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.
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.
The History Department at North Carolina State University [their website is awesome] is hosting a conference in March, titled, “The Public History of the American Civil War, a Sesquicentennial Symposium.” I’ve been asked to put together an abstract for a panel that will focus on recent interpretive challenges at Civil War battlefields. It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am going to focus on the battle of the Crater and the Petersburg National Battlefield. Here is the abstract. “When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:
Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s. Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service. At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public. While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift. This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970. This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops. Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely. A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Petersburg’s favorite “black Confederate” is being honored today for his loyal service to the Confederacy. Richard Poplar’s story is probably quite interesting given the racial dynamic of Petersburg, but like everyone else that the SCV and UDC get their hands on, his story will be reduced to one of loyalty to his comrades and sacrifice for the cause. His 1886 obituary states the following:
When the Sussex Dragoons were formed at the beginning of the war, and when they became Company H, of the Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry, Richard attached himself to the command. The Sussex Dragoons were a wealthy organization, and each member of the company had his own servant along with him. From April 1861, until the retreat from Gettysburg, Richard remained faithfully attached to the regiment.
The reference to Poplar as having “attached himself” to the unit suggests that he did not enlist as a soldier, which is not surprising given that the Confederate government explicitly denied free blacks the opportunity to serve. Unfortunately, Poplar’s stone indicates that he was, in fact, a soldier. What I would like to know is, assuming that this stone looks fairly new, what was there before and what did it say about Poplar? Yes, I know that the H.E. Howard volume on the 13th Virginia Cavalry lists Poplar as a private, but has anyone actually seen his enlistment papers? He may, in fact, be a bona fide black Confederate soldier. That would make his story even more interesting, but all I’ve seen are documents related to his capture at Gettysburg on Footnote.com.
And, finally, why do these headstones fail to indicate service as a black Confederate given that so many believe that there has been an active cover-up by various groups?
Here is the 2004 proclamation for Richard Poplar
This day, 18 September 2004 is proclaimed Richard Poplar Day in Petersburg, Virginia:
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar, a highly honored Petersburg “Colored Confederate Soldier” and American veteran was buried with full military honors at Memorial Hill, Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia in 1886,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar served as a nationally known chef at the historic former Bollingbrook Hotel in Petersburg, Virginia,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar served in Co. H, 13th Virginia Cavalry, the famous Sussex Light Dragoons, with extraordinary distinction,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar spent 19 months as a Prisoner of War at Fort Delaware and Point Lookout, Maryland , and he NEVER turned his back on the South, his beloved Virginia, or his comrades,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar was a man of deep unshakeable faith, and conviction,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar provided commended honorable aid and comfort to the Prisoner Of War reserves (The Old Men and Young Boys) who were captured at the First Attack on Petersburg on 9 June 1864,
WHEREAS, along with all his comrades, Richard Poplar will be honored forever on Petersburg’s Memorial Day, the 9th of June, and appropriately on our National Memorial Day,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar serves as a shining example to all Petersburg natives and all mankind,
Today, we honor our own Private Richard (Dick) Poplar on this 18 September 2004. This day will continue the reflection of Richard’s accomplishments for posterity.
May his life, heroism, and memory serves as a beacon to greatness for Petersburg, for our country, and for the world.
[signed] Annie M. Mickens, Mayor of Petersburg, Virginia
As I make my way through my manuscript on historical memory one last time before sending it in, I am reminded of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way we remember and commemorate the battle of the Crater. Much of that change has taken place over the past forty years as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Before 1970 you would be hard pressed to find references to the story of USCTs in both written accounts and in the way the battlefield itself was interpreted. My manuscript ends with a few reflections about the Civil War Sesquicentennial, but when I peer into the future it is this image that I see. This is a photograph of Emmanuel Dabney, who works as a park ranger at the Petersburg National Battlefield. He is a native of Dinwiddie County and has fully embraced its rich history. Emmanuel has a degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and recently completed an advanced degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. If Emmanuel has his way he will spend his career educating the public at PNB.
In many ways, Emmanuel is a big part of the story that I tell about the Crater. On the one hand, the fact that he is African American situates him at a crucial moment in the overall life of the battlefield and our broader understanding of the Civil War. At the same time Emmanuel has been a huge help to me throughout the research and writing process. Even this past weekend he helped to track down information about one of the Crater’s wayside markers. One of the joys of working on this project has been the opportunity to meet people, like Emmanuel, who share my passion for history and education.
[Photograph from Petersburg Progress-Index]