Tag Archives: USCTs

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.

Ebony Magazine Remembers Black Union Soldiers

Another image that I am hoping to use in my forthcoming book about the Crater and historical memory is the August 1968 cover of Ebony. I went through the entire run of Ebony and Jet magazines during the course of my research in an effort to better understand how African Americans remembered black Union soldiers through the Civil War Centennial. I was not disappointed. The coverage was extensive and included a number of well written essays by academic historians, including John Hope Franklin and the popular historian, Lerone Bennett, who is best known for is book on Lincoln and emancipation. I found a few essays that referenced the Crater, but the battle clearly did not stand out for African Americans in the 1960s. That’s not surprising given that more extensive coverage would have forced writers to deal with the additional problem of how to handle the massacre of large numbers of black soldiers following the battle.  Such a narrative would have run counter to the strong desire among authors to tell a heroic battlefield story.

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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.

Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.