggers must go in and they skedaddled and created a panic. If it hadn’t been for them we should have occupied Petersburg yesterday by they mixed them up so that they didn’t show white men any mercy att [sic] all. They even bayoneted and shot our wounded…. I am willing the niggers should fight but I say put them all in together and let them fight. If not, keep them out and let the white men do it. They never will catch me in a fight with niggers.”

Orren S. Allen to Wife, August 3, 1864 [112th New York Volunteer Infantry]

“Many try to lay the blame to the Colored Troops, It is a Lie, they fought like heroes, I saw them and I talked with soldiers who has always been down on them before but said they never seen men fight better. They better not say much about the “Smokes” as they call them. When I saw a Brig. Gen. running for his life from where there was no danger. Men were trampled down like grass, ran like cows and but for the bravery of a few they would have been slaughtered.”

Accounts sympathetic to Orren S. Allen’s view are rare among Union soldiers.  Most of what I’ve found place some blame for the defeat on the USCTs.  What these soldiers fail to acknowledge, however, is that those black soldiers were part of the furthest advance on the battlefield before the initial charge of Mahone’s brigade took place around 9am.  The retreating columns also included white men from New Hampshire regiments.  It is not surprising that white Union soldiers would gravitate towards blaming USCTs for their defeat given that their racial views included the assumption that they made poor soldiers.  It is important, however, to notice that even the most virulent racist could still conclude that the institution of slavery must end for the war to be successfully concluded.  So, while I am sympathetic with those who suggest that Union soldier’s views of slavery evolved during the war I am suspicious of anything comparable in the racial context.   

Update to “Why Is This Monument Here?”

My previous update once again needs updating which is why I decided to blog a separate post.  During my interview yesterday with PNBP Historian Chris Calkins I was given the name of a living historian who portrayed a USCT in the late 1980s.  Little did I know that my conversation today with this individual would clarify this morning’s post on the placement of the USCT monument in Petersburg.  The individual in question was a graduate student at Virginia State University in the late 1980s who saw a need to address the lack of attention to USCTs on the Petersburg battlefield.  In addition to working as a living historian of the USCT experience it turns out that this individual spearheaded the push to commemorate the service of USCTs with a monument.  Of course I asked why the marker was not placed at the Crater. 

While there was talk of placing the monument at the Crater the decision to place the monument at Stop #3/Confederate Battery 9 was to point out that USCT participation went beyond the Crater.  More interesting was the concern that a monument at the Crater would raise additional issues that may have moved the focus away from emphasizing the service and sacrifice of USCTs and their role within the broader story of black freedom.   

Why Is This Monument Here?

Following my interviews yesterday at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park I made my way through part of the driving tour that ends at the Crater.  I shot this photograph at Stop #3/Confederate Battery 9.  It is a monument to United States Colored Troops (dedicated in 1993) who served in both the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James during the Petersburg Campaign.  Now it is true that black troops in Hink’s Division captured this position on the first day, but given the prominence of the Crater in our collective memory and as a tourist destination the question must be asked: Why is this marker not at the Crater?

Follow Up: I received an email from an NPS historian who suggested that the placement of the marker can be explained by the fact that this was the USCTs first major engagement in Virginia and that it was successful.  Neither can be said about the Crater. This is a reasonable response and I want to make it clear that I wasn’t attempting to point to anything conspiratorial.  In fact, it is important to acknowledge that there is a monument to black soldiers in Petersburg.  My only problem with this explanation, however, is that the monument does not address the action of that particular engagement, but is a more general tribute to their service.  In addition, I still have to wonder whether the Crater would have made for a more ideal location given its popularity and given the kind of story that can be told about the service of USCTs in the war and its consequences both on the battlefield and as part of the story of emancipation and freedom.

The Politics of Local History

The Martin Luther King Bridge links the home/museum of Richard Stewart with the downtown Petersburg office of Virginia Delegate Rosalyn Dance.  That bridge can be seen as a metaphor for the relationship between the advocacy for black history by private residents such as Stewart and a local government whose racial profile now makes it possible to address the kinds of public history concerns that was impossible just a few decades ago.

Delegate Dance’s office is on Old Street, which is situated in the center of an ongoing revitalization project in Petersburg.  She is a life-long resident of Petersburg who served as mayor from 1992-2004.  We discussed her personal background and her role and responsibility in the area of public history.  Like Richard Stewart, Dance’s memories of learning about black history was limited.  She recalls hearing about major black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, but no attention was given to local history or the Civil War more specifically.  In her case the history textbooks used were sent from local white high schools, which downplayed any significant or meaningful discussion of black contributions to American history. 

It was not until her election as mayor that Dance took a serious interest in Petersburg’s rich history.  The most pressing concern when she started her first term was the push to protect and preserve the city’s historic homes – an important concern indeed, but one that satisfied the needs of one segment of the population.  Dance reminded me of the changes in local government stemming from white flight, or as she describes it middle-class flight, in the early 1970s.  What remained was a black population that although was not wealthy was able to begin to take advantage of the political gains stemming from the Civil Rights Movement and accompanying legislation.  By the time Dance became mayor in 1992 the city had a tradition of black political action, but it still needed the tax base and economic incentive to bring about more substantial change in different areas. 

One of the things Dance stressed was the importance of city council’s receptiveness to private concerns.  She fondly remembered Lt. Col. William Powell who was a regular speaker at city council meetings.  Powell reminded the council of its responsibility to promote the city’s rich black history, especially during Black History Month.  Richard Stewart continues this tradition.  This serves as an important reminder that the shape of local government can and has had a profound impact on the way history is remembered and shaped in public spaces.  How often do we hear that recent changes along racial lines to a locale’s historical facade reflects the politicization of history, as if the dominant interpretation that held sway for so long was entirely unconnected to politics?  That dominant white-only emphasis was only possible, and lasted as long as it did, because an entire segment of the population was disfranchised and cut off from the shaping of its public spaces.  Dance remembered Powell as a "voice of reason" who forced her to think seriously about the "contributions that blacks have made to America."  Dance went on to note that when she looked around in her community there was no indication that blacks had contributed anything to the nation’s history or the city of Petersburg; from this perspective Dance sees no problem changing the name of a school after Robert E. Lee to reflect the contributions of Vernon Johns.  While the main attraction at Blandford Cemetery are the gorgeous Tiffany Windows which commemorate the sacrifice and service of white Southerners, Dance and others learned that local black residents had been buried in the cemetery.  Literature at Blandford now includes information about these people and why they were buried in such a location.  Finally, the Siege Museum which is funded by the city, includes a substantial amount of information concerning the areas black history.  The most significant change has been the focus on "Regional Tourism" as opposed to a more narrow focus on Petersburg.  Up until recently the surrounding counties did not include the city of Petersburg in its brochures and other publications, which meant that the historical "hub" of the entire region was left out.  Most importantly, the racial differences in the make-up of county governments led to a skewed historical narrative that did little justice to the region’s black history.  A more regional focus will not only bring about a more inclusive historical focus, but will hopefully be rewarded by the influx of additional tourists.  Dance is quick to point out that as mayor and now a Virginia delegate that she is responsible for all citizens.  She prefers to see such changes as a reflection of Petersburg’s history rather than black history.

I asked her a few questions about the NPS in Petersburg.  Like Stewart, there was very little awareness of the Civil War growing up or the role that the park service plays in its preservation.  Coming into office in 1992 brought about her first contact with park officials.  I asked her about those initial meetings and Dance was forthcoming in suggesting that there was some tension.  I’ve explored the evolution of recent interpretive changes at Petersburg in my manuscript.  As late as 1978 a report issued by a team from Howard University found the NPS to be lacking in just about every area of interpretation as it relates to black contributions to the war and the Crater specifically.  Dance seems to have been concerned mostly with the connection between the battlefield and the city.  At one point she asked, "What is the connection to Petersburg?….What draws people to Petersburg?"  This concern can be understood as one of tourism dollars as much as it is about the extent to which the focus of the battlefield interpretation connects to a 10-month siege that enveloped the entire city and region – both black and white.  I asked about the city’s relationship with the NPS in more recent years and Dance mentioned a number of park officials by name and noted that there has been significant progress. 

It is interesting to note that Richard Stewart also offered a positive assessment of the NPS, and both mentioned that a great deal of work needs to be done from within the black community.  The central question that needs to be addressed is why, even with the changes taking place in local communities and from within the NPS, the black community continues to resist identifying the Civil War as part of its own history.  To help understand this better I will be traveling to Washington D.C. on Monday to interview Dr. Frank Smith who is the Director of the African-American Civil War Museum.  In addition to Dr. Smith I will interview three reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts, at least one of which had a bit role in the movie Glory

As an aside I should mention that Delegate Dance reminded me that on on Feb. 27, 1960 about 140 black students walked into the Petersburg Public Library in protest of segregated facilities.  Why is this important?  The library is housed in William Mahone’s home.  As we all know, Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party led to the most significant change in the racial profile of Virginia’s state government as well as Richmond, Petersburg, and other cities.  So here we have a home connected with black political action in the 1880s, which was later sold to a private resident followed by its use as a public library.  That facility was segregated into the 1960s and whose director is now an African-American woman.