With not much else going on today I thought I would pass along the news that I’ve agreed to join the faculty for the 2014 Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. This will be my third straight year taking part and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I am especially excited given that the focus of next year’s institute is right up my alley.
As it stands it looks like I will be giving a talk on the battle of the Crater and historical memory as well as leading a break-out session, dine-in session, and a workshop for the scholarship students. It’s a full plate, but it promises to be a lot of fun. Additional historians who have already signed on include Caroline Janney, John Hennessy, Brooks Simpson, Frank O’Reilly, Barton Myers, Robert E.L. Krick, Megan Kate Nelson, and Allen Guelzo.
The year’s institute was sold out, so it might be a good idea to register early, which you can do by clicking here.
Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.
Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences. Continue reading
I am certainly enjoying this run of positive journal reviews of my Crater book. Don’t worry, I plan on sharing the negative reviews as well. The latest is an enthusiastic review from Fitzhugh Brundage in the North Carolina Historical Review (January 2013) and it feels pretty damn good. One of my favorite recent studies of historical memory is Brundage’s The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. I also highly recommend his book on the history of lynchings in the New South. I couldn’t be more pleased that once again Brundage picked out the section on Mahone as the important contribution to the literature. He also makes some interesting suggestions on places worthy of further investigation such as the extent to which the wartime response to the Crater on both sides was already a product of previous encounters. That is definitely worth some thought. Thanks to Christopher Graham for providing me with a copy of this review.
I still have plenty of signed copies available for sale that you can purchase at a discount for $25. As someone who grew up on the Jersey Shore I am certain it will make for some enjoyable beach reading.
Some battles are inordinately interesting, whether because of their drama or their impact. In the case of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30,1864, on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, almost everything about it was extraordinary. It began with a massive explosion of a mine dug under Confederate trenches, included desperate hand-to-hand combat between black Union soldiers and enraged Confederates, and ended with the summary execution of many unarmed Union soldiers. The battle simultaneously hinted at the character of future trench warfare and demonstrated the continuing grip on archaic Napoleonic tactics. Thus, although the battle was neither especially bloody nor a turning point in the war, contemporaries and subsequent observers have assigned to it uncommon import. Continue reading
The latest issue of the Journal of American History (June 2013) includes a review of my Crater book by Chad L. Williams, who teaches here in town at Brandeis University. This is a very fair review. I couldn’t be more pleased to see that Professor Williams highlighted the chapters on William Mahone, the Readjusters and local Virginia politics as constituting the most important contribution to the literature on Civil War memory. Williams is also the first reviewer to mention my blog since Jim Cullen’s review at History News Network last summer. Overall, the reviews have been very positive, which is incredibly gratifying.
Interest in the Battle of the Crater has become something of a cottage industry recently. Books on the July 30, 1864, clash between the Union army of the Potomac and the Confederate army of northern Virginia on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, have appeared from a diverse assortment of “historians,” ranging from Richard Slotkin to Newt Gingrich. The massive explosion (which created the crater and was intended to break Confederate defenses) and the subsequent disastrous Union assault mark two of the most spectacular and tragic moments of the Civil War. However, much of the renewed scholarly and popular interest in the battle has centered on the presence of African American troops and their slaughter at the hands of opposing Confederate soldiers—one of the worst racial massacres of the war. Continue reading
The academic journal reviews of Remembering the Battle of the Crater are just beginning to appear. Overall the reviews have been very positive. It’s encouraging to know that historians, who you respect, believe that the time it took to research and write was time well spent and that it constitutes a worthy addition to the broader historiography. I was surprised that the book review editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era asked Earl Hess to review my book given that he contributed a blurb for the back cover. Either way, it doesn’t get any better than receiving Hess’s stamp of approval in this particular journal. I am thrilled with his review.
There are definitely some things I would do different if I had it to do over again. For one thing I would have done a better job of emphasizing the extent to which the 1903 and 1937 reenactments reflected the limits of sectional reconciliation. This would have situated the book more comfortably within a growing body of scholarship on Civil War memory.
The Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2013): 290-92
The Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, as part of the third Union offensive during the Petersburg campaign, has drawn a good deal of attention in the past few years. Several books have been published dealing with the military history of the event, which now seems well covered in the secondary literature. Kevin M. Levin, however, has written a study not of the battle itself but of how it has been remembered over the past 150 years, with a special emphasis on the controversial fact that a division of black troops participated in the attack that followed detonation of the mine that created the famous crater. Many of those troops were slaughtered in the counterattack that restored Robert E. Lee’s line outside the city, shot down in cold blood by enraged Confederate soldiers. Continue reading