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.
I am making my way through the new collection of postwar accounts that George Bernard likely intended to be a follow-up volume to his War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892). Bernard served in the 12th Virginia, was present at the Crater, and remained very active in the A.P. Hill Camp, Confederate Veterans. War Talks is an invaluable source, especially when it comes to the Crater so I was very pleased to hear that a collection of reminiscences by Bernard and others was being readied for publication.
There are only a few accounts of the Crater, including Bernard’s dedication address at Blandford Church in which a tablet was placed to remember the men from the Virginia brigade who died in the battle. The address follows a pattern which I explore in my new book on the Crater. While private reminiscences written by Confederate veterans continued to address the strong emotions re: the presence of black Union soldiers, public addresses took little notice. In fact, Bernard steers completely clear of what was pervasive in the letters and diaries of Confederate in the immediate wake of the battle. According to Bernard, “Our dead comrades fought and died in defense of their rights, their homes and their firesides.” No surprise there.
Toward the end of the speech Bernard offers some thoughts that are often overlooked by those who claim to live politically in their footsteps:
The results have been many and far reaching, but none more striking than the growing conviction among thoughtful minds of the world, those of the North included, that the people of the South, however unwise or inexpedient may have been their act of secession, were, under the circumstances that surrounded them, justified in resorting to arms to maintain the right of their States to withdraw from the Union, if they saw fit, as they did to exercise this right. But it is proper to add here that the same omnipotent power, in His infinite wisdom has allowed future events so to shape themselves that all now regard the question of secession as finally settled against the right as claimed by the seceding states and no people of our re-united country are more loyal to it or would go further to defend it than the people of the South and especially the Confederate veterans.
We too easily lose sight of the fact that while the activities of Confederate veterans during the postwar decades reinforced their connection to the 1860s and with one another it did not prevent them from moving forward. These men ought not to be interpreted as stuck in time. It may not be a stretch to suggest that their experiences in the war eventually enhanced their love and attachment for the United States.
File this one under the ‘better late than never’ category. I guess every historian has experienced uncovering a gem of a reference that failed to make it into a published work. The following editorial (“Our Colored Militia”) was published in the Petersburg Lancet on September 12, 1885 by George F. Bragg, Jr. on the occasion of a local black militia parade.
When we think of the achievements of those brilliant knights of the middle ages; when we think of the christian armies moving onwards to Jerusalem to wrest the tomb of the blessed Saviour from the fierce barbaric hands of Saracenic hosts; when we remember the courageous conduct of the Negro troops at Fort Fisher, Fort Wagner, at New Orleans and at the CRATER near our own city, in which the limbs of may of our brethren in black lie mouldering in the dust from which they came, we may feel that this gathering to day is not an idle insignificant one, but that the colored militia men of this grand old State have determined to perpetuate the memories of that institution from which so many healthy lasting benefits have been derived.
There were a number of black militias active throughout Virginia during the postwar period. Though their service was limited they performed an important function within the local black community by reinforcing civic pride and preserving a memory of the war that was slowly losing its hold on the public’s imagination by the late nineteenth century. This editorial reinforces just how important it was for African Americans to keep alive the memory of their service and sacrifice in the war as a way to maintain what limited freedoms they enjoyed, especially in the wake of the end of Readjuster control of the state.
One of the topics that I briefly explore in the book is the challenge of connecting black residents of Petersburg to the history at the Crater. Earlier this week I posted on a parade in Fredericksburg that recreates the postwar participation of local blacks in decorating and honoring Union graves. If repeated it at least has the potential to connect a certain segment of the community to the Civil War past and its continued relevance. Perhaps the recreation of a black militia march in Petersburg with their overt references to black participation in the war can achieve similar ends. Just a thought.