What A Real Review Looks Like

CraterThe 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 “What A Real Review Looks Like”

The Battle of the Crater and Reconstruction Memory

crater lovellToday I read a very thoughtful post by John Rudy at his Interpreting the Civil War blog. He added his voice to the recent chorus of posts on the challenges and importance of properly commemorating the final two years of the Civil War. I agree with much of what he has to say.

But the war after Gettysburg morphs into that long, bloody, messy slog across Virginia or Tennessee and Georgia. It changes from prisoner exchanges into prison camps and the bloodiest ground on the American continent. Politics gets ugly, as Peace Democrats make a true, concerted effort (and nearly succeed) at unseating one of modern America’s most beloved historical figures. Battles become racialized, as men are massacred in battle not simply because of the color of their uniforms, but because of the color of their skin. The war gets ugly.

I’ve expressed optimism from the beginning and continue to hold out hope for the final two years, though I agree with John that it is going to be a challenge. This is, indeed, not your grandfather’s Civil War, but as Brooks Simpson rightfully notes, that does not mean that we should declare victory. I’ve noted multiple times, for example, that we need to reign in our embrace of an emancipationist narrative that is much too reductionist. I see it all the time here in Boston. You would think that everyone was an abolitionist, though the monuments in and around the city tell a slightly different story. Continue reading “The Battle of the Crater and Reconstruction Memory”

149 Years Ago Today

Battle of the Crater Painting

The battle of the Crater was fought 149 years ago today. Here is a letter written by Henry A. Minor, who served as a surgeon with the 9th Alabama Volunteers. The 9th Alabama took part in William Mahone’s counterattack, which proved to be decisive in achieving a Confederate victory that day. The letter is one among scores of Confederate accounts I have in my collection that didn’t make it into my book. It offers a great deal of detail as to what transpired on that day and how the battle was assessed.

H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864 [Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.]

We have been here over six weeks, have had several fights with the enemy but as I have written to Brother Lute concerning all up to the middle of July, I will only tell you of one we had the day before yesterday.  I send papers giving an account of the affair and will be very brief in my remarks.  Peter was not in the charge, he being a sharp shooter.  He with his comrades were left to hold the line on our right while the Division went to the center to retake our lost position.  It is said to have the most brilliant charge of the War, the charge of our brigade.  The line was kept properly, the men moved rapidly and quietly reserving the fire until close up and then delivering it with terrible effect.  Here for the first time our men fought negroes.  The Yankees put the negroes in the front and are said to have forced them forward.  The massacre was terrible.  The ditches were almost filled with dead.  Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet.  Such a sight was never seen before. Continue reading “149 Years Ago Today”

Should the Battle of the Crater Be Reenacted Next Year?

1937 Crater Reenactment

Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences. Continue reading “Should the Battle of the Crater Be Reenacted Next Year?”

Crater Book Reviewed in North Carolina Historical Review

crater, North Carolina Historical ReviewI 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 “Crater Book Reviewed in North Carolina Historical Review”