Crater Book Proposal

I was going through some files today and came across the original book proposal that I used for my Crater manuscript.  Given that only a few people have read it I thought it might prove helpful to those of you out there who are contemplating a project of this size.  Since I didn’t have any experience writing a proposal I followed the guidelines of the individual who asked me to submit the project for consideration.  This version dates from the beginning of 2005 and does not include any mention of the final chapter which takes the story of the Crater through the Civil War Centennial.  Feel free to comment as I am very interested in any advice that you can offer for future purposes.

Book Proposal: The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory [temporary title] referred to in proposal as “Remembering the Crater”

Non-technical summary of the project

The battle of the Crater, which took place outside Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864 proved to be one of the bloodiest engagements in the final year of the Civil War.  The attempt on the part of Union commanders to break the growing siege between the two armies by tunneling under a Confederate position and exploding 8,000 pounds of explosives created a battle environment unseen elsewhere.  The novelty of the mine explosion, the close hand-to-hand fighting, extensive casualties, the decision to include United State Colored Troops in the attacking columns, and a decisive Confederate victory guaranteed that the battle would not soon be forgotten by those involved.

This study examines the ways southerners reinterpreted the battle of the Crater throughout the postwar years (1864-1937).  Like those of “Pickett’s Charge,” memories of the Crater proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, the drive towards national reunion, and finally the tenets of Lost Cause ideology.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we can more clearly understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

Review of Appropriate Literature

Few accounts of the Crater exist. Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel’s The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” (1989) is the most complete account of the battle and serves as a foundation for interpreting wartime primary sources.  Though less detailed, Noah A. Trudeau’s The Last Citadel (1991), J. Tracy Power’s Lee’s Miserables and William Marvel’s Burnside (1991) provide relevant information on the battle itself and the decisions made by key officers.  This study does not challenge any of the standard interpretations as they relate to decisions made in connection to the battle or the movement of troops throughout the duration of the battle.  The relevant literature in connection with this study which focuses on memory is much more extensive and can be divided into two camps.  The first camp concentrates broadly on postwar conditions that brought about reconciliation between North and South.  Recent studies by David Blight Race and Reunion (2001) and David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War (2002) examine the role reconciliation played in shaping early histories of the Civil War including its cause and the importance of emancipation.  For the purposes of this study, their analysis of the disappearance of African-Americans from many battlefield accounts is central to this study since their participation at the Crater proved to be a salient fact.  The disappearance of African-Americans from Southern accounts can be seen clearly in two reenactments which took place in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937.

The second camp of memory studies focuses on individual battles. Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (1997) and Thomas A. Desjardin’s These Honored Dead (2003) are the best examples of this second group.  More recent studies of the history of individual battlefields include Timothy B. Smith’s The Great Battlefield of Shiloh (2004).  I intend to integrate the best features from these studies.  Reardon’s focus on Pickett’s Charge is perhaps the closest model for my own. She concentrates on the evolution of memory by analyzing how a specific version, albeit a Virginia-centered account, emerged by the beginning of the twentieth century.  Reardon’s analysis of how that story evolved is understood as the result of internal debates between Confederate veterans, the influence of Lost Cause ideology, the drive towards sectional reconciliation, and the practice of monument building on the battlefield.  This study will also analyze the creation of the Petersburg National Battlefield  Park, which includes the Crater.  Smith’s study of the  development of Shiloh National Military Park focuses entirely on the role of reunion and the politics of Civil War battlefield preservation and serves as a model for this study.

Purpose of the study

“Remembering the Crater” takes as its starting point the accounts penned by Confederates in the period immediately following the battle and seeks to uncover the salient points contained in their letters and diaries.  Robert E. Lee’s men achieved a certain amount of agreement in their assessment of the Crater fight.  In addition to providing detailed coverage of the close hand-to-hand fighting, Confederates were unanimous in their horror and disgust at having to fight African-American soldiers.  Many shared with fondness the treatment accorded to these soldiers once surrendered.  Victory at the Crater reinforced the belief of many in the ranks that Ulysses S. Grant’s continued assaults around Petersburg could be dealt with and that Confederate independence remained in their grasp.  Finally, the battle reinforced the belief within the army and outside that Lee embodied the Confederacy’s only real chance for success.  Though many of these points continued to appear in postwar accounts, “Remembering the Crater” focuses on the ways in which later accounts diverged and attempts to explain why. “Remembering the Crater” examines how interpretations of the battle evolved as a result of various conditions within Virginia and outside the Commonwealth throughout the postwar years.  As one of the few remaining sites from the Petersburg siege, the Crater attracted a steady stream of visitors following the war.  Starting in 1875 and continuing into the twentieth century, Confederate and Union veterans met on the battlefield to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier and to promote sectional reconciliation.  This study focuses specifically on the steps taken by visitors on both sides to bring about a national park in Petersburg that would include the Crater site.  An important component of this focus will be to show the extent to which African-American participation in this battle was ignored for the purposes of reconciliation. The disappearance of African-Americans from the historical terrain can be seen clearly in two reenactments, which took place in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. Reenactments provided a unique opportunity not only for veterans to meet with former comrades, but also for the community to construct and maintain a collective memory. Much of that collective memory underscored principles embodied in the Lost Cause and tended to reinforce white supremacy.  It is not surprising that in such an environment the role United States Colored Troops played in the battle would be ignored.  Analysis of the 1903 reenactment will examine the intersection between the politics of history, race, and public memory at a time when Virginia was already in the process of reorganizing its society around a Jim Crow framework.

The largest section of “Remembering the Crater” focuses on disagreements between Virginians over how the battle should be remembered.  The most contentious point centered on former Maj. Gen. William Mahone who led the Confederate counterattack which resulted in the retaking of the crater salient.  Mahone used the notoriety that went along with a successful military career to further his own postwar projects, first as a railroad magnate and later as a politician.  By 1883, William Mahone had become one of the most controversial and divisive politicians in the country.  As the organizer and leader of the Readjuster Party (named for its policy of downwardly “readjusting” Virginia’s state debt), Mahone led the most successful independent coalition of black and white Republicans and white Democrats. Readjusters governed the state from 1879 to 1883, electing a governor, and two United States Senators, and served six of Virginia’s ten congressional districts.  The legislative agenda of the Readjusters and Mahone’s prominent role within the party and U.S. Senate generated heated attacks in newspapers and more personal forms of communication.  Similar to former Confederate General James Longstreet, Mahone incurred the wrath of a growing “Lost Cause” movement that in addition to rationalizing Confederate defeat sought to maintain Democratic Party solidarity by fostering white supremacy and states’ rights.  Lost Cause advocates such as Jubal Early and others assumed an aggressive posture against ex-Confederates like Mahone who threatened their own conservative social and political agenda.  That Mahone was not an outsider, but a successful Confederate general, had to be dealt with severely and they dealt with him by attacking his war record, including his leadership at the battle of the Crater.  A closer look at Mahone’s postwar difficulties sheds light on the heated debates surrounding the political limits to which the Confederate past could be utilized.  And in doing so it undermines the notion that “Virginia history” and “Confederate history” became nearly synonymous during the first few decades following the war.  Finally, it reminds us that James Longstreet was not the only target (perhaps not even  the most important target) of the Lost Cause crowd’s wrath.

The four years of Readjuster control and the accompanying debates about Mahone’s conduct at the Crater did not exhaust other areas of disagreement between former Confederates relating to central questions about the battle.  Perhaps the most important question concerned which unit could claim responsibility for saving Petersburg and the Army of Northern Virginia on July 30, 1864.  Veterans of Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade and North Carolinians in Robert Ransom’s brigade felt ignored in a story that primarily celebrated Mahone’s brigade for reclaiming the salient.  Even brigades in Mahone’s division complained that Virginians were taking an inordinate amount of credit for success and were unwilling to acknowledge the roles played by other units in retaking the Crater salient.  “Remembering the Crater” examines why in the end Virginia’s version of events emerged as the standard account.

Significance of the study

“Remembering the Crater” will integrate the various approaches to understanding how memory connects and often affects our understanding of Civil War battles.  While the battles of Shiloh and Gettysburg have received a great deal of attention from historians interested in memory, focusing on the Crater reminds us that lesser-known battles loomed large in the minds of those working to use the recent past to achieve specific goals.  Finally, by focusing on the years up to 1937, this study encompasses a span of time much larger than previous studies and allows for an investigation of how the Civil War continued to impact popular culture on the eve of World War II.

Research design (Methods and procedures)

“Remembering the Crater” relies heavily on the scholarship of David Thelen and Michael Kammen.  Thelen popularized the study of memory in his 1989 Journal of American History article which integrated the latest findings in the fields of psychology, neurology, and philosophy.  According to Thelen and Kammen, memory is a present-focused construction dependent upon the assumptions and perspective from which the rememberer views events.  It is assumed that memory always serves the individual’s present needs.  The focus in this study on competing accounts of the Crater provides a window into the ways in which memories of events are constructed by social groups according to the group’s changing needs and how the memories of different social groups are often in conflict for dominance.

Project time line

This study is being written as an M.A. thesis for the University of Richmond and will be defended by May 2005.  The research for the thesis is complete except for examination of a few collections housed at the University of Virginia.  An article-length overview of this project was published as “On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame: Confederates Remember the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903” in Southern Historian (Spring 2004).  The chapter on William Mahone’s postwar career has been accepted for publication in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (forthcoming 2006).  Sections of the thesis have been presented at conferences over the past year, including the 2004 Regional Meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  A section of the thesis will be presented at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History.  Next summer I plan to collect archival material from the city of Petersburg relating to the Crater and the establishment of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  I plan to revise the thesis into 2006 and should have a completed manuscript by the end of the year.

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2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2007 @ 21:26

    John, — Thanks for the kind words. The manuscript is under review and if everything goes well there may be books by this time next year. In the mean time you can puruse my cv (left side under Personal) for a list of publications that cover various aspects of this topic.

  • John David Hoptak Feb 20, 2007 @ 18:55

    As a lifelong student of the 48th PA Infantry, I read with great interest your book proposal on the ways in which the battle of the Crater was remembered both during and after the war. Best of luck to you in this endeavor, and be assured I will be one of the first to purchase your book when it is published.

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