Category Archives: William Mahone/Crater

Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans And Memory

I am posting this entry on Saturday at 2:30pm.  At this time I am sitting in a conference room in the Atlanta Hilton with five other panelists to discuss our work in the View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  The panel is titled “Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and includes Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Kent Dollar, Chandra Manning, Charles Brooks, Jason Phillips and myself.  Since this is a roundtable discussion each panelist is only given about 5 minutes.  This will allow for  plenty of time to engage the audience in discussion.  Here are my remarks.  Since I am posting this on Wednesday there is a good chance that changes will be made before Saturday.  Feel free to comment.

“Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans and Memory”
Presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association,
January 6, 2007

For the past four years I’ve been researching the battle of the Crater in historical memory – primarily the way white Southerners, including the veterans themselves, shaped the public’s understanding of this particular battle. As many of you know the battle took place on July 30, 1864 and involved an attempt on the part of the Army of the Potomac to tunnel under a Confederate salient in hopes of breaking the growing siege of Petersburg.  The Union attack – which included a division of USCT’s – failed miserably and constituted the last decisive victory for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before their surrender in April 1865.  This project started out as an essay on William Mahone – who led the Confederate counterattack at the Crater – and his attempt after the war to utilize his war record to benefit both his business and political careers.  I say this at the outset because my primary goal was not to study Civil War veterans as a group.

As the project moved beyond the narrow focus of Mahone and on to the battle itself the veterans emerged as an integral part of the story.  I had read David Blight’s Race and Reunion and was prepared for evidence of national reconciliation in connection with the Crater battlefield.  Through reunions and monument dedications both Confederate veterans from Virginia and their counterparts in the North used the battlefield as a forum to highlight the bravery exhibited by men on both sides.  And Union veterans  – particularly from Massachusetts – played an important role in working with their former enemies to bring the battlefield under the control of the National Park Service in 1936.  While it is important to acknowledge, as does John Neff in his recent study of the commemoration of Civil War dead, that national reunion and reconciliation was not a given the veterans achieved a great deal of consensus which continues to dominate the way the general public thinks about this particular battle.  The most significant point is the extent to which the role of USCT’s during the battle and their treatment by Confederates following their surrender had been eliminated from public memory by the turn of the century.

While the level of consensus achieved by Confederate veterans about the battle did not surprise me, the strong points of disagreement within their ranks did.  The literature on Confederate veterans beginning recently with Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson point to a gradual achievement of consensus structured around the tenets of the Lost Cause. A more local perspective reveals much more complexity.  I am going to briefly present two examples in connection to the Crater in which conflict amongst Confederate veterans shaped the memory of the battle.  The first is explored in my essay in The View From The Ground.  Veterans of Mahone’s division, including brigades from Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, along with other units from North and South Carolina debated through the turn of the century over who could claim credit for their victory.  Virginians succeeded in claiming the victory as their own by minimizing the contributions of units from outside the Commonwealth.  While their strong convictions about their roles in the battle point to continued feelings of Confederate nationalism their desire to claim the battle for themselves became intertwined with issues of honor rooted in local and state identity.  The tendency for veterans to focus on individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate and American.

More interesting is the fierce debate among veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade that took place as a result of the general’s foray into Virginia politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party.  I explore this in an article that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 2005.  The Readjuster Party controlled the Commonwealth from 1879 to 1883 and resulted in Mahone’s election to the United States Senate.  The Readjusters welcomed Virginia’s black population into the party and as a result enjoyed increased access to the polls and political power around the state.  The racial shake-up that resulted served to divide Mahone’s former command.  In short, Reconstruction came later for Virginians, compared with the rest of the South, not as a result of the federal government or “carpetbaggers” but at the hands of one of their own.

Newspapers reserved plenty of space for former soldiers who aligned themselves with or against their former commander, and they expressed themselves by either reinforcing or challenging Mahone’s reputation as the “Hero of the Crater.”  Mahone was compared with John Brown and Benedict Arnold and questions were raised about his performance at the Crater, including whether he gave the order to charge or whether he was even present on the battlefield.  One of Mahone’s most vociferous critics was Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the Crater.  Given Weisiger’s rank and close association with Mahone his claims to have ordered the attack at the Crater were given a great deal of attention.  The damage done to Mahone’s reputation can be seen in Weisiger’s obituary which appeared in the popular publication Confederate Veteran in 1893 and cited him as the “Hero of the Crater.”

Throughout the postwar period Mahone had taken steps to organize the men under his command tohelp in first consolidating his rail lines and later his political interests.  He did this by assisting in organizing a veteran’s organization that eventually took the generals name and by offering free passes on his rail lines to attend annual meetings.  The debates that involved Virginia’s veterans showed that these men were not simply pawns that could be manipulated but were active political agents in their own right.  The debates between veterans of the battle were not about getting the history right, but about the conditions surrounding who could claim a legitimate connection to a Confederate past.  At the height of Readjuster control history and politics became almost indistinguishable with Mahone himself serving as a lightning rod that divided his old command.  In August 1883, Robert Bagby – who served in the 3rdGeorgia Regiment of Mahone’s division appealed to his fellow comrades to look beyond politics:

It is not my wish or desire to applaud Gen. Mahone for the active part he bore in the late war between the States, or vilify or abuse him for his connection with Virginia state politics but as a Confederate soldier who followed where he led in the dark and trying hours of the past. I, for one, am willing to let politics of the living present rest long enough to remember the record made by Gen. Mahone while fighting for a principle that was near and dear to us all.

Mahone was the most divisive former Confederate general in Virginia following the war, much more so than James Longstreet.  After all, while Longstreet was criticized by popular Lost Cause advocates such as Jubal Early he continued to be welcomed at reunions and other events by the men of his old corps.  Mahone’s political decisions, however, worked to alienate the men under his command and it was these men who worked to end the party’s control of the state by 1883.

Both examples suggest the way the Confederate past could be made to serve the present needs of the men in the ranks and perhaps points in the direction of further research.  There is a great deal of consensus when we look down on Confederate remembrances.  We can see the broad outlines of the Lost Cause, which among other things explained away slavery as a cause of secession and celebrated the virtues of the Confederate soldier and turned the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into icons.  In doing so the Lost Cause presented its readers and later generations with a united front.

When we take the view from the ground, however, we are forced to come to terms with a great deal of conflict that outlasted the war, the fault lines and hidden controversies that often defined the peace.  In the case of the debates between Virginia veterans and their one-time comrades over who could claim credit for victory at the Crater the men identified more with their own states rather than a more abstract Confederate past.  Within Virginia itself the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade came to blows over the political decisions of their former commander.  In both cases the experiences of the Civil War continued to provide meaning on a local level to the way Confederate veterans identified with their changing surroundings in a post-emancipationist world.

So where do we go from here?  I am intrigued by the possibilities that community studies offer as an avenue for future study.  They provide the right level of focus as they are more likely to exploit local politics and other issues that are missed in broader studies.  Unfortunately most of these local studies give short thrift to postwar experiences or if they do steer clear of issues of memory.  An exception to this rule can be found in Jonathan Sarris’s A Separate Civil War, which compares Lumpkin and Fannin counties before, during and after the war – both situated in northwest Georgia.  The postwar experiences of Confederate veterans and Unionists neighbors in both counties and the sometimes bitter debates that took place are rendered intelligible through a careful analysis of the socio-economic patterns that shaped their pre-war and wartime experiences.  There are other possibilities for future research which we can talk about during the discussion session.

Crater Manuscript Finished!

After four years of research and writing I am pleased to report that my manuscript on memory and the battle of the Crater is finished.  There are a few things to touch up before I send it off to the publisher next week, but the bulk of the work is done.  It’s been quite a journey and a learning experience.  I am under no illusions about the process between the submission of the manuscript and its eventual publication.  First, the editors at the press must decide if they really want it and then it will be sent out for peer review.  This will no doubt take some time and I expect that I will have to make changes in response to their comments and concerns. 

Still, it does feel good to be finished with such a big project.  I  feel just a bit lighter today.

The Crater In The Classroom

As many of you know my Civil War elective has both a research and reading component.  In reference to the latter my students read a series of articles that address many of the important interpretive debates of recent years.  We’ve read articles by Gary Gallagher, James McPherson, Peter Carmichael, James Marten, David Blight, and Drew Faust.  A few weeks ago one of my students asked if we could read one of my publications.  I resisted at first, but a few of the other students chimed in in support of the request.  So today the class came prepared to discuss "On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame": Remembering the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903" which appeared in the 2004 issue of the journal Southern Historian (pp. 18-39). 

I have to say that it felt just a little awkward at the beginning.  As they pulled out the article I noticed that a number of students had highlighted and/or written notes in the margins.  It was strange to see my own work dissected by my own students.  I always start by asking the class to explain the author’s thesis in the clearest terms.  As you can imagine it was a bit uncomfortable to ask, "What is Levin’s thesis?"  The article gave the class a clear sense of the broader project that I am close to finishing.  They asked about specific interpretations of evidence and clarification of other points.  As we discussed the main themes I showed some images of the Crater, Mahone, and the 1937 reenactment.  We had a nice discussion which revolved around the contrasting images of John Elder and Don Troiani and their depictions of black soldiers during the battle.  I spent a good chunk of time discussing Mahone’s political career and its effect on his war record.  I am willing to bet that the 11 students in this class will be the only students in the country to learn about the Readjusters.  All in all it was a fun class.

The semester is coming to an end in a few days and the class is finishing up research projects.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the students in this section and will miss them come January.

Confederate Veterans And The Politics Of Memory

In the next few weeks I have to put together a brief presentation for a roundtable discussion on Civil War soldiers which will take place at the AHA in January.  The panel is made up of five co-authors from the recently released The View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  We have been instructed to prepare some brief comments about methodology and questions that need to be addressed for future research.  My contribution to the book is a chapter from my Crater manuscript which analyzes postwar debates between Virginia veterans of the battle and their former comrades from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolinians.  ["Is Not the Glory Enough To Give Us All a Share?: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the battle of the Crater"] The debates centered on which unit could take responsibility for the victory on July 30, 1864. Here is the central argument of the essay:

Over the past few years, historians
such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way
in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the
way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth
century.  In Blight’s view the veterans
on both sides of the Potomac chose to assign
the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the
battlefield. The shared experiences of
soldierhood was a theme that could bring former enemies together peacefully on
old battlefields.  Such an analysis tells us much about the
general trend toward reconciliation. Debates
between one time enemies over the meaning of the war, however, masks the extent
to which former comrades in Confederate ranks continued to wrangle over
specific questions related to both defeat and victory on the battlefield.  Perhaps the best example of this can be found
in the postwar debates among the Confederate veterans of Virginia
and North Carolina over which state could
claim the deepest penetration of Union lines during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  The disagreement left lasting scars that
continue to fuel heated debates among the members of Confederate heritage
organizations from the two states.

Continued interest in the battle of the Crater easily approached the level of interest in Gettysburg if for no other reason than that the
battle constituted the last significant Confederate victory in Virginia before their surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.  The continuing sectional tension between
Confederate veterans over who would control the public memory of battles such
as Gettysburg and
the Crater solved the problem of which units would shake hands with their
former enemies as blue and grey reunions became more popular. More importantly, veterans utilized their
memories not only as a way to maintain pride in their individual units, but
with the former Confederate nation.  Strong feelings of nationalism could not be set aside even as the men in
the ranks returned home to rebuild and decide when or if to take the loyalty
oath to the Union. Recounting their
heroics on the battlefield allowed some veterans to begin to make the
psychological shift that involved redefining themselves as Americans.  The tendency for veterans to focus on
individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states
may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate
and American
.  For others, the
concentration on the past simply provided a means to avoid thinking about
defeat in a post-emancipation world. Regardless of the reasons, the steps taken
early on in the postwar years by Virginia’s veterans to celebrate and
commemorate their valor and sacrifice on battlefields such as the Crater only
served to isolate their former comrades from outside the Old Dominion and
to diminish their service and sacrifice for the Confederacy. (pp. 227-28)

The overall goal in this chapter is to demonstrate that Confederate soldiers utilized their memories of service for a number of different purposes throughout the postwar period.  The interesting aspect of this story, which I explore in a different chapter of the manuscript, is that Virginia veterans not only competed with fellow veterans from outside of the Commonwealth but with one another during the four years of Readjuster control under William Mahone.  Veterans of the Virginia brigade battled one another depending on their political affiliation (Readjuster v. Funder) and Mahone was caught in the middle.  Supporters of Mahone defended their former commander from attacks which challenged his own claims to the title of "Hero of the Crater" and his most vociferous critic was none other than Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who aligned himself with the Funders.  In other words, one way of challenging his politics was by attacking his war record.  And the problem for Mahone was that he worked hard throughout the first decade following the war to shape his war record to benefit both his business and poltical career.  Confederate veterans in Virginia were highly political and their memories were shaped by the controversy surrounding the Readjuster Movement.  I will share additional thoughts as I organize the presentation.

Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.