Tag Archives: Petersburg

What’s a Few Thousand Here or There?

Numbers play an important role in the Lost Cause view of the Civil War and the Petersburg Campaign in particular.  The image of the Army of Northern Virginia as hopelessly outnumbered and hanging on by a thread continues to exercise a strong hold for many.  There is something attractive about a narrative that pits a half-starved Army against an enemy that we believe must win owing to their unlimited resources.  There is a certain truth to this, but like most of the Lost Cause interpretation it quickly shades into a distorted view of the situation.  On Saturday evening one of Prof. Mark Snell’s former students, who is now working as a living historian for the Gettysburg Foundation, put on an excellent presentation that covered the state of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864.  He suggested that during this period the army was fairly well supplied with clothing, which stands in sharp contrast with images of half-naked soldiers in the trenches.  In addition, it turns out that although the men in the trenches faced hardship, Lee’s soldiers were not starving.  Of course, much of this is borne out in the most recent literature on the campaign.

Back to the numbers.  Throughout our tour of the Petersburg Battlefields this weekend Will Greene made it a point to emphasize that the earthworks had worked to minimize the sheer advantage that the Federals enjoyed in terms of numbers.  They would need at least a 3 to 1 advantage when storming Confederate earthworks.  Such a view explains Grant’s tactics of continually pushing to extend the Confederate line in a series of offensive thrusts throughout the late Fall and early Spring of 1864-65.  Of course, one way to bypass any attempt at careful analysis of the balance of power is to simply exaggerate the numbers beyond any recognition of reality.  This was done early on in the case of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

It can also be seen at the Five Forks battlefield on a marker that was dedicated during the Centennial by the Dinwiddie Civil War Centennial Commission.  Well, at least they got they number of Confederates under Pickett’s command about right, but 50,000 Federals is way off the deep end.  Philip Sheridan had around 21,000 men at Five Forks.  Perhaps Dinwiddie County’s Sesquicentennial Commission can spray paint the right number on the anniversary of the battle in 2015.

Home From Petersburg

I want to thank Mark Snell and Denise Messinger of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and Will Greene and the rest of the staff at Pamplin Park for putting on a wonderful conference on the Petersburg Campaign.  It was nice to see so many familiar faces and I especially enjoyed making new friends.  It was indeed a busy three days and we spent a great deal of time in the sweltering heat, but it was well worth it.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and listening to fellow speakers, Chris Stowe and Earl Hess.  It was truly an honor to be on the same line up with Chris and Earl.  I was quite pleased with the response to my paper, which analyzed the Confederate response to the presence of U.S.C.T.’s at the Crater.  Speaking of that subject, I just reviewed the page proofs for the essay which will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times.  Dana Shoaf and company did a fabulous job of preparing the essay for publication and I look forward to hearing what people think.

In addition to the presentations we toured extensively around Petersburg.  For me it was an opportunity to familiarize myself with a campaign that I’ve had a great deal of difficulty understanding.  I think it’s safe to say that no one knows more about the city of Petersburg and the campaign than Will Greene.  He took us to City Point, the Crater, Weldon Railroad, Hatcher’s Run, White Oak Road, Five Forks, as well as the breakout battlefield at Pamplin Park.  There is something exciting about watching someone like Will, with such extensive knowledge, develop a narrative that makes sense of very complicated troop movements and then places those movements within a broader context for a public audience.  Not only is Will’s knowledge both broad and deep, he outlasted all of us by the end of what was an incredibly hot Saturday.

I encourage all of you to visit Pamplin Park if you happen to find yourself in the area.  The exhibits are well done and the grounds include some of the best preserved earthworks that you will see in the area.  I also highly recommend their film, “War So Terrible.” I have some things that I want to say about this film, so I am going to wait until later this week.  Finally, those of you looking for a summer Civil War seminar should seriously consider joining Mark Snell and the rest of the gang.  It’s a wonderful group of people, who enjoy one another’s company and who are well read in the history of the Civil War.  It looks like next year the conference will move to West Virginia to focus on the earliest battles while in 2012 the seminar will head southeast once again to focus on the Peninsula Campaign.  Check out the center’s website and get yourself on their mailing list.  You won’t be disappointed.

OK…back to work.

[Photo of me at the Crater]

Off to Petersburg

I just put the finishing touches on my paper and accompanying visual presentation for the George Tyler Moore CenterPamplin Park Conference that begins tomorrow afternoon.  Back in 2007 I took part in this conference, but this is the first year that Mark Snell and the rest of the gang at Shepherd University have decided to take the conference on the road.  Teaming up with Will Greene and Pamplin Park was a smart move given that the conference has sold out.  We will spend three days exploring the battlefields around Petersburg and discussing the experiences of the men in the trenches.  Will Greene is the scholar-in-residence and will be be leading the tours.  Additional presentations will be made by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, Walter Powell, and Mark Snell.

You may remember a series of posts I did last summer that explored the ways in which the Confederate response to the presence of USCTs at the Crater connected to the challenges of maintaining slavery during the antebellum period as well as reports of slave rebellions both in the South and Caribbean.  Since then I’ve developed these ideas for inclusion in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript as well as in an article that will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times.  I am going to present a version of that article on Friday.  I want the audience to think beyond the trenches as did the soldiers themselves.  It is important to remember that during the final year of the war the Army of Northern Virginia was defending a civilian population.  Many of the men in Mahone’s Virignia brigade were from Petersburg and the surrounding counties.  Aaron Sheehan-Dean makes a compelling argument in Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (UNC Press, 2007) that during that final year soldiers and civilians grew increasingly alienated from one another.  He suggests that many of the men believed that civilians had failed to appreciate the sacrifices that Lee’s men were making on a daily basis outside of Petersburg.  I argue that the Crater reinforced their connection with the home front and served to remind civilians of just what was at stake in the event of a Confederate defeat.  I am looking forward to the opportunity to try out some of these ideas on Friday.

While I am looking forward to seeing a number of old friends, I am especially looking forward to meeting Earl Hess for the first time.  Back in 2004 I conducted some research on William Mahone for a seminar class at the University of Richmond.  It’s funny how word gets around, but somehow Chris Calkins, who was then the chief historian at Petersburg National Battlefield Park (PNB) found out about it and suggested to Prof. Hess that I might be able to help gather source material for his study of the Petersburg campaign.  I was more than happy to help out since I was planning on turning that essay into an M.A. Thesis on historical memory and the battle of the Crater.  Professor Hess had me working at the University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, Library of Virginia, Museum of the Confederacy, and PNB.  The source list was extensive and provided me with a great start on my own project.  It definitely saved me a great amount of time and ultimately went into what I consider to be a pretty good thesis.  It will be nice to be able to thank Prof. Hess in person.  By the way, Prof. Hess is slated to release his own study of the Crater in September. That makes four books on the Crater in the last few years, but why do I have a feeling that Hess’s book will be the best of the lot.

I hope to blog a bit from Petersburg, but from what I understand there is a happy hour scheduled for each night.

Tracking the Trajectory of Race in Nineteenth-Century Virginia

Yesterday I had one of those moments, while working on the Crater manuscript, where I was able to see the big picture of the history of race in Virginia in the nineteenth century.  It all came together around one individual, William E. Cameron.  Those of you familiar with Virginia will recognize the name.  Since the connections I made in my head were fairly simple, I am going to keep it simple here.

Cameron served as a captain in the 12th Virginia, which was raised in Petersburg.  He took part in the counterattack at the Crater, which included an entire division of black Union soldiers.  Their presence constituted a direct threat to the social and racial hierarchy that Confederate soldiers hoped to secure in their bid for independence.  Interestingly, by March 1865 we find Cameron trying to convince slaveowners to release some of their slaves for service in the Confederate army.  It is important to remember that the act President Davis signed into law on March 13, 1865 made no provision for the emancipation of slaves in exchange for service; nevertheless, Cameron’s involvement in this process came only after a very public debate about the identity and status of slaves in a society committed to maintaining the institution.  Finally, in 1882 Cameron secured the governorship of Virginia for the Readjuster Party, led by his former commander, William Mahone.  The Readjusters achieved victory, in part, based on the support of the state’s black population, which benefited in numerous way during the party’s short time in power.

And there you have it.  Cameron took part in a war fought to protect slavery only to see his government desperately attempt to utilize these very same people as soldiers, but without any change in legal status.  After the war he engaged black Virginians as free political agents that led him to the highest office in the state.  Just another reason why Virginia’s history is so damn interesting and important.

A View of the Crater in 1867

The first time I took my wife to visit the Crater she was less than impressed.  If I remember correctly she said something along the following lines: “This is it?  This is what you’ve been spending your time on?”  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much.  There are a number of points in the broader history of this site that I would of liked to have visited.  Of course, to see the actual battle would have been interesting, but I also find the 1903 and 1937 reenactments to be attractive as well.  Perhaps a round of golf in the 1920s would have been enjoyable.  The only other time that I find attractive is right after the war.  From all the reports I’ve read the battlefield was still an absolute mess, littered with weapons, bones, and other signs of the horrific fight.  I’ve collected a number of accounts from various sources that are included in my manuscript, but nothing comes close to the following description from The Southern Opinion on June 29, 1867:

The crater was between twenty and twenty-five feet deep before it was closed over the dead, but now the average depth of the cavern is not more than eight feet or ten feet, with walls of slippery clay, in which has lately been discovered some valuable properties, equal in every respect to meerschaum clay.  Tim Griffith, youngest son of the proprietor, has become a very artistick worker in the material, and has taken many impressions of relicks, such as United States belt plates, the eagle, and the corps mark of Burnside’s army corps, of which great numbers were to be found.  Colonel Moore, of one of the government departments, Washington, has examined the clay, and pronounced it unequaled for modeling purposes–the best in the world.  Some visitors affirm that the clay received its moulding and adhesive qualities from the blood of the slain buried there, which assertion seems to receive some support from the fact that veins of red permeate the compost.  One fact has been demonstrated, which is undeniable, that the soil possesses great preserving qualities.  On the 30th of July, 1866, three hundred bodies were taken out of the crater, and the corpses were as perfect in flesh as the day they were consigned to the pit, two years before.  They were fresh and gory, the blood oozing from their wounds, and saturating still perfect clothing.

I have numerous accounts of bodies being re-interred into the 1930s, but nothing comes close to the descriptive quality here.  The Griffith family, which owned the land on which the battle was fought, took full advantage of public interest in the site following the war.  They kept a register book, which in 1866 alone includes the names of 8,000 visitors, which suggests that the number was even higher – a testament to its early popularity as a tourist site..  A visit to the Crater today really is a walk in the park.