Tag Archives: Crater

Glorifying War at the Crater in 1937

Drawn By a member of the WPA Art Staff

In the process of reviewing the final edits for my Crater book I’ve had to go through research files that have not been touched in a couple of years.  Today I read through a bunch of editorials concerning the 1937 Crater re-enactment in Petersburg, which the National Park Service used to mark the inclusion of the battlefield within its jurisdiction.  The event attracted around 50,000 people and was widely publicized around the state.  Thought the support was overwhelming among white Virginians I was struck by the number of editorials the expressed concern over what they viewed as the glorification of war through re-enactment.  Having experienced WWI and having to consider the possibility that American boys might be sent overseas once again it is not surprising that a vocal minority expressed concern.  I thought I would share a few excerpts given the current debate about the place of re-enactments in the ongoing sesquicentennial.

Richmond Times-Dispatch (April 29, 1937)

It would be extremely unfortunate if the re-enactment of the Crater and other famous battles of the War Between the States under the auspices of the National Park Service, should impress upon onlookers with the feeling that war is a glamorous, or in any sense an alluring spectacle…. [W]e hope the lesson to be learned from it will that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.

The Petersburg Progress-Index (April 30, 1937)

We need to stop glorifying war and begin to glorify peace.  I recall something in personal experience of the horrors of the so-called Civil War, and have had my best friend shot down by my side while warring with Indians, and we all have seen the results of the unrighteous World War, in which we had no business taking part.  We should be cured of the war spirit.  And that is the kind of spirit, that the re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater fosters among the youth of the land who are to be our future congressmen and leaders.

The Richmond News Leader (May 6, 1937)

Apropos the “Crater,” celebration at Petersburg.  I am wondering if it was wise or helpful.  Should we exploit the ruthless murdering called “war”?  How about the horrible experiences of people in Spain?  I hope the terrible occurrences are greatly exaggerated for it makes our hair stand on end to read of it.

 

Newt Gingrich Pushes For Monument at the Crater Battlefield

Mahone's Counterattack by Don Troiani

Well, not really.  It looks like a reporter for the Petersburg Progress-Index just finished reading Newt’s Civil War novel on the battle and decided to follow up on a call to place a monument to United States Colored Troops, who fought at the Crater. Gingrich and his co-author, William Forstchen wrote in their afterward that the staff at the Petersburg National Battlefield,

are delighted to work with us to fulfill a long-held dream of ours to see a monument placed on the site of the Crater in memory of the thousands of USCTs who fought on that field. As far as we can have been able to find out, not a single battlefield monument to any USCT regiment exists on ground they fought for. We hope to rectify this long-overdue honor and acknowledgment.

Of course, anyone who has actually taken the time to visit Petersburg knows that there is a monument to black soldiers at the site of their successful assaults on the city, which took place in June 1864.  It’s hard to know what to make of their supposed “long-held dream” given that discussions between Newt’s literary agent, who happens to be his daughter and the NPS lasted only for a few months.  In short, as far as I can tell there are no serious talks to speak of here.

Click to continue

 

Studio 360 Interview

My interview on Studio 360 about Newt Gingrich’s Crater novel is now available.  Unfortunately, they decided to go with another guest for the actual airing of the show, but they kept my segment as a bonus track.  After listening to myself I can certainly see why.  I’ve done a few radio interviews, but I still need to learn to slow down just a bit and choose my words more carefully.  You may just want to read my review in The Atlantic.  My next essay will be published on Monday, which offers a brief assessment of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Thanks again to Michele Siegel and host, Kurt Anderson for inviting me.

 

Appearance on Studio 360

Update: The interview went well and should air this weekend. Thanks to those of you who left comments or emailed me. I am disappointed that Newt didn’t call in. Oh well.

This morning I will be a guest on Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson to discuss my review of Newt Gingrich’s Civil War novel, The Battle of the Crater.  The interview is at 10am, but if I heard correctly it will not air live – perhaps over the weekend.  Of course, I will share the podcast once it appears on their website.  It should be fun.

For those of you up early perhaps you can help me with a short list of politicians who have dabbled in history.  I am interested primarily, but not exclusively in the Civil War era.  Woodrow Wilson comes to mind in the context of the Civil War and, of course, there is Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.  More recent examples are very much appreciated.  Thanks for your help.

 

Does Gingrich’s Crater Novel Reflect Progress?

Ta-Nahesi Coates has some interesting things to say about my Gingrich review at The Atlantic.  This particular passage caught my eye:

This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]

On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee.  I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves.  As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory.  That story is now roughly 25 years old.  From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about.  Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?

Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole.  Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy.  We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story.  In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.

It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project.  As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received.  In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference.  Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well.  The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history.  At this point in the game that would constitute progress.