The battle of the Crater was fought 149 years ago today. Here is a letter written by Henry A. Minor, who served as a surgeon with the 9th Alabama Volunteers. The 9th Alabama took part in William Mahone’s counterattack, which proved to be decisive in achieving a Confederate victory that day. The letter is one among scores of Confederate accounts I have in my collection that didn’t make it into my book. It offers a great deal of detail as to what transpired on that day and how the battle was assessed.
H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864 [Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.]
We have been here over six weeks, have had several fights with the enemy but as I have written to Brother Lute concerning all up to the middle of July, I will only tell you of one we had the day before yesterday. I send papers giving an account of the affair and will be very brief in my remarks. Peter was not in the charge, he being a sharp shooter. He with his comrades were left to hold the line on our right while the Division went to the center to retake our lost position. It is said to have the most brilliant charge of the War, the charge of our brigade. The line was kept properly, the men moved rapidly and quietly reserving the fire until close up and then delivering it with terrible effect. Here for the first time our men fought negroes. The Yankees put the negroes in the front and are said to have forced them forward. The massacre was terrible. The ditches were almost filled with dead. Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet. Such a sight was never seen before. Continue reading
I am certainly enjoying this run of positive journal reviews of my Crater book. Don’t worry, I plan on sharing the negative reviews as well. The latest is an enthusiastic review from Fitzhugh Brundage in the North Carolina Historical Review (January 2013) and it feels pretty damn good. One of my favorite recent studies of historical memory is Brundage’s The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. I also highly recommend his book on the history of lynchings in the New South. I couldn’t be more pleased that once again Brundage picked out the section on Mahone as the important contribution to the literature. He also makes some interesting suggestions on places worthy of further investigation such as the extent to which the wartime response to the Crater on both sides was already a product of previous encounters. That is definitely worth some thought. Thanks to Christopher Graham for providing me with a copy of this review.
I still have plenty of signed copies available for sale that you can purchase at a discount for $25. As someone who grew up on the Jersey Shore I am certain it will make for some enjoyable beach reading.
Some battles are inordinately interesting, whether because of their drama or their impact. In the case of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30,1864, on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, almost everything about it was extraordinary. It began with a massive explosion of a mine dug under Confederate trenches, included desperate hand-to-hand combat between black Union soldiers and enraged Confederates, and ended with the summary execution of many unarmed Union soldiers. The battle simultaneously hinted at the character of future trench warfare and demonstrated the continuing grip on archaic Napoleonic tactics. Thus, although the battle was neither especially bloody nor a turning point in the war, contemporaries and subsequent observers have assigned to it uncommon import. Continue reading
I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond. It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well. While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war. In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.
As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans. I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.
Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater. One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks. Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only. As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.
A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:
I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg. We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.
An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals. The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well. William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.
All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.
Thanks to fellow historian, high school teacher, and blogger Jim Cullen for taking the time to write a review of my Crater book for the History News Network. Jim’s critique is thoughtful and raises some important questions about my interpretation. I especially appreciate the following:
One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history — or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on “heritage,” whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they’re affirming a heritage of — one wonders if the story is this simple. What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.
First, let me say that I do indeed consider the broad parameters of this story as one of progress. Early on one of the reviewers asked me to address some of these questions, especially the question concerning the future of our Civil War memory. While I decided to bring the story to the present day I never felt comfortable about abandoning the traditional ground of a historian. I suspect my next project will free me up in this regard.
I also agree with Jim that this story is predictable for those familiar with the literature, especially David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which despite recent scholarly challenges, continues to exercise a profound influence on my thinking. That said, I didn’t write this book primarily for folks familiar with the historiography. Yes, I hope that the book appeals to scholars, but I wrote it primarily for folks who may never have read an entire book on Civil War memory. I wanted something that would serve as an introduction and lay out some of the tough questions that Americans have grappled with over the years.
Finally, I really appreciate the kind words about my blogging. In many ways, this book was made possible as a result of blogging and fits neatly into this broader project of how I’ve chosen to share my interest in Civil War history and engage the general public.
Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865
I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs. While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.
The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors. “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.
It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact. This is just another straw man argument. That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences. That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well. I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.
In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful. In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries. That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.
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