Thanks to Benjamin Cloyd – author of an excellent study of the history and memory of Civil War prisons – for the very fair review of my book in the most recent issue of Civil War History (March 2014). I should have focused much more on the intersection of the centennial and the civil rights movement in Petersburg.
Cloyd identifies what I now clearly see as the weaker sections of my book. This is likely the last review to appear in an academic journal and overall I am pleased with how the book has been received by the scholarly community. Continue reading
I’ve been very pleased with the reception that my book has received from the scholarly community since its publication in June 2012.. My goal was to write something that would be accessible to a wide audience, but would also be of interest to historians of memory, the Civil War and the American South. Even the critical reviews have been fair and have given me much to think about. I have to say, however, that getting a positive review in The Journal of Southern History [February 2014 (pp. 214-15)] is really something special. For many historians it is considered to be the premier journal in the field. The journal can’t review every new study in Civil War history so thanks to the editorial staff for selecting my book and thanks especially to Bonnie Loughlin-Schultz for writing the review.
Kevin M. Levin’s insightful work opens with the battle of the Crater as depicted in the 2003 film Cold Mountain, which presents the battle as most Americans think of it: Union detonation of explosives under a Confederate fortification followed by terrible hand-to-hand combat and Confederate victory. It is no fluke that the film glossed over the pivotal role of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Instead, its interpretation is the culmination of a nearly 150-year-old contest over how the battle should be remembered.
Levin, known to many historians for his acclaimed blog Civil War Memory, deftly explores the role of race in this battle for memory. In reality, the USCT played a pivotal role and fought bravely in the face of terrible conditions. Petersburg was the first time that General Robert E. Lee’s soldiers faced former slaves on the battlefield, and they responded that day with a violence that held “no tactical purpose” (p. 29). Many captured black troops were executed by Confederate soldiers bent on preserving racial hierarchy in the South. Continue reading
The other day I blogged briefly about a disagreement over a reference I made to a “real [book] review” as opposed to what I would call reader feedback on Amazon book pages. Sure, there may be some dedicated Amazon reviewers out there, but I tend not to go there for substantive and thoughtful critiques. It just so happens that earlier today my publisher passed along what is clearly the most critical review of my book published to date. Thanks to Jason Phillips, who is the new Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University, for reading it and reviewing it for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Jason has a reputation for hard hitting reviews. There are aspects of his review that I agree with and a few with which I disagree, but overall I have no complaints. I certainly think that I could have done much more with the white Northern memory of the battle. I have no intention of writing a formal response here since that would be bad form. My goal is simply to highlight what I think is a pretty good example of a “real review.”
Kevin Levin has selected an excellent subject to study Civil War memory. Among other things, the battle of the Crater marked the first time that units in the Army of Northern Virginia fought (and massacred) United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). Levin insightfully explains how the presence of black soldiers signified everything that Confederates fought for and against without excusing the atrocity. His analysis of the career of Gen. William Mahone, the Confederate hero of the Crater, may be Levin’s greatest contribution. As leader of the biracial Readjuster Party after Reconstruction, Mahone threatened white supremacy and the Lost Cause myth. Levin shows how postwar Virginians’ memories of the Crater not only pitted whites against blacks and northerners against southerners but also former Confederates against each other at a time when political divisions fractured the state. Tracing the memory of the battle into the twentieth century, Levin describes the rise of white memory and efforts, since the civil rights movement, to add a black counter- memory to scholarship and site interpretation. Public historians in particular will benefit from this book. 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
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.