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 “Crater Book Reviewed in Journal of American History”→
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 “Earl Hess Reviews My Crater Book”→
Here are three photographs of the Crater from the Petersburg Museum that did not make it into my book. The first was taken inside the mineshaft itself and is dated 1926, though it is difficult to estimate exactly where. Notice the sunlight that is coming in from above. I assume the photograph was taken close to the entrance. The second one shows a depression in the soil that follows the mineshaft up to the Crater itself, which is located by the cluster of trees just over the ridge line. It doesn’t look much different from today. It was taken sometime between 1926 and 1934. The final photograph, I believe, is from a point just west of the Crater looking northwest. The tree line is much fuller today and extends all the way to the Jerusalem Plank Road. It was taken in 1906. I would love to find a photograph of the battlefield in the 1920s that showed the actual golf course.
Looks like students at South Pointe High School are bringing to life the diary of Lt. Samuel “Catawba” Lowry, who served in the 17th South Carolina Infantry. Lowry’s diary is well worth reading. He provides a great deal of detail about camp life, battle, as well as his experiences with his servants. His final diary entry comes just days before the battle of the Crater in which he was killed. Lowry’s servant, Henry Avery recovered the body and escorted it home to Yorkville for burial. On the one hand, I love projects like this. Unfortunately, it looks like both teacher and students might be taking a bit too much license with the diary.
It is a story about Lowry’s home and his family – a story about his beloved Southland. Most of all, is a story about relationships and bonds of brotherhood. It is also a story that some of the South Pointe cast members hope will challenge the stereotypes of the Civil War and slavery. Three of the essential voices in the play are Lowry family slaves: Horace, Jesse and Henry. They accompanied young Samuel to war. The diary never uses the word slave. Lowry refers to them as servants or boy. It was Henry who descended into the crater, recovering Lowry’s body. Henry then found Lowry’s possessions – including the diary – and then brought Lowry home to Yorkville for burial. South Pointe teacher James Chrismon and students such as junior Nicholas Arsenal turned the diary into a stage play. The play is not literal – some theatrical licenses were taken – but it stays true to Lowry’s beliefs and to his prose….
Anthony McCullough, one of two black students in the play, said the production “makes me realize that black people have come a long way.” Arsenal said he hopes the play changes some perspective on slavery. “It wasn’t right, but not everyone was treated so badly. “This play is about equality,” Arsenal continued. “Race doesn’t matter. Anyone can be your family,” he said.
“In this stunning and well-researched book, Kevin Levin catches the new waves of the study of memory, black soldiers, and the darker underside of the Civil War as well as anyone has. That horrible day at the Crater in Petersburg, its brutal racial facts and legacies, all tangled in the weeds of Confederate Lost Cause lore, have never been exposed like this. Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.”
– David W. Blight, author ofRace and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory