Tag Archives: Petersburg

Glorifying War at the Crater in 1937

Drawn By a member of the WPA Art Staff

In the process of reviewing the final edits for my Crater book I’ve had to go through research files that have not been touched in a couple of years.  Today I read through a bunch of editorials concerning the 1937 Crater re-enactment in Petersburg, which the National Park Service used to mark the inclusion of the battlefield within its jurisdiction.  The event attracted around 50,000 people and was widely publicized around the state.  Thought the support was overwhelming among white Virginians I was struck by the number of editorials the expressed concern over what they viewed as the glorification of war through re-enactment.  Having experienced WWI and having to consider the possibility that American boys might be sent overseas once again it is not surprising that a vocal minority expressed concern.  I thought I would share a few excerpts given the current debate about the place of re-enactments in the ongoing sesquicentennial.

Richmond Times-Dispatch (April 29, 1937)

It would be extremely unfortunate if the re-enactment of the Crater and other famous battles of the War Between the States under the auspices of the National Park Service, should impress upon onlookers with the feeling that war is a glamorous, or in any sense an alluring spectacle…. [W]e hope the lesson to be learned from it will that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.

The Petersburg Progress-Index (April 30, 1937)

We need to stop glorifying war and begin to glorify peace.  I recall something in personal experience of the horrors of the so-called Civil War, and have had my best friend shot down by my side while warring with Indians, and we all have seen the results of the unrighteous World War, in which we had no business taking part.  We should be cured of the war spirit.  And that is the kind of spirit, that the re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater fosters among the youth of the land who are to be our future congressmen and leaders.

The Richmond News Leader (May 6, 1937)

Apropos the “Crater,” celebration at Petersburg.  I am wondering if it was wise or helpful.  Should we exploit the ruthless murdering called “war”?  How about the horrible experiences of people in Spain?  I hope the terrible occurrences are greatly exaggerated for it makes our hair stand on end to read of it.

Newt Gingrich Pushes For Monument at the Crater Battlefield

Mahone's Counterattack by Don Troiani

Well, not really.  It looks like a reporter for the Petersburg Progress-Index just finished reading Newt’s Civil War novel on the battle and decided to follow up on a call to place a monument to United States Colored Troops, who fought at the Crater. Gingrich and his co-author, William Forstchen wrote in their afterward that the staff at the Petersburg National Battlefield,

are delighted to work with us to fulfill a long-held dream of ours to see a monument placed on the site of the Crater in memory of the thousands of USCTs who fought on that field. As far as we can have been able to find out, not a single battlefield monument to any USCT regiment exists on ground they fought for. We hope to rectify this long-overdue honor and acknowledgment.

Of course, anyone who has actually taken the time to visit Petersburg knows that there is a monument to black soldiers at the site of their successful assaults on the city, which took place in June 1864.  It’s hard to know what to make of their supposed “long-held dream” given that discussions between Newt’s literary agent, who happens to be his daughter and the NPS lasted only for a few months.  In short, as far as I can tell there are no serious talks to speak of here.

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Newt Gingrich’s Crater

Update: After hearing from one of my readers I decided to pick up a copy of the book and write a detailed review for a major publication. Stay tuned.

One of my readers was kind enough to forward a review of Newt Gingrich’s new co-authored book, The Battle of the Crater: A Novel.  I am not a fan of Mother Jones, but the review is actually quite interesting and clearly reflects that politicization of one of the most racially significant battles of the Civil War.  No, I have not read the book and I don’t have any intention of doing so.  Consider the following:

The novel is intended in part to honor the black regiments that saw action at the Crater and help correct the narrative that says they cost the North the battle. (In fact, they nearly won it.) But in correcting one narrative, it whitewashes another, because none of the rebels we meet in Crater carry with them much animus to black soldiers. The only Confederate we see in any level of depth is a former journalist who, as a matter of principle, never owned any slaves. Our rebel points out, accurately, that not all black POWs were murdered—but that’s sort of splitting hairs when you consider that battlefield accounts describe white Confederates bashing in the skulls of surrendering and wounded black soldiers “like eggshells.”

I guess this is just what one would expect when the goal is to attract the African American community while at the same time not alienating white constituents, who are not likely to be interested in reading about how Confederates responded to the presence of an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  It’s not as if the authors didn’t have access to archival records; in fact, I came across the “eggshell” reference more than once in the course of my own research.

The significance of the battle for Confederates (both slave and non-slaveowners alike) has everything to do with its racial aspect.  Even a cursory glance at the archival record demonstrates that they did not make any effort to conceal what they did and why.  They wanted their loved ones back home to understand just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat.  It’s not just Confederate attitudes that appear to be ignored, but by Union soldiers as well.  Their response to the participation of the 4th Division was mixed as opposed to the consensus achieved by Confederates, but you can find plenty of blame and racial invective hurled in their direction.  [Of course, I go into great detail about all of this in my forthcoming book on the Crater.]

How far will Newt and Forstchen go to tailor a story to meet the demands of a presidential campaign?

Instead, the authors veer in the other direction. Gingrich and Forstchen even craft an imaginary scene in which General Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Southern honor, instructs his subordinates to make clear that black soldiers at Petersburg are to be treated like any other opponent. But there’s no historical evidence that Lee gave any instruction of the sort. Nor did Lee intervene in the immediate aftermath, when his army pushed to return black POWs to their former masters.

Even in the world of historical fiction this takes things way off the deep end.  There is no exaggeration in the passage quoted above.  At no point did Lee intervene in the immediate wake of the battle when it is likely that the largest number of black soldiers were massacred nor did he attempt to prevent the return of prisoners to former masters.  Why?  Because in the wake of emancipation and a protracted defense of a civilian population in Petersburg the July 30 battle reaffirmed nightmarish images of defeat at the hands of armed black men.

I guess none of this helps much in Newt’s presidential bid.

Petersburg: Mowing History

Battery 5 at Petersburg National Battlefield

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.  This is the fourth in a series.

On many Civil War battlefields, all that is left is the land. For battlefield enthusiasts, just looking at the terrain can evoke the battle, the movement of the units, the decisions of the commanders, and the experience of the soldiers, and perhaps even the war’s greater meaning.

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Scratch Off Another Black Confederate

Update: Thanks to Andy Hall for sending along the link to the LOC page that includes a reference to David Lowe’s and Philip Shiman’s essay, “Substitute for a Corpse,” Civil War Times, Dec. 2010, p. 41.

One of the websites that I use in my teacher workshops on digital media literacy is a page from the Petersburg Express website, which is maintained by Ashleigh Moody.  It makes for an ideal case study of why teachers and students need to be educated about how to access and assess online information.  If you scroll down to the bottom of the page you will notice one of the best known photographs from the trenches of Petersburg.  It’s a photograph of a dead Confederate soldier, perhaps a member of an artillery unit.  There are at least two photographs of the body and one of them includes an additional body.  Moody refers to it as, “Black and White Confederate Soldiers.”

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