Connecting Scholarship With the Battlefield

A friend of mine is getting ready to present a paper and lead a tour as part of an upcoming Civil War conference which is set to take place in Petersburg.  The conference includes some of the leading historians and battlefield guides and involves four days of formal presentations and walking tours.  Needless to say that I would love to be able to go, but it takes place at the worse possible time for a high school teacher.  My friend is very interested in the Overland Campaign and specifically with the politics of the Army of the Potomac.  We are planning to meet for a chat about how to talk about battles and narrative.  This is a topic that I’ve been thinking a great deal about in reference to the Crater.  Here are just a few thoughts.

I should say that I am no expert on leading battlefield tours.  I’ve only led a few, including my studentsGettysburg_reunion_1  at Chancellorsville and a few groups to the Crater.  Last year I accompanied Chris Calkins and a group of people who were attending the Conference on African Americans and the Civil War, which was held at Virginia State University last May.  My friend pointed out the challenge for the military historian in trying to make the "irrational rational, the complicated simple, the random event purposeful."  Our narratives are laced with a traditional cast of character types, including the winner and loser and various others who play supporting roles.  We tend to humanize the battlefield as a series of moves on a chessboard.  Most of us know the standard stories that tend to come pre-packaged for our consumption.  Lee is the courageous gentlemen who withstands the continued onslaught from a more grizzled and less sophisticated Grant.  Just think of the tone of voice used for these two men in Ken Burns’s documentary.  Burnside is typically thought of as a bungler and so on and so on.  If the historical narrative is sophisticated enough the author may actually examine the command structure of the armies in an attempt to discern just how much control the high command exercised during the battle or campaign.  Still, it seems to me that most of our battle narratives take the form of an attempt to solve a puzzle of winner v. loser or an investigation of where and how the battle went right or wrong.  Pickett’s Charge is perhaps the best example of this tendency in our thinking. 

I have to say that I find it almost impossible to think along these lines in the context of the Crater.  Now it may simply be that the Crater is an unusual example, but it is perhaps instructive.  I find it particularly difficult in trying to balance the relative weight of command decisions v. the topography of the battlefield as a determinant of some outcome.  I look forward to reading Earl Hess’s second volume on earthworks as it will likely shed new light on the role and importance of earthworks throughout the Petersburg campaign.  One of the lessons gleaned from the first volume is the extent to which earthworks have been discounted in our battle histories from the first half of the war in the East.  Such questions force the historian and reader to think much more critically about the balance between the perceived salience of human decisions as opposed to the impersonal factors that may have determined a given outcome. 

These are important questions in connection to how our battlefields are interpreted.  It’s an issue because our tendency is to emphasize the human element when taking people around a battlefield.  I suspect that this is because the guide takes on more of a role of entertainer in addition to his/her role as interpreter.  Visitors want a good story and a sense of the meaning of what took place.  We naturally think of battlefields as places where momentous decisions made the difference between winning or losing in the context of the battle if not the war.  The need to distinguish between a spectrum of characters as outlined above becomes even more tempting.  Does the emphasis on the command decision to pull back the black units assigned to lead the assault at the crater help us understand the outcome of the battle or does it serve merely to bring into sharper relief the horror of the close hand-to-hand fighting and the courage that we love to celebrate within the ranks of both armies. To what extent did the dimensions of the crater and the confusion of battle override various last-minute decision?

Another aspect of battlefield interpretation that strikes me as important is the question of postwar memory as it relates to a given site.  When one walks the battlefields of Gettysburg and Petersburg you are not simply walking the site of a bloody engagement, but a site that was continually interpreted and shaped by various additions to the landscape – most importantly, of course, by monuments and other structures.  To what extent should the history of a battlefield today include events from the postwar error?  The landscape itself does not discriminate so why should we as visitors and interpreters?  At Gettysburg and the Crater you can’t escape the presence of the men and women who fought to preserve a certain interpretation of these famous fields that would serve their own purposes: reunion and white supremacy.  The popularity of veteran’s reunions drives this point home.  I find it very difficult at times when walking the site of the Crater to distinguish between the facts of the battle and how it was interpreted during postwar reunions and reenactments.  And it is the landscape itself that makes this so difficult.  I believe we have a responsibility to interpret these sites to include discussions of what happened since these episodes are so closely interwoven in shaping our memory of what happened.  Of course some locations lend themselves to such a discussion more than others. 

That’s it for now .

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3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 3, 2006 @ 10:03

    Dave, — I generally agree with your observations. My concern may indeed be misplace or perhaps I just failed to explain myself clearly enough. From a tactical/strategic perspective there were a number of mistakes made. And indeed the terrain is deceptive. I was trying to make a point in reference to our tendency to tell a good tale (which often includes deeply-entrenched assumptions about key players that go unchallenged) as opposed to an interpretation that may not be as satisfying, but gets closer to the truth. The other issue that I am interested in is the extent to which battlefield tours should include references to events that took place on the landscape following the war. The Crater is a great example as reunions and reenactments solidified a narrow focus on Mahone’s Virginia brigade and a view of the battle that minimized the presence of black soldiers.

  • Harry May 3, 2006 @ 9:25

    Didn’t Grant concur with Meade’s “intrusion”?


  • Dave Kelly May 3, 2006 @ 9:17

    Don’t understand your dilema about interpreting the Crater.

    From a military perspective battle has operational and tactical components. Command and Control, force allocation and maneuver of higher echelons of forces is Operational. Tactics deals with the arrangement of engaged troops, timing, terrain, coordination of commands and supporting fires etc.

    Meade’s intrusion into Burnsides conops was critical to the battle and he should have been villified by the enquiry for it (But since the board was arranged by Meade to seat his “friends” they ignored his malefactions.) Burnside’s response to Meade’s rebuttal was to draw straws. (Also a bad plan.)

    Petersburg’s terrain is deceptively complex. Broad plateaus that drop into ugly ravines and blinds. Operationally the Crater appraoches look broad and grand, but tactically the approaches to the salient come thru a wash that turns the attack maneuver into a compressed and dangerously narrow assault.

    The fact that most of the trenches were removed makes presentation difficult in trying to get the untrained tourist to see the clutter of trenches, abatis and bombproofs that disrupted organized formations and command and control.

    I think there are a good 8 or 9 salient issues that caused the federal assault to fail. They run the gamut from Senior leadership mistakes, to problems with assault tactics.

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