Category Archives: William Mahone/Crater

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."

The 1937 Crater Reenactment

Here is a little taste from my ongoing Crater project.  This short section is from chapter 5 which explores events in Petersburg during the first few decades of the twentieth century.  The images are located at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  The first image is a map of the Crater site at the time it was owned by the Crater Battlefield Association which turned it into an 18-hole golf course.

The acquisition of the Crater site by the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936 should be understood within a broader context of economic revitalization. Public officials in Petersburg continued to look for ways to use its Civil War battlefields as a way to attract both businesses and new residents. The PNMP urged residents to see its history as not simply a way to commemorate the “valor of the Blue and the Gray.” The park would attract tourists, conventions, “permanent investments,” employment, and finally, it would “open new territory available for suburban subdivisions . . . and will increase the value of the land around the park.” The Pine Gardens estate sale which took place in September 1929 drew a direct connection between residential development and preservation: “It behooves every one who had a relative to serve or die in this great conflict of the Civil War to own at least a small portion of this sacred and beloved soil.”

With the Crater site under park supervision, officials spent most of the summer and fall of 1937 removing golf traps and greens; [Crater was turned into an 18-hole golf course] the planting of trees and shrubs was done to shield the field from modern structures along nearby highways. A restoration of the entrance to the mine shaft was also started in 1937. Workers uncovered shell fragments, nails and other articles as the work progressed. Excavations indicated that the starting point of the tunnel corresponded with the location of the stone monument placed there by the veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania in 1907. In November 1937, the remains of two Union soldiers were found.

In addition to physical improvements to the landscape, Park officials erected markers that outlined the battle. The content of these markers reflected an interpretation that by the turn of the century had become standard. The overall mission of the PNMP was to “commemorate the valor and devotion of the American soldiers of the Revolution and the War Between the States.” Visitors were expected to interpret the battlefield “on which the manhood of the North and of the South, each contending for high ideals, engaged in the final decisive struggles of the war of 1861-1865.” Such an interpretation left no room to acknowledge the battle as a moment for African-American soldiers to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice their lives for freedom. Neither was there mention of the rage exhibited by Confederates at having to fight black soldiers or the well-documented incidents involving their execution following their surrender. Mahone’s Virginia brigade was singled out as the most important component leading to Confederate success: one marker, titled “Mahone’s Charge,” was described as including “800 men of Weisiger’s Brigade” and “composed mainly of Petersburg men.”

The Park Service wasted little time utilizing the Crater to attract people to the battlefield On April 30, 1937, a reenactment was held for an estimated 50,000 spectators. An immense amount of planning and publicity work was required, and during the month preceding the reenactment, Park employees devoted most of their time to the affair. Preparations included the construction of a stand, an enclosure for invited guests, six latrines, two enclosures for the press, two structures to represent bombproofs, temporary imitation earthworks and battery positions. Workers went to great lengths to create a realistic visual for the audience; monuments on the fields were camouflaged, and arrangements were made to prohibit airplanes from flying over the area during the day.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reported to its readers that they could “see reproduced the greatest fiasco in modern warfare.” Once again the attention would be on Mahone’s brigade; those in attendance would see how they “came to reinforce the Crater’s defenders and how they dashed into the Crater themselves, screaming the Rebel yell, goaded to insane fury by the faces of a Negro division Burnside had thrown into the fight”—one of the few references to Confederate rage at having to face black soldiers. Six thousand seats for spectators were sold for 50 cents, though general admission and parking came with no charge.

With national reunion solidified, press releases from the Park Service and other public offices in Petersburg advertised an event that would celebrate the heroism of the American soldiers and the battle in neutral terms. Historian, Raleigh Taylor described the reenactment as a commemoration of an “important phase in American history.” When describing the failed Union attack, Taylor made it a point to mention that their “Regiments and brigades served gallantly.” Finally, Taylor hoped that visitors would walk away with a better understanding of the “costly folly of war.” James Latimer of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce touted the reenactment as an opportunity to “commemorate the military operations . . . in that historical city in 1864 -65, and to preserve the earthworks and fortifications erected there during what proved to be the longest and bloodiest siege operations in the history of the American Republic.”

The concentration on battlefield heroics and an attempt to attract visitors from beyond the Commonwealth left no room to commemorate the deeds of African Americans who fought at the Crater. In a radio address presented on two occasions in the days leading up to the reenactment, Raleigh Taylor discussed the history of the battle and included an account by Confederate veteran George Bernard in his War Talks of Confederate Veterans. Bernard remembered meeting a “darky” during the countercharge who “begged to be spared, and, on being told he would not be shot, immediately began fanning a wounded Confederate as a way of showing his change of sides.”  As in the case of the 1903 reenactment, African Americans were presented as docile, and more importantly, not committed to fighting for their freedom. Event organizers once again failed to include any overt references to African Americans in their recreation of the battle.

A total of nearly 3,000 men, including 650 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute and 1,200 Marines, played the roles of the combatants.  Rehearsals took place on April 30 to ensure accuracy; a 38-pound charge was exploded in imitation of the mine explosion that had signaled the start of the battle. For the Marines the “sham battle” was an opportunity to finally play the role of the victors: “They obligingly have met defeat in their role of Union troops in several previous Virginia reenactments of battles of the ‘60’s.” Preparations also benefited from programs in Franklin Roosevelt’s NewDeal. Replicas of the flags carried into battle were made by women in the Works Progress Administration, many of whom were descendants of participants in the battle, and camps for the reenactors were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Celebrations commenced with an opening address by Congressman Drewry, who introduced several of the prominent guests, including Virginia Governor George C. Peery. Douglas S. Freeman provided historical background to the events of July 31, 1864, and with the help of a telephone system pointed out landmarks on the battlefield. Only four men from Mahone’s brigade were in attendance; one of the four was 93-year-old Francis M. Ridout of Petersburg. Invitations to Union veterans who took part in the battle went out, but none attended owing to age. Park officials judged the reenactment a success and were especially pleased that little damage had been done to the grounds. Franklin W. Smith, president of the Petersburg Battlefield Park Association, believed “it was one of the greatest things ever held in Petersburg.” Two days later, a Petersburg paper reported that one army officer still “has not gotten over his thrill of witnessing the reenactment.”

The day before the reenactment an editorial appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch expressing concern over the upcoming event. The writer believed that it would be unfortunate if the National Park Service’s goal was to simply “impress onlookers with the feeling that war is glamorous or in any sense an alluring spectacle.” “We hope the lesson to be learned from it,” continued the writer “will be that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.” On the eve of World War II, the memory of the Crater had taken an interesting turn. Because so much time had elapsed since the battle, the significance of the Crater could no longer be understood simply in historical terms. The generation of Americans that had fought the war was all but gone, and a younger generation stood poised to be sent back to foreign battlefields. Within this context, the writer of the editorial acknowledged that those who attend the reenactment “will doubtless be deeply impressed with the bravery and sacrifice of our forefathers.” At the end of the day, however, “we hope they will highly resolve that no such heroism shall be asked of this generation of Americans.”

George Bernard: 12th Virginia Infantry

A few years ago a collection of papers belonging to George Bernard was uncovered.  I remember hearing about it from someone down at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, but at the time it was not known who had discovered the papers or what was being done with them.  The collection looks to be a set of talks along the lines of his 1892 War Talks of Confederate Veterans – perhaps a second volume.  Well, yesterday I was contacted by an individual who is organizing the material for publication.  I have yet to speak to him, but I have to say that this is very exciting news for those of us interested in Mahone’s division and specifically the Crater.

War Talks is one of the most important sources on the Crater.  The book is essentially a collection of talks presented to the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans in Petersburg, Virginia along with various appendices of newspaper clippings about various battles.  The section on the Crater easily comprises the largest section of the book.  In 2003 Morningside Press issued a reprint of the book.  Unfortunately, the reprintlacks an introduction which is absolutely necessary if one is to understand Bernard’s goal.  The book’s publication in 1892 followed very intense debate among Mahone’s veterans surrounding his role at the Crater.  Mahone’s foray into politics and his leadership of the Readjuster Party split his former command, including David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the battle and later became one of his most vociferous critics.  Many of Mahone’s critics argued that he was not with his men on the field and that he did not order the famous counterattack.  Bernard’s main goal was to show that Mahone was in fact on the battlefield on July 30 1864 and gave the order to charge the Federals who were hugging a perimeter not much larger than the outline of the Crater itself.  In addition to debate among Virginia’s veterans there was also an on-going debate between veterans from Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia over who could claim responsibility for victory at the crater.  [My forthcoming essay in The View From the Ground analyzes this debate along with Bernard's account.]  Bernard’s War Talks focused on solidifying the victory for Mahone’s Virginia brigade.  While he acknowledged the presence of the Alabama and Georgia brigades, according to Bernard, the charge of the Virginians was responsible for retaking the Crater.  Without any background surrounding these debates it is impossible to understand why Bernard chose to concentrate on these specific themes of the battle.

The book proved to be very influential in organizing the 1937 Crater reenactment.  Douglas S. Freeman used it for his narrative that accompanied the event and the National Park Service used War Talks for their battlefield markers.  I look forward to learning what exactly is contained in this collection of papers, whether they were being organized by Bernard for publication and when. 

James Clark Remembers The Crater (117th New York Infantry)

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on neo-Confederates and the Crater.  One of my readers was kind enough to forward me a short excerpt from James Clark’s The Iron Hearted Regiment which tells the story of the 115th New York Infantry and was published in 1865. 

A colored division mount the works, and they too go forward on the charge. We watch them eagerly; it is their first fight, and we wonder if they will stand the shock. Noble fellows! Grandly they cross the field; they are under a withering fire, but still rush on regardless of fallen comrades, and the storm of pitiless lead and relentless grape that pours upon them from three sides, and gain the works with a ringing cheer. Now they sweep everything before them. Prisoners are taken, and are forced to run the fearful gauntlet of fire. A fellow comrade said he saw a colored soldier in an agony of frenzy, bayonet a rebel prisoner, and his own captain justly shot him dead. Others place wounded comrades in blankets and shelter tents, and compel the chivalry at the point of the bayonet to carry them from the field. The colored troops are greatly elated at their success, and wildly mass and crowd together regardless of all order or position." (p. 148)

It would be very interesting to survey the evolution of Union accounts of the Crater and the performance of U.S.C.T.’s.  As I suggested yesterday, a significant number of accounts penned by Union soldiers were critical of their performance.  I obviously do not know whether Clark’s 1865 account was pulled from an earlier diary or letter written at the time of the battle.  To what extent – if at all – does the date of publication in 1865, along with the strong emotions of victory and the passage of the 13th Amendment influence this account?

Neo-Confederates On The Crater

Over at H-CivWar Donald Shaffer reviews John Cimprich’s recent study, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (LSU, 2005).  I read the book and have to say that I was just a bit disappointed.  With a title that includes a reference to “public memory” and the presence of U.S.C.T.’s I was hoping for something that would help me think through similar issues about the Crater and memory.  Unfortunately, the section on memory was much too short and provided very little information on how to better understand the evolution of accounts about the battle and massacre of black soldiers.  A short section of Shaffer’s review resonated with me:

The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort Pillow:  A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_–its brevity.  Although there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant topics unexplored or underexplored.  By focusing much of chapter 7 on the development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent interpretations of this incident too thinly covered.  Indeed, one memory topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger  view of African Americans in the conflict.

I’ve spent too many bytes on the question of how neo-Confederates handle issues of race and the presence of black soldiers in the Union army.  We know the drill: thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy and were loyal throughout the war.  Shaffer rightfully criticizes Cimprich for not discussing more recent attempts to minimize or ignore the slaughter of black soldiers at Fort Pillow  I’ve seen the same thing in reference to the Crater.  The argument typically has two parts.  First, ignore wartime accounts authored by Confederates who took part in the battle and then emphasize until you are blue in the face that Union soldiers also “massacred” black soldiers during and after the battle.  One of the best examples of this can be found at the website, The Petersburg ExpressThis passage is the result of an email that I wrote that was posted on their website.  Lucky me.

To isolate the incidents of White Confederate soldiers killing USCT while ignoring incidents of White Union soldiers killing USCT, [USCT killing White Confederates], or the murders of White soldiers by White soldiers on both sides presents incidents of USCT being killed by White Confederates as a false and inflammatory image. It makes it appear that such incidents were particular and one-sided when they were part of a much wider pattern perpetrated by both sides. You also fail to understand that Confederate soldiers served side-by-side with Blacks who operated in the Confederate military not only in support functions, but also as armed Confederate combat soldiers. The evidence of their combat service as contained in the Federal Official Records, Northern newspapers, and the letters and diaries of Union soldiers are so numerous and compelling that the National Park Service has recognized their service undertaken to research those sources and add them to the African-American History Web Project.
I want to start by saying that in my extensive research of wartime accounts I came across a number of Union accounts that expressed the worst kind of racism towards the black soldiers who took part in the battle.  A number of soldiers went so far as to explain the Union defeat as a result of black soldier’s lack of courage.  I even came across a couple of accounts where the writer admits to seeing black soldiers treated violently by their white counterparts, including one New Hampshire soldier who admits to seeing a black soldier shot as he ran from the Crater.

As I see it the problem for neo-Confederates is that while they are correct in pushing for the recognition that black soldiers were treated poorly on both sides there is simply nothing comparable to  Confederate wartime accounts.  Letters, diaries, and even newspapers are littered with accounts of how black soldiers were treated both during and after the battle.  There should be no surprise about this given the way these men interpreted the site of armed, uniformed, and angry black men.  They make clear in their letters and diaries that their presence on the battlefield clarified just what was at stake if the war were lost.  Of course racism coursed throughout the country before, during and after the Civil War. No one region had a monopoly on it. That does not, however, cancel the need for a careful study of how Confederate soldiers behaved at the Crater and why.  To ignore these accounts is to leave out a salient aspect of the battle.  In trying to nail down just how many black soldiers were shot after the battle I rely on Bryce Suderow’s article in the journal, Civil War History [(Sept. 1997): 219-24].  If he is way off the mark then let me know.

In their failure to include wartime sources the website stresses postwar accounts and usually without any analysis.  Consider this page which brings together a number of accounts purporting to support the idea of black Confederates.  No interpretation of when they were written, by whom, or why, just lay it out and hope that the reader will jump to their preferred conclusion.  Anyone familiar with the literature on postwar politics and the trend towards reunion and reconciliation understands the hazards of interpreting these sources.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that these sources shed no light on the war, but there needs to be some analysis provided.  Isn’t that was serious history involves?  Challenging accounts that help us understand what happened at the Crater and why by arguing that racism and poor treatment prevailed in the Union army does not get us any closer to understanding wartime Confederate accounts.