Tag Archives: Petersburg

The Real Price of Forgetting the Past (Continued)

Dixie Outfitters t-shirt

In response to my last post in which I suggested that public historians have reason to feel good about the seismic interpretive shifts that can be seen in our museum’s and other historical institutions John Hennessy offers the following:

As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]

I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention.  My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield.  I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans.  I’m not even sure how one would go about this.  At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.

It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past.  With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past.  [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig's and Thelen's, The Presence of the Past.]  A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history.  I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message.  I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video.  Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.

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But Will They Come To the Battlefields?

Martin R. Delaney

I am beginning to think about what I am going to say next Saturday at North Carolina State University for their symposium on the Civil War and public history. My talk will focus not only on the challenges surrounding the discussion of slavery and race at our Civil War battlefields, but specifically the difficulty of attracting African Americans to these sites. I will look specifically about the steps taken by the National Park Service at the Petersburg National Battlefield.

I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory.  For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community.  In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools.  A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet.  Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War.  The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations.  Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.

The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites.  Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches.  John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:

“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.

I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries.  The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg.  Again, all of these things bode well for the future.

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Earl Hess’s Crater

The new issue of Civil War Book Review is now available, which includes my review of Earl Hess’s new book, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).  I think we can safely say that we’ve seen enough military studies of the battle of the Crater over the past few years.  They run the gamut from detailed tactical studies to thoughtful commentary about the significance of the racial component of the battle.  Earl Hess’s new book belongs somewhere in the middle.  Not surprisingly, his book is the best overall study of the battle.  I’ve had the opportunity to review three recent Crater studes: Alan Axelrod, The Horrid Pit [Journal of Southern History], John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History [H-Net], and Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 [Civil War Book Review].

Over the past two decades Earl J. Hess has established himself as one of the foremost authorities of Civil War military history. He has done so with award-winning studies of the experiences of the common soldier, battles such as Pea Ridge and Gettysburg, and (in the opinion of this writer) one of the finest brigade histories ever written. In recent years Hess has added to this list with a history of the rifle musket and a 3-volume study of the evolution and influence of earthworks on the war in the Eastern Theater. Rather than rehash the standard narratives, readers have come to expect that Hess will challenge many of their deep-seated assumptions about the war. In the case of his most recent study of the battle of the Crater that task is made more difficult given the publication of four books of varying degrees of quality over the past five years.

The increased attention to the Crater over the past few years stems from both the 2003 release of the movie, Cold Mountain, which featured a vivid recreation of the battle, as well as broader resurgence of interest in the final year of the war and the Petersburg Campaign specifically. The lack of scholarly attention has left us with an overly simplistic view of the battle that has tended to focus on the spectacle of the early-morning detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a futile Union assault. Into the Crater offers a necessary corrective to many of the finer points of the story as well as to assumptions that fundamentally alter the way we understand the evolution of the campaign, the battle, and its outcome – both of which serve to move us away from what appears to be a tragedy in the making.  [Read the rest of the Review.]

 

Capturing the Horror of the Crater

Over the past few years I’ve seen a wide range of images of the battle of the Crater.  Once I tidy up a few loose ends in my Crater manuscript I am going to turn to making a decision about illustrations for the book.  I am planning to include images that give the reader a sense of the drastic changes that have taken place to the physical landscape as well as how various illustrators have come to terms with the battle itself.  Yesterday I spent some time in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which features a wonderful exhibit of Civil War drawings from the Becker Collection.  The collection includes sketches of various aspects of camp life and battle that were done for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  Eventually, I came across, Andrew McCallum’s sketch of the Crater.  I’ve never seen the original so the longer I stared the more difficult it was to walk away.  The detail is incredible and he really does capture the horror of the battle.  This one stands a good chance of making it into the book.

 

Developing Historic Land To Save It in Petersburg

I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land.  He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction.  I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground.  At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs.  I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained.  Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.

John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality.  I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery.  At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.

Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century.  In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg.  The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936.  Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.

Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.