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.
I received my author copies of the most recent issue of Civil War Times magazine, which includes my feature story on the Crater, so I assume it is now available at your local newsstand. A few days ago Dana Shoaf passed on an email and asked me to respond for the next issue. It’s an interesting comment and one that I suspect others have struggled with.
I was very disappointed in Kevin M. Levin’s article on the execution of black Union soldiers by the Confederate Army after the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg siege. Mr. Levin gives quite a good accounting that explains the motivation of the Confederate troops. However, he utterly fails to differentiate between explanation and excuse. The Confederate troops perpetrated a war crime, as there is no other way to describe the wanton murder of captured American soldiers in uniform. As such, these Confederates join the ranks of the German SS troops who murdered American prisoners at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge and those Japanese soldiers who did the same on countless occasions to captured Americans in the Pacific Theatre. I fail to see any difference between these incidents. I can only imagine the disgust felt by your African-American readers; mine is fairly high.
PS: I view slave revolts as the legitimate right of the enslaved.
Thanks to Jack for the thoughtful response to my essay. The reader criticizes me for failing to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse in my analysis of why Confederates massacred black Union soldiers at the Crater. While the essay received a positive assessment for the explanation offered, this reader was left with the impression that I had excused the actions of Confederates at the Crater. Nothing could be further from the truth. My essay was intended as an explanation of what happened and why and should not be interpreted in any way as condoning or condemning what took place. Such conclusions and/or comparisons with related incidents from other wars are best left to the readers of this essay. That said, I suggest that this reader runs the risk of obscuring the complexity of historic events by reducing the killing of black Union soldiers to the murder of American soldiers by foreign soldiers. I consider this article a success if it assists readers in better understanding the nature of fighting at the Crater in July 1864. Finally, it may be helpful to point out that this article is part of a much larger project on the Crater and historical memory, titled, Remembering Murder As War: The Battle of the Crater.
This full-page advertisement appeared in the February 1991 issue of Ebony magazine. There was clearly a resurgence of interest in the history of black Civil War soldiers following the release of Glory. Numerous articles/reviews of the movie can be found in Ebony and Jet magazines.
One of the most important sources within the early historiography of the early black counter-memory of the Civil War and the Crater is George Washington Williams’s, A History of the Negro Troops in The War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1888). Williams benefited from publication of the Official Records and includes entire reports to supplement the narrative. [Click here for a short biographical sketch.] A History of the Negro Troops is an incredibly detailed history of black volunteers that covers all of the major engagements from the Civil War in which they were involved. Williams discusses discrimination in the army, the difficult relationship between enlisted men and white officers, as well as their performance on the battlefield. Along the way Williams takes every opportunity to wax poetic about the significance of his subject:
The part enacted by the Negro in the war of the Rebellion is the romance of North American history. It was midnight and noonday without a space between; from the Egyptian darkness of bondage to the lurid glare of civil war; from clanking chains to clashing arms; from passive submission to the cruel curse of slavery to the brilliant aggressiveness of a free soldier; from a chattel to a person; from the shame of degradation to the glory of military exaltation; and from deep obscurity to fame and martial immortality. No one in this era of fraternity and Christian civilization will grudge the Negro soldier these simple annals of his trials and triumphs in a holy struggle for human liberty. Whatever praise is bestowed upon his noble acts will be sincerely appreciated, whether from former foes or comrades in arms. For by withholding just praise they are not enriched, nor by giving are they thereby impoverished. (xiii-xiv)
On the Crater
At the critical moment, when the enemy could not only hold this opening in his works, but threatened to sweep through and rout Meade, the Black Division was ordered to charge and gain the crest beyond the crater. Three veteran white divisions had been hurled back in confusion, but these Negro troops were sent forward to contend with an infuriated, brave, and numerous foe. They were gallantly led, and nobly followed where duty and devotion were terribly tested…. They had borne themselves with conspicuous gallantry, and having done all that was required of them were withdrawn to their works….(249) The Negro soldiers’ valor was, after this engagement, no more questioned than his loyalty, and the reputation secured at such a high price was kept untarnished to the end of the campaign. (250)
What I find interesting is that Williams does not reference the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle. Based on the sources utilized for his study it is clear that he was aware of it. Perhaps Williams wanted to keep the focus on the bravery and manliness of the men, which would have been lost with descriptions of helplessness at the hands of angry Confederates. I am going to have to give it some more thought.
Of course, I refer to Williams in my manuscript, but it is sad to think of just how much of what I have collected over the past few years will not make it into the book. Oh well, I guess that is what the blog is for.