Here are three photographs of the Crater from the Petersburg Museum that did not make it into my book. The first was taken inside the mineshaft itself and is dated 1926, though it is difficult to estimate exactly where. Notice the sunlight that is coming in from above. I assume the photograph was taken close to the entrance. The second one shows a depression in the soil that follows the mineshaft up to the Crater itself, which is located by the cluster of trees just over the ridge line. It doesn’t look much different from today. It was taken sometime between 1926 and 1934. The final photograph, I believe, is from a point just west of the Crater looking northwest. The tree line is much fuller today and extends all the way to the Jerusalem Plank Road. It was taken in 1906. I would love to find a photograph of the battlefield in the 1920s that showed the actual golf course.
Over the weekend I took some time to answer a few questions about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as part of a forum for the journal Civil War History. The roundtable discussion that will come out of it will be published in the September 2013 issue. One of the questions focused on the movie’s connection to the sesquicentennial. I offered a few thoughts, but one thing I noted is that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it was filmed in Richmond and Petersburg. It appears that both communities embraced the opportunity to host a film about Lincoln. Of course, we can attribute much of the enthusiasm to the financial benefits that both cities enjoyed, but it is worth acknowledging that in the former capital of the Confederacy there were no major protests undertaken re: the filming of a movie about Lincoln. Lincoln was welcomed in Richmond 150 years ago and it is nice to see that this is still the case.
The Virginia Department of Tourism has set up a website that allows visitors to trace Lincoln’s steps through Virginia. Today I came across this collection of videos that focuses on Petersburg and vicinity, which provides visitors with even more information.
“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should this.”
Much of my research and commentary on the evolution of battlefield interpretation within the National Park Service has referenced the 2000 Rally on the High Ground Conference as a watershed moment. Without being too overly simplistic the working assumption has been that the most significant changes to NPS interpretation has been in reaction to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s. legislation and accompanying symposium which brought together NPS staff and academic historians in Washington D.C. The conference examined ways in which the NPS could implement Jackson’s legislation which called for the broadening of battlefield interpretation to include the cause of the war, the role of slavery during the war, as well as other topics. This push for a broader interpretive context as well as Jackson’s involvement has been met with suspicion by segments of the general public who tend to view his involvement as political which in turn has colored the NPS’s subsequent actions as overtly political.
I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond. It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well. While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war. In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.
As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans. I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.
Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater. One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks. Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only. As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.
A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:
I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg. We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.
An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals. The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well. William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.
All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.
At about this time the USCTs of the Ninth Corp’s Fourth Division had entered the battle. Part of one brigade ended up in the confusion of the crater itself, but much of the division managed to maneuver to its right and into the confusing and complex chain of earthworks that extended outward. A couple of regiments pushed their way to some of the most forward positions that any Union regiment would occupy this day. They performed admirably in what was a difficult situation.
That said, there remains some confusion as to their role in the outcome of the battle of the Crater. Part of the story about the Crater and the men of the Fourth Division rests on a counterfactual or an assumption about the preparedness of the men under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s command. Consider the following from an article in the Petersburg Progress-Index:
“This breakthrough would have likely ended the war,” said Park Ranger Randy Watkins, who blames incompetent Union commanders, who in a last minute decision pulled a well-trained group of U.S. Colored Troops from the frontlines to replace them with less experienced white soldiers. “The Union should have won this battle,” Watkins said.
It’s as if we want the difference between victory and defeat to rest on the racism of the Union high command. “If only Meade had more confidence in these men….” Meade simply did not believe that these men stood a better chance of success compared to the white soldiers and their use came with political risks. Much of this is based on the well told tale that the Fourth Division had been trained specifically for this attack. It is true that they trained, but it must be remembered that this would be their first real taste of battle. While a few regiments may have performed drills tailored to a cratered landscape the evidence suggests that much of their training was done as part of any attempt to prepare green troops for battle.
Even before Mahone’s counterattack commenced Confederates in the area around the crater kept up stiff resistance and did much to stymie the Union advance. One reenactor quoted in the Progress-Index commented on the bravery of these men:
“The Battle of the Crater stands for the resolve of the Southern man,” said re-enactor Michael Peacock, a Texas native who now calls Midlothian his home. “To Confederate soldiers, there was no surrender. This ran deep in their veins and still does,” he said. Sam Watkins, who portrayed a private in the Confederate artillery, said that the Battle of the Crater was more important than the Battle of Gettysburg. “This right here was the defense of Petersburg,” he said.
Indeed, there was no surrender…no surrender that is for many of the black soldiers in the Fourth Division. And this had everything to do with the fact that they were defending a civilian population in Petersburg. Whatever ran “deep in their veins” it was excited by the fact that the site of black men in uniform solidified what the war was about and what the consequences would be if a Confederate victory in this battle and the war were not secured.