A few weeks ago I was interviewed, along with Glenn LaFantasie, at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. It was a real honor to be invited to take part in their Virtual Book Signing program. The interview and book signing was recorded and is now available on their YouTube channel. The store still has a few signed copies of my Crater book and I encourage you to support the store if interested in a first edition. All four parts can be found below.
At about this time the USCTs of the Ninth Corp’s Fourth Division had entered the battle. Part of one brigade ended up in the confusion of the crater itself, but much of the division managed to maneuver to its right and into the confusing and complex chain of earthworks that extended outward. A couple of regiments pushed their way to some of the most forward positions that any Union regiment would occupy this day. They performed admirably in what was a difficult situation.
That said, there remains some confusion as to their role in the outcome of the battle of the Crater. Part of the story about the Crater and the men of the Fourth Division rests on a counterfactual or an assumption about the preparedness of the men under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s command. Consider the following from an article in the Petersburg Progress-Index:
“This breakthrough would have likely ended the war,” said Park Ranger Randy Watkins, who blames incompetent Union commanders, who in a last minute decision pulled a well-trained group of U.S. Colored Troops from the frontlines to replace them with less experienced white soldiers. “The Union should have won this battle,” Watkins said.
It’s as if we want the difference between victory and defeat to rest on the racism of the Union high command. “If only Meade had more confidence in these men….” Meade simply did not believe that these men stood a better chance of success compared to the white soldiers and their use came with political risks. Much of this is based on the well told tale that the Fourth Division had been trained specifically for this attack. It is true that they trained, but it must be remembered that this would be their first real taste of battle. While a few regiments may have performed drills tailored to a cratered landscape the evidence suggests that much of their training was done as part of any attempt to prepare green troops for battle.
Even before Mahone’s counterattack commenced Confederates in the area around the crater kept up stiff resistance and did much to stymie the Union advance. One reenactor quoted in the Progress-Index commented on the bravery of these men:
“The Battle of the Crater stands for the resolve of the Southern man,” said re-enactor Michael Peacock, a Texas native who now calls Midlothian his home. “To Confederate soldiers, there was no surrender. This ran deep in their veins and still does,” he said. Sam Watkins, who portrayed a private in the Confederate artillery, said that the Battle of the Crater was more important than the Battle of Gettysburg. “This right here was the defense of Petersburg,” he said.
Indeed, there was no surrender…no surrender that is for many of the black soldiers in the Fourth Division. And this had everything to do with the fact that they were defending a civilian population in Petersburg. Whatever ran “deep in their veins” it was excited by the fact that the site of black men in uniform solidified what the war was about and what the consequences would be if a Confederate victory in this battle and the war were not secured.
Just a quick shout out to Daniel Weinberg (l) and Bjorn Skaptason (r) of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop for inviting me to Chicago as part of their Virtual Book Signing series. I had a wonderful time. Dan did a great job interviewing me along with Glenn LaFantasie. We didn’t get into any great detail having to do with the book, but I appreciate his laid back style and the chance to reflect on some broader issues related to historical memory. I signed around 25 copies and we even had a nice little audience in the story, which made it that much more intimate. The store has a small number of signed copies available for purchase and I strongly encourage you to buy from them if interested. It’s important that we do what we can to keep independent book stores like ALBS in business. The interview should be uploaded at some point soon and will be posted here at that time.
My wife and I had a great time in Chicago, though our stay was much too short. We did meet up with old friends and had an incredible dinner in Greek Town yesterday evening. We did a great deal of walking and spent plenty of time looking up at the beautiful architecture. That said, it was nice to touch down earlier tonight in Boston. I’ve spent much of the past month on the road so it will be nice to relax and get back to a regular routine.
Upcoming Talk: This Saturday I will be speaking and signing books at the Grand Army Hall in Scituate, MA. The event is being sponsored by the Sons of Union Veterans and it promises to be a fun time for all. I am going to talk about USCTs at the Crater. My talk will take place at 11am.
Tomorrow I will be signing books at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. The signing and interview, which takes place at 12 noon, is part of their highly successful Virtual Book Signing series. You can watch the program live online, order a signed copy of my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, and have it mailed to you directly. The ALBS has been incredibly supportive of my blog as well as my book. This event was scheduled about a year ago right after I announced the final approval of the manuscript. I am really looking forward to meeting Dan Weinberg, Bjorn Skaptason and rest of the gang. It really is an honor to be asked to participate in an event that has attracted so many talented historian.
Don’t worry if you miss tomorrow’s event as an edited version will eventually be uploaded to their YouTube page. See you tomorrow from the “Windy City”.
Thanks to fellow historian, high school teacher, and blogger Jim Cullen for taking the time to write a review of my Crater book for the History News Network. Jim’s critique is thoughtful and raises some important questions about my interpretation. I especially appreciate the following:
One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history — or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on “heritage,” whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they’re affirming a heritage of — one wonders if the story is this simple. What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.
First, let me say that I do indeed consider the broad parameters of this story as one of progress. Early on one of the reviewers asked me to address some of these questions, especially the question concerning the future of our Civil War memory. While I decided to bring the story to the present day I never felt comfortable about abandoning the traditional ground of a historian. I suspect my next project will free me up in this regard.
I also agree with Jim that this story is predictable for those familiar with the literature, especially David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which despite recent scholarly challenges, continues to exercise a profound influence on my thinking. That said, I didn’t write this book primarily for folks familiar with the historiography. Yes, I hope that the book appeals to scholars, but I wrote it primarily for folks who may never have read an entire book on Civil War memory. I wanted something that would serve as an introduction and lay out some of the tough questions that Americans have grappled with over the years.
Finally, I really appreciate the kind words about my blogging. In many ways, this book was made possible as a result of blogging and fits neatly into this broader project of how I’ve chosen to share my interest in Civil War history and engage the general public.