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.
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.]
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 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.
I know it’s only January, but I know some of you out there are already thinking about professional development workshops for this coming summer. I strongly encourage you to consider the Civil War Trust’s (formerly known as the Civil War Preservation Trust) annual Teachers Institute. This year the gathering will take place in Nashville, Tennessee from July 14-17. I attended and thoroughly enjoyed last year’s meeting in Hagerstown, Maryland, where I took part in a roundtable discussion on how to use social media in the classroom.
I will be leading two sessions this year. The first one will be made available to all participants, though it will cost a bit extra. The title of the talk is, “Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates On the Internet and In Our Classrooms”. We are going to discuss the textbook debacle here in Virginia, but my overall goal is to use this incident as a case study for how to both search and assess Online information. Participants will have the opportunity to evaluate some of the most popular black Confederate websites currently available. Instructors need to be committed to teaching their students how to intelligently access digital information; unfortunately, this has been almost entirely ignored by the media and other commentators in the wake of this scandal. [Tomorrow the New York Times will publish my Op-ed piece on just this issue on their Disunion blog. I will post the text and a link when it becomes available.]
The second session is titled, “Separating Fact From Fiction: Teaching Glory”. I love showing this movie to my students, but all too often teachers fail to introduce it as a popular interpretation of the 54th Massachusetts and the experiences of black Civil War soldiers. While the movie does function as a useful entry point to numerous issues concerning slavery and race there are factual and interpretive problems. More importantly, however, the script offers a highly selective understanding of the unit’s importance to the Civil War that, in the end, may more closely reflect our collective need for a certain view of the legacy of the Civil War. I explored this in a previous post on the movie and how I use it in the classroom. Participants will discuss the roles of individual characters and we will examine specific scenes from the movie. I also plan on distributing a collection of primary sources that challenge some of the interpretive decisions made in the movie and that can hopefully be used in the classroom.
I am looking forward to this trip. I’ve only been to Nashville once and I have never had the opportunity to explore the many Civil War sites in the area. Information about individuals sessions and presenters will be added in the near future so check back.