Category Archives: William Mahone/Crater

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.

The View From The Ground Now Available In Bookstores

Although the book is not slated for release until December I was able to pick up a copy yesterday in my local bookstore.  The full title is The View From The Ground: Experiences Of Civil War Soldiers and is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean with an afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.  The publisher is the University of Kentucky Press and the book is part of a new series called New Directions In Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, William Link, and Michelle Gillespie.  I have to say that it’s nice to see one of my essays in book form and in a collection that includes some very talented historians.  Here is the Table of Contents:

1. The Blue and the Gray in Black and White: Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
2. A “Vexed Question”: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race by Chandra Manning
3. A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy by Jason Phillips
4. “The Army Is Not Near So Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front” by Lisa Laskin
5. “‘No Nearer Heaven Now but Rather Farther Off”: The Religious Compromises and Conflicts of Northern Soldiers by David W. Rolfs
6. “Strangers in a Strange Land”: Christian Soldiers in the Early Months of the Civil War by Kent T. Dollar
7. ‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear”: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement by Timothy J. Orr
8. Popular Sovereignty in the Confederate Army: The Case of Colonel John Marshall and the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment by Charles E. Brooks
9. “Is Not the Glory Enough to Give Us All a Share?”: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the Battle of the Crater by Kevin M. Levin
10. Afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.

I will be joining Dollar, Phillips, Manning, Brooks, and Sheehan-Dean for a roundtable discussion at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2007 in Atlanta.  The session is titled, Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and will focus on different methodological approaches to researching our subjects.  The session is scheduled for Saturday, January 6 from 2:30-4:30pm in the Hilton Hotel’s Monroe Room.

In the meantime pick up a copy of The View From The Ground; it will make a great stocking stuffer.

The “Second Emancipation Proclamation” That Wasn’t

One of the things that I am trying to explain in the final chapter of my Crater manuscript is why a reenactment of the battle did not take place in July 1964, given the popularity of two previous reenactments and reunions in 1903 and 1937. A closer look at the Civil War Centennial reveals a contested landscape between Americans who wished to celebrate a “Reconciliationist” and heroic interpretation of the war and the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and its reminder of a long-forgotten “Emancipationist” account of the war.

This conflict emerged in its clearest form at the end of 1962 as the Kennedy administration tried to figure out the best way (politically speaking) to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation without offending Southern whites who would be needed to help reelect the president in 1964.  As late as December 26 Kennedy was handed the text of a proposed statement to be read on January 1, 1963:

Whereas Negro citizens are still being denied rights guaranteed by the constitution and laws of the United States, and the securing of these rights is one of the greatest tasks of our democracy:

Now, therefore, I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim that the Emancipation Proclamation expresses our Nation’s policy, founded on justice and morality, and that it is therefore fitting and proper to commemorate the centennial of the historic Emancipation Proclamation throughout the year 1863.

Kennedy refused to issue the statement, and instead decided to invite prominent African-American leaders to the White House which would minimize the damage to white constituents in the South and possibly lead to coverage by magazines such as Jet and Ebony.  So, what did Kennedy do on New Year’s Day?  He attended the Orange Bowl game in Miami and watched Joe Namath lead the University of Alabama to victory.  This was the very same school that had to be ordered by the courts to admit Autherine Lacy in 1956 as the first black student.  White students rioted on campus and in response the school suspended Lacy rather than the students responsible for the violence.

What does it say about a country when its own president refuses to honor the central event of our Civil War?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

James Longstreet Ain’t Got Nothin’ on William Mahone

Here is a statement made by William Mahone upon leaving the Senate:

"I have stood upon Cemetery Hill and looked down on the scene of the great Crater fight, and wondered in my heart if God could have any forgiveness for those men who led the South into that awful war, and are answerable for the blood, the misery, the ruin that followed.  Yet under their teaching I was one of the most bitter and irreconcilable of all who flew to arms in the cause of the State and the Confederacy, and I never learned my wretched error, the awful blunder of the South, the curse of her institution of slavery and her traditions until I sat in the United States Senate, and day by day had borne in upon me the amazing significance of our form of government, what it meant, on what basis it was founded, how great and grand it was above any previous human effort, what it meant for humanity, and how much greater the nation was than any State."