Tag Archives: Petersburg

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.

 

Publications in the Pipeline

I hope that all of you have had a chance to read my article on Confederate military executions in the current issue of Civil War Times.  It should be on the newsstands for a few more weeks, but you can also read it online.  I’ve been quite pleased with the response thus far.  I am also pleased to report that my essay on understanding the battle of the Crater as a slave rebellion will be published in a future issue of the magazine.  Working with Dana Shoaf and the rest of the staff was an absolute pleasure and I look forward to doing it again.  You may remember that this essay started as a blog post in June 2009, which received quite a bit of attention.  Civil War Times is a perfect place for this particular piece.  It’s an aspect of the battle that receives very little attention and I love the fact that it will be read by a popular audience.  I am really excited about this one.  Writing this essay has allowed me to think much more deeply about a number of issues related to the battle itself as well as the postwar process of remembrance and commemoration.  The essay now serves as the core of the first chapter of my Crater manuscript.

This year is proving to be very good for me in the area of publications.  I’ve got a few other projects that should be out this year in addition to the two Civil War Times articles.  The final volume of the Virginia at War series edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson (University of Kentucky Press) should be right around the corner.  Back in 2008 I wrote a chapter on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In August my talk from the 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians, which explored how I use Ken Burns in my classroom will be published in the journal, The History Teacher.  Finally, I am hoping to hear more about the status of Gary Gallagher’s final volume in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series at UNC Press.  It looks like this final volume will cover the Petersburg Campaign through Appomattox and may end up being quite a large book.  Last I heard my essay on how Confederate soldiers remembered the battle of the Crater was to be included, but these things can change given the amount of time that has lapsed.

 

Join Me In Petersburg This Summer

I am pleased to announce that I will once again be participating in the annual Civil War seminar sponsored by The George Tyler Moore Center at Shepherd University.  In the summer of 2007 [here and here/photos] I took part in the center’s conference on Civil War Memory.  It was a wonderful experience and I couldn’t be happier to be joining Mark Snell and the rest of the staff this summer in Petersburg, Virginia.  This is the first year that the conference will take place away from its home base on the campus of Shepherd University.  The conference is being co-sponsored by Pamplin Park.  This year’s theme is, “Petersburg: In the Trenches with the Common Soldier” and it includes a first-rate line-up of scholars and two days of touring the various sites and battlefields in the Petersburg area.  Will Greene will be conducting all of the tours and lectures will be presented by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, and Walter Powell.  I am looking forward to the chance to finally meet Earl Hess.  In many ways he is responsible for my interest in Petersburg and the Crater specifically.  Back in 2003 I collected a broad range of archival materials for what became Prof. Hess’s third volume in his series on earthworks.  That material on Petersburg proved to be extremely helpful in shaping my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater.

My own lecture is titled, “Mahone’s Brigade and the Defense of Petersburg.”  While this talk is based on my extensive research of Mahone’s brigade at the Crater, I hope to present a broader picture of the unit throughout the summer and fall of 1864.  Over the past five years I’ve read scores of letters and diaries from these men and this will give me a chance to try out some ideas that fall outside the purview of my Crater project.  The exploration of the connection between the battlefield and home front is nothing new to historians, but often the discussion comes across as overly abstract.  The Petersburg Campaign, however, is one of the few moments during the Civil War where the battlefield and home front were indistinguishable.  For the men of Mahone’s Brigade Petersburg and the surrounding area was literally their home.  I am convinced that their close contact with a civilian population shaped the way these men responded to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater.  How else did close proximity to civilians and family shape the outlook of these men on the war?  Stay tuned.