The new issue of Civil War Book Review is now available, which includes my review of Earl Hess’s new book, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (University of South Carolina Press, 2010). I think we can safely say that we’ve seen enough military studies of the battle of the Crater over the past few years. They run the gamut from detailed tactical studies to thoughtful commentary about the significance of the racial component of the battle. Earl Hess’s new book belongs somewhere in the middle. Not surprisingly, his book is the best overall study of the battle. I’ve had the opportunity to review three recent Crater studes: Alan Axelrod, The Horrid Pit [Journal of Southern History], John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History [H-Net], and Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 [Civil War Book Review].
Over the past two decades Earl J. Hess has established himself as one of the foremost authorities of Civil War military history. He has done so with award-winning studies of the experiences of the common soldier, battles such as Pea Ridge and Gettysburg, and (in the opinion of this writer) one of the finest brigade histories ever written. In recent years Hess has added to this list with a history of the rifle musket and a 3-volume study of the evolution and influence of earthworks on the war in the Eastern Theater. Rather than rehash the standard narratives, readers have come to expect that Hess will challenge many of their deep-seated assumptions about the war. In the case of his most recent study of the battle of the Crater that task is made more difficult given the publication of four books of varying degrees of quality over the past five years.
The increased attention to the Crater over the past few years stems from both the 2003 release of the movie, Cold Mountain, which featured a vivid recreation of the battle, as well as broader resurgence of interest in the final year of the war and the Petersburg Campaign specifically. The lack of scholarly attention has left us with an overly simplistic view of the battle that has tended to focus on the spectacle of the early-morning detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a futile Union assault. Into the Crater offers a necessary corrective to many of the finer points of the story as well as to assumptions that fundamentally alter the way we understand the evolution of the campaign, the battle, and its outcome – both of which serve to move us away from what appears to be a tragedy in the making. [Read the rest of the Review.]
Over the past few years I’ve seen a wide range of images of the battle of the Crater. Once I tidy up a few loose ends in my Crater manuscript I am going to turn to making a decision about illustrations for the book. I am planning to include images that give the reader a sense of the drastic changes that have taken place to the physical landscape as well as how various illustrators have come to terms with the battle itself. Yesterday I spent some time in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which features a wonderful exhibit of Civil War drawings from the Becker Collection. The collection includes sketches of various aspects of camp life and battle that were done for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Eventually, I came across, Andrew McCallum’s sketch of the Crater. I’ve never seen the original so the longer I stared the more difficult it was to walk away. The detail is incredible and he really does capture the horror of the battle. This one stands a good chance of making it into the book.
Update: I just agreed to do my first book signing in Chicago at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Of course, the date has yet to be determined. This is shaping up to be a pretty good weekend.
I am pleased to report that Remembering War As Murder: The Battle of the Crater took a giant leap forward yesterday toward publication. As many of you know back in August I submitted a revised manuscript to the publisher after responding to extensive comments by three anonymous reviewers. All of them provided a healthy dose of criticism and suggestions for improving the overall manuscript. Following the resubmission I was told that the manuscript would be sent to one of the original reviewers as well as a new outside reader. A few weeks ago I heard from the first reviewer, who gave it the green light and yesterday I received a copy of the second report. The reviewer was incredibly enthusiastic and concluded that the book, “stands to make a real and lasting contribution to the field of Civil War Memory studies.” That’s music to my ears. Both reviewers pointed out a few minor things to address, which I will take care of over the next few weeks. I’ve been working with a university press, which is why the process is perhaps a bit more involved than usual. Let me just say that it’s been worth it. The peer review process once again served me well and no doubt saved me from a few errors and helped to point out ways to make my argument even stronger. The final step will be to present the manuscript to the publisher’s board of editors in May. In addition to making these final changes I am also putting together a list of possible photographs as well as a few ideas for the cover. I would love to have the famous John Elder image of the Crater on one side and Don Troiani’s recent print of Mahone’s Charge. The two images beautifully capture the central theme of the book, which is the evolution of how Americans remembered the racial aspect of the battle.
This will be my first book and like every author I hope it sells well. The reviewer quoted above also suggested that the book will likely be used in college classrooms and be attractive to Civil War enthusiasts as well. That’s a positive sign, but how many academic titles have been marketed as having the potential to bridge these two communities? I assume that most people who publish with university presses don’t expect their book to break into mainstream readership. In my case, however, it will be very interesting to see the extent to which my Online presence will push sales. Yesterday I offered a brief update on the status of the manuscript on my Facebook page and within a few hours I had over 40 people express their enthusiasm. A number of people emailed me to let them know when the book is available for pre-order. I am going to go out on a limb here to suggest that this may be the first academic history title to come out of a strong social media presence. As many of you know much of this project was discussed at one point or another on this blog and many of you offered assistance through your thoughtful comments and offers to share your own research materials. What I am suggesting is that many of you have become invested in this project for one reason or another and I have every reason to expect that this will translate into additional sales.
It’s too early to tell, but I may have stumbled upon not only a legitimate method of vetting my ideas with a large audience, but in turning that interest eventually into a book sale. Stay tuned.
I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land. He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction. I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground. At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs. I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained. Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.
John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield. It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality. I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery. At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.
Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century. In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg. The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936. Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.
Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August. I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.
The History Department at North Carolina State University [their website is awesome] is hosting a conference in March, titled, “The Public History of the American Civil War, a Sesquicentennial Symposium.” I’ve been asked to put together an abstract for a panel that will focus on recent interpretive challenges at Civil War battlefields. It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am going to focus on the battle of the Crater and the Petersburg National Battlefield. Here is the abstract. “When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:
Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s. Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service. At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public. While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift. This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970. This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops. Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely. A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.