I am pleased to announce that I will once again be participating in the annual Civil War seminar sponsored by The George Tyler Moore Center at Shepherd University. In the summer of 2007 [here and here/photos] I took part in the center’s conference on Civil War Memory. It was a wonderful experience and I couldn’t be happier to be joining Mark Snell and the rest of the staff this summer in Petersburg, Virginia. This is the first year that the conference will take place away from its home base on the campus of Shepherd University. The conference is being co-sponsored by Pamplin Park. This year’s theme is, “Petersburg: In the Trenches with the Common Soldier” and it includes a first-rate line-up of scholars and two days of touring the various sites and battlefields in the Petersburg area. Will Greene will be conducting all of the tours and lectures will be presented by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, and Walter Powell. I am looking forward to the chance to finally meet Earl Hess. In many ways he is responsible for my interest in Petersburg and the Crater specifically. Back in 2003 I collected a broad range of archival materials for what became Prof. Hess’s third volume in his series on earthworks. That material on Petersburg proved to be extremely helpful in shaping my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater.
My own lecture is titled, “Mahone’s Brigade and the Defense of Petersburg.” While this talk is based on my extensive research of Mahone’s brigade at the Crater, I hope to present a broader picture of the unit throughout the summer and fall of 1864. Over the past five years I’ve read scores of letters and diaries from these men and this will give me a chance to try out some ideas that fall outside the purview of my Crater project. The exploration of the connection between the battlefield and home front is nothing new to historians, but often the discussion comes across as overly abstract. The Petersburg Campaign, however, is one of the few moments during the Civil War where the battlefield and home front were indistinguishable. For the men of Mahone’s Brigade Petersburg and the surrounding area was literally their home. I am convinced that their close contact with a civilian population shaped the way these men responded to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater. How else did close proximity to civilians and family shape the outlook of these men on the war? Stay tuned.
Thanks to Brooks Simpson and Ken Noe for participation in my most recent post on black Confederates. Their thorough comments in response to a reader who put forward what he believed to be evidence for black Confederate soldiers is a clinic on how to engage in serious historical analysis. I can’t tell you what it means to me to have such respected professional historians as regular readers of this blog. You would also do well to check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent post on the subject as well as the clever thought experiment over at Vast Public Indifference.
At one point in the discussion today Ken Noe offered the following:
I recently completed a project that required me to read the letters and diaries of 320 CS soldiers. They wrote a lot about slavery, slave labor in camp, their opposition to emancipation, and their mixed feelings about the 1865 Confederate Congressional debates over arming blacks. But not a one of them–not one–described black men fighting beside them as armed soldiers for the Confederacy. What I’d need are a lot of letters that did describe that. I’d also need evidence that the 1865 Confederate slavery debates never took place after all, because why debate the issue if black men were already soldiers in Confederate service? Finally, some official mention from the Confederate government before 1865 would help.
Before proceeding I want to mention that the project that Ken speaks of will be published shortly by the University of North Carolina Press and it promises to be a very interesting study. All of Ken’s questions are relevant, but I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the lack of references to black Confederates from the men in his sample. One would think that at some point a Confederate solider would acknowledge the presence of black soldiers rather than servants, teamsters, cooks, etc. I don’t know one historian who has come across such a letter, though I assume that a few did serve or were able to pass as white soldiers. Continue reading
I know I promised to stay away until January, but I don’t really consider this to be a violation of my blogging hiatus. My review of Will Greene’s book, Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (University of Virginia Press, 2006), is included in the most recent issue of the journal, Civil War History [December 2009, (pp. 504-05)], and I thought I might pass it on for those of you who need a quick Civil War Memory fix.
Although most Civil War enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with the ten-month campaign that enveloped the city of Petersburg between June 1864 and April 1865 few can say much about how its civilian population, both black and white, experienced the changing conditions wrought by war. The increase in the number of community and regional studies has led to rich insights into the ways both white and black southerners experienced the hardships of war on the home front. In addition to studies of the home front historians such as Frank Towers and Louis S. Gerteis have examined the extensive growth experienced in urban communities during the final two decades of the antebellum period and beyond. A. Wilson Greene’s Civil War Petersburg straddles both of these categories and the result is the most scholarly study of the Cockade City to date. Continue reading
The following review of Richard Slotkin’s new book, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 is now available in the latest edition of Civil War Book Review.
With the publication of three books on the battle of the Crater in the past two years, one might reasonably ask if there is a need for yet another. These previous treatments (written mainly by non-academic historians) have collectively addressed the tactical complexity of the battle, including the early morning explosion of 8,000 pounds of black powder under a Confederate salient and they have provided an exhaustive account of the close-quarter combat and blood-letting that ensued for close to eight hours on a battlefield that was ripped open by the initial blast. Such a focus is a staple of traditional military history. But as much as we have learned about the nature of combat in the trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 there are key aspects of this battle that have not been sufficiently addressed by the previous literature.
The latest post by Ta-Nehisis Coates beautifully captures the frustrations that many African Americans experience when visiting America’s Civil War battlefields and specifically those places where African Americans participated. A recent visit to the Petersburg battlefields, including the Crater, by Coates and his children highlights the continued challenges facing museums, the National Park Service, and other historical organizations in working toward a narrative that acknowledges the contributions of African Americans and situates the Civil War within the broader history of freedom and race. When you take a moment to step back it is shocking to think that a war that resulted in the end of slavery and emancipation of 4 million people would be remembered in a way that divorced the descendants of those very people from being able to fully engage and consume the historic sites from that struggle. And yet, that is where we are on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Before proceeding here are a few passages from Coates’s post: