Should the Battle of the Crater Be Reenacted Next Year?

1937 Crater Reenactment

Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences.

There was one planned to mark the 100th anniversary, but as I speculate in the book, it is likely that event organizers did not want to deal with the fallout of distorting the racial element of the battle at a time when Petersburg was very much on the front lines of the civil rights movement. What about 50 years later?

Would you consider a reenactment of the Crater as part of the 150th commemoration to be an appropriate form of commemoration? Would a realistic recreation of the explosion followed by the close hand-to-hand fighting between Union and Confederate soldiers honor those that died and survived this battle? Now let’s add into the mix Edward Ferrero’s “colored” Fourth Division. Would you consider a carefully choreographed reenactment of their involvement, including the massacre (both during and after the battle) of unknown numbers of these men at the hands of enraged Confederates, to be appropriate? What about the forced march of black and white Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the following day? Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that a small number of black prisoners ended up in the hands of local slaveowners. All of this is part of the battle.

If there is educational value in watching a recreation of the battle of Gettysburg from the sidelines I assume the same can be said for the Crater. Or can it? I wonder whether we are perhaps more comfortable staging the more popular type of battle that is heavy on the movement of troops in formation over open fields as opposed to the messiness of Petersburg. On top of that we have the highly volatile issue of race to add into the mix.

I would feel very uncomfortable and for the same reasons that I expressed yesterday with watching such an event play out before my eyes. What do you think?

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58 comments… add one
  • Norma Jean Morrissey Jul 10, 2023 @ 21:02

    It seems like a true reenactment of this battle would be dangerous. I suppose they could go through the motions without a crater!🌅How could it be done without all that happened that day being repeated.

  • Doug Aug 4, 2014 @ 15:29

    I know I am late here. We did do a reenactment scenario but on a much smaller scale of the Crater battle. It was respectful to both sides and I was very happy to see the USCT present there. I, myself was with the Confederate infantry and my background is that I have been reenacting for 23 years. I enjoy it a great deal and in my mind this history is very important to teach in an age where the computer and video games seem to fill young peoples lives. We couldn’t do the thing of blowing up the mine or the massacre but the aftermath of the battles we gathered at the Crater itself and paid our respects. I understand the feeling of those that believe reenactors do nothing but waste the time of the public at these grounds however if we were not present people wouldn’t come out in such numbers to look at the sites. Again it was a very nice event and thank you NPS for allowing us to do it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 4, 2014 @ 15:59

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I was in Petersburg all week and caught part of the reenactment scenario on Saturday. I thought overall it was tastefully done. You needed to be around for the 1903 and 1937 Crater reenactments, when they did simulate the explosion. Thanks for taking the time to be a part of the commemoration. I am sure a lot of people appreciate it.

  • Kevin Jun 1, 2014 @ 10:33

    I agree war is hell!! What were the intentions of the black soldiers if things had gone their way? Would that have been a PC acceptable outcome? History is history, what happened just happened and should be depicted that way. That’s how we learn from it.

  • Steve Nov 22, 2013 @ 19:29

    Let me get this straight. Confederates plant mines on the peninsula and it’s “barbaric”. Same thing when Sherman’s army is raping Georgia. But it’s ok to build a mine gallery, fill it with explosives and blow up thousands of men. It’s ok to replace the black troops who trained for the assault with white ones then feed them into the meat grinder when the battle is lost? This faux PC outrage is tired, threadbare and boring. So you have to be a “Professional” to be allowed to have an opinion? These so-called ” professionals” have prostituted their profession to the professional left and reduced it to a polemic of race class and gender. I would proudly wear the gray, just like my ggg grandfather who helped beat back that brutal assault.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2013 @ 2:43

      War is hell, Steve. Thanks for the comment.

  • Jeff Fiddler Jul 14, 2013 @ 14:19

    All the re-enactors I know happen to artillery guys. From watching them and talking with them – and of course they are all amateur historians – (amateur in the sense they do not do history for a living) re-enacting gives them (and me on the sidelines) a real feel for what artillery guys had to do. And of course they are using 1/4 – or less -the charge that was used in real life, and they have trucks, not horses. But you can’t beat the noise or the heat for the feel. Not to mention how wool uniforms felt on July and August. So to some extent re-enacting participants can advance their historical knowledge and (to repeat myself) the feel.

    On the other hand – I would not want to see or participate in a re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater. Any more than I would want the first day on the Somme.

  • M.D. Blough Jul 10, 2013 @ 11:20

    The more we get in to this, the more confused I find myself on those who find living history presentations ethically and morally acceptable and battle reenactments ethically and morally dubious. I understand and fundamentally agree with Tony Horwitz’s criticism that battle reenactments are too neat and clean while war is the absolute opposite. However, if we leave it to camps and artillery and demonstrations of civil war medicine (although I rather suspect that if they did a really believable simulation of an amputation without anaesthesia in battlefield conditions, most of the observers would quickly be gone, either passed out, throwing up, or running for their lives. Most of those remaining would be too much in shock to move. A few could remain objective, and a few, I fear, would be enjoying it way too much), aren’t we also selling the soldiers short by leaving out the elephant in the room: battle, either the expectation of it, being in one, and the aftermath? We risk turning the whole thing into the ultimate sick one liner: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

    However, relating this specifically to the Crater, I think the logistical and safety issues while mind-boggling (like re-enacting the Wilderness, if you actually want to get into the part where the fires break out and some of the wounded are burned alive) are nothing compared to the one of the things that makes the Crater so exceptional. It was certainly not even close being unusual that atrocities against Black Union POWs occurred. However, the Crater stands out, to me, in the extent to which Confederate veterans, especially Porter Alexander who, while away from Petersburg at the time, spoke to many in the ANV right afterward, ADMITTED that there were significant numbers of Union prisoners who were black who were deliberately killed under circumstances that they would not have been killed if they were white and that this happened because of ANV soldiers’ rage at seeing blacks in uniform. That rage had a lot to do with the overwhelming Southern white fear of servile rebellion.

    I think that part of it can be done honestly. I believe that the number of USCT and 54th Massachusetts reenactors enables it to be done honestly. The reservation I have is that, if you do it honestly, how many Confederate reenactors will you get to show up?

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 10, 2013 @ 18:21

      I don’t know if Civil War reenacting as we know it leaves a lot of people- spectators and reenactors- with a sanitized sense of war. I see them mostly as a chance for people to get a live sense of what Civil War life was like for soldiers and civilians. For me, all they do is give people a glimpse of this history and if someone learns something they didn’t know before they got there from that glimpse. I think they do their job.

      We can debate about whether or not a live reenactment should include brutal atrocities like the murder of soldiers or a lynching or a field hospital amputation with a bonesaw. Not sure why, but we can better tolerate those things on TV and the big screen, it seems. Funny that if someone were seen eating popcorn and jujyfruits while standing on the sidelines watching the big battle reenactment at Gettysburg, we would see it as disrespectful to those who suffered and died in July 1863. But if they watch the movie Gettysburg while eating those same snacks, it’s somehow less offensive.

      And just as “sanitized” and probably more so, as reenaactments are the many modern, romanticized Civil War paintings by the likes of Don Troiani, Mort Kunstler, John Paul Strain, Don Stivers and others. I mention these because I recall the words of one historian- Gary Gallagher, who said he’d stay away from someone who had paintings on their wall depicting blood and gore.

      Anyway, I guess the last thing I’d like to add here is that I will be participating in a living history event this weekend- Saturday, July 12th: the Fort Stevens 149th In Washington, DC. The remains of Fort Stevens are National Park Service property. However, there will be no firing demonstrations there because it’s in DC. Right now, I understand I will be one of the very few soldier reenactors there. But my wife, daughters and other civilian reenactors will be present.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 10, 2013 @ 8:01

    I find any battle reenactment deeply weird (and always wish there were Klingons), but a Crater reenactment strikes me as particularly problematic. It would be like reenacting Washita, or doing living history at Dachau. An enormous crime requires more sensitive interpretation than hobbyist play acting.

  • Pat Young Jul 10, 2013 @ 4:57

    I understand that many people are opposed to battle reenactments per se and would oppose any reenactment on ethical grounds. Others are not opposed to battle recreations, but they believe that the racially motivated killing of black soldiers who had been rendered hors d’ combat make this battle one that should not be depicted.

    I understand and appreciate the point of view of those who oppose all reenactments, but for those who only oppose a reenactment of the Crater because of the race-based murder aspect, isn’t there a possibility that you are saying that blacks should never participate in Civil War reenactments? Blacks were often killed or reenslaved when they fought in many battles.

    I have been to a dozen or so reenactments. A lot of folks comment on the lack of African American spectators at these events, but I can’t recall ever seeing a black reenactor who wasn’t in a black unit. Mind you, I’ve met women and Jews and 65 year old men in “white” units that had none of these (as far as I know) but I’ve met no blacks. I’m sure there are African Americans who participate in “white” units, but their numbers must be fairly small.

    If the 54th Mass. and USCT reenactors can’t participate in reenactments of battles in which their members suffered racial abuse, doesn’t that serve as a further form of segregation? Doesn’t it also take away an opportunity to depict black soldiers as self-sacrificing agents of liberation?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2013 @ 5:06

      The important question for me is whether a reenactment of a battle like the Crater allows for careful reflection of the salient issues by the audience. I don’t see why this has to be framed as an all or nothing proposition. African American reenactors can be found in living history demonstrations at various battlefields throughout the year and in other capacities as well. There are any number of ways for reenactors can discuss racial abuse and other experiences specific to this group with an audience w/o simulating it.

      I think we can all agree that it would be nice to see more African Americans at Civil War related events.

      • Pat Young Jul 10, 2013 @ 5:27

        I just worry that since “whites only” battles will continue to reenacted, black participation will be circumscribed to camp life. I have spoken to several history grad students, and not just those studying the Civil War, who said that their interest was started when they saw a reenactment as a child. Not a camp life living history, but guns-a-blazin’ simulated combat. Since these admittedly flawed events have a potentially powerful effect, I would be loathe to confine their value only to whites.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2013 @ 6:23

          We both clearly share the same concerns, but I just don’t see how it outweighs all the negatives. I also don’t want to place too much weight on those who found their way into the field because of a reenactment. There are plenty of historical activities that have the potential to excite the imagination of a child.

    • Rob Baker Jul 13, 2013 @ 19:26

      I’ve seen them Pat. There was a couple at 1st Manasass and at Gettysburg. Ironically they were all Confederate. I’ve also seen Indians (Native and Foreign), and one Korean. Though the social make-up is still predominantly white.

      • Pat Young Jul 14, 2013 @ 8:09

        Its funny because I don’t think I have a problem with African Americans in Confederate units as long as they are not portraying black Confederates.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 9, 2013 @ 18:08

    I guess my point is that everyone has their own level of acceptable violence. I have no real problems with violence if it offers some redeeming social value. I think a battle reenactment can do that, serving as a glimpse of history. On the other hand, I don’t really care for sports like boxing or mixed martial arts or violent video games. I do like football, though (go Redskins!).

    I know what you mean about “Saving Private Ryan.” I also read the book “Band of Brothers,” then watched the “Band of Brothers” miniseries and “The Pacific” miniseries right after that. I’m not sure that was a good idea. I really had to ask myself if I need to watch that much blood and gore to understand history.

  • Mike Mihok Jul 9, 2013 @ 16:58


    I don’t think it is a choice between books and a reenactment just the acknowledgment that despite the hot dog and t-shirt vendors you can see things at a reenactment that reinforce aspects of Civil War battle that are difficult to represent, or completely missing in a book.

    Something as mundain as the guard mount is missing from almost every Civil War book but was daily routine in both armies.

  • Mike Mihok Jul 9, 2013 @ 16:01

    The Crater would be difficult to script and hand to hand is frowned on in most events but logistics aside, why not reenact the Crater? A well scripted reenactment can provide a perspective a sterile book or manicured historical site cannot. Some things are easier to see than understood in a book.

    How many paper historians can form a line from a column of companies? How many PhDs can maneuver a regiment through a line of artillery? How many professors are capable of pushing a line through a retreating mass while maintaining cohesion? The complexity and necessity of the most basic maneuver are often missing from the pages of a book.

    Distance, timing, and terrain are easier to see than read. How far is it from the US point of origin to the Confederate trenches? How long does it take to cover that distance? Where is the US infantry when the Confederates recover from the initial shock of the blast? A well scripted reenactment on representative terrain could make all of that easy to see.

    I’m sensitive to a carnival atmosphere of some reenactment, how about a funnel cake with your 6,000 casualties? Visions of dismounted cavalry charging across the outfield of a softball field are ever present, but I could imagine an event, like the Crater, where USCT are represented respectfully.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 16:05

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. Why is this being framed as a choice between books and a field experience of some sort? In addition, what does any of this have to do with “paper historians”? That is nothing more than an unnecessary distraction and a silly one at that.

      I’ve brought my students to the actual site of the Crater and have been able to discuss in a meaningful way everything you referenced here and more.

  • R. Alex Raines Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:56

    Well, then I’m going to pose a question. What age do you think is an appropriate minimum age for observing a realistic re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater?

  • R. Alex Raines Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:32

    I’m a bit more comfortable having a re-enactment of The Battle of the Crater than I am with the re-enactments that occur of other battles, like Gettysburg. If a re-enactment of the Crater is done in a manner consistent with historical fact, it would force the viewers to face some hard facts about what the Civil War was really about and about the Confederate soldier in a complete sense.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:42

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for the comment. As I stated in a previous comment, I think such a reenactment would leave spectators with a range of emotions and very little understanding of what happened and why. The racial element alone functions as a crucial difference between the two battles. That gap is wider when we consider the presence of children.

  • Yulanda Burgess Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:19

    How does one interpret a massacre? I had to think hard on this question as the Crater devolved into a massacre. So did Saltville. So did Fort Pillow. And more… The underlying emotional observation is that all these battles involved USCT soldiers and officers whose inflicted horrors have become the dirty little secrets of the American Civil War. So, yes: the Battle of the Crater should include a battle scenario as that is the history. As this would include an introductory to many to the USCTs, a beneficial experience would dictate that the commemoration include lectures, seminars, AND living history presentation which include battle scenarios. Not doing so excludes an important chapter of the Civil War. However, the public has not been prepared for this type of battle scenario. The living history community (with the exception of the USCT units) is also probably unprepared. Many USCT commemorative units are, however, prepared.

    There is little equality in Civil War living history. It is very segregated and those involved in presenting the USCTs and African American histories find very few venues to present this history. At many USCT focused living history events there are lectures, scholarly presentations on the overall history of African Americans in the Civil War, garrison interpretation (if appropriate) and a battle scenario (if applicable). There is always an attempt to recreate the history as accurately as possible given modern senses. “The Crater” is seen as USCT event and one of the venues which should be pursued to present this history by more than a handful of USCT commemorative units. It can’t be helped that the venue includes a horrific incident – but so are other historical Civil War sites involving African American military and civilians. Many of these horrific incidents are underplayed or sweep under the rug because the history conflicts with the cleaned up version of battle and garrison scenarios.

    History isn’t comfortable and those of us who are involved in public history and historical interpretation have faced many placed boundaries in presenting a depiction of nineteenth century African Americans because that history (whether it’s the horrors of enslavement, massacres, and lynching’s) is too uncomfortable or too controversial. There are many with expertise and years’ experience who would interpret the Crater based on NPS guidelines. Therefore, to eliminate a battle scenario based on the failings of other reenactments is a discredit. Of the thirty-five commemorative USCT units that exist today, there are many willing to interpret this history with high standards and dedication to interpreting the history. This has been done at other seasoned venues. There will always be limits but these limits have not clouded the history. Why should having a battle scenario at the Carter be different or the expectations different? The fear seems to rest in the lack of involvement with USCT events or USCT commemorative units and their historical interpretation.

    All battles or conflicts involving African American soldiers – including the Crater — highlight the inflicted brutality lead by prejudice and vindictiveness. To not commemorate their history in living history interpretation via a battle scenario AND an aftermath of battle scenario would exclude educating the public about African American’s involvement in the Civil War. The problem we have is that the public has been poorly educated on the subject until recently. Due to the segregated nature of Civil War living history and reenacting, many historical interpreters and reenactors are also undereducated in presenting “controversial” subjects in a responsible manner. Are the public and USV and CSA historical interpreters and reenactors ready for this type of a battle scenario? Probably. Probably not. But regardless of any shortcomings of the various camps it needs to begin. It will take the same path as other efforts to enfold African American’s history into American history. The foundation for this education has already been laid which included developing the necessary interpretive skill sets. There was a time when depicting a slave auction was questionable. There was a time when historical plantations ignored its slave culture. However, the educational value and equity in interpreting the institution of slavery and slave culture was realized as beneficial to the presentation of American life. It’s time to being that with the roles of the USCTs and African Americans in the 1861-1866 time period. Again, it can’t be helped that it much of these events involve horrific and tragic events. We must think of methods to educate the public about the history that lead to these battles, the history of the men who were engaged, contemplate the high casualties sustained by those men, and the plight of the freed and newly freed. This not only pertains to the Battle of the Crater. So, yes; have a commemoration with a battle scenario but apply high standards of interpretation which will ensure educational (not entertainment) value to the public.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:39

      Hi Yulanda,

      You said: There will always be limits but these limits have not clouded the history. Why should having a battle scenario at the Crater be different or the expectations different?

      I am right there with you in terms of engaging the general public on the tough questions surrounding race and the Civil War. The Crater in Petersburg provides an ideal opportunity to address a broad range of topics, but I still fail to see how a full scale reenactment does little more than leave people with some strong emotions and little understanding. The NPS has done an impressive job over the past few decades to correct many of the popular misconceptions about the battle that itself contributed to for much of the twentieth century. Again, I believe a large reenactment of this particular battle that attempted to be inclusive would be a step in the wrong direction.

      That said, reasonable people can certainly disagree. Thank you for purchasing a copy of my book, which will be in the mail in the next few days.

      • Yulanda Burgess Jul 10, 2013 @ 9:54

        I have to look through your eyes (and others) to grasp the complexity of the question. The vision is that people would expect a 150th Gettysburg or Manassas type event. The difference with The Crater is that a USCT component would be included. “Large scale” is indicative of the type of event – whether it’s a USV, a CSA, a USCT or a comingling of the three. Ones expectation of having a thousand USCTs to interpret a battle scenario is an unrealistic expectation. A “large scale” USCT focused historical event usually means about 50 men in uniform. The goal has always been to field a company for battle scenarios but — in the 30-odd years I’ve been involved in living history – it has not happened. Given my awareness of about thirty-five USCT commemorative units and independents, the total number of those who portray Union black soldiers and white officers would be about 400 men. With that estimation, there are insufficient numbers to do the type of modern large scale “reenactment” that most people associate with this method of commemorating the Civil War. Even if there were, the participant numbers could be regulated to reflect the accurate ratio and it would never reach the G-burg and Manass numbers.

        Please note that I liberally used living history with a battle scenario. I liberally used interpret.
        For the most part, USCT events (which would include Petersburg) are living histories with scenarios that attempt to depict the actual history of the historical site or the historical event. Even at Olustee, the USCTs are pocketed into an area in which they do living history which excludes guys sitting around or preparing to shoot off powder. There is little sitting around for USCTs as the public gravitates towards them seeking – shall I say – enlightenment. It’s rare to find USCTs among USV and CSA as there are very few venues for this interaction. Because of the segregation (both historically and modern), the USCTs have their own camps and have the liberty to screen themselves from “stuff.” I am not saying that these USCT events are devoid of inaccurate material culture, but there is never the “Victorian camping” and carnavil type of atmosphere that are exhibited at “large scale reenactments” typical of solely USV and CSA events like Gettysburg. These USCT events seldom even have the media exposure which are garnered by the “non-USCT” events.

        I am very old school and consider myself a historical interpreter because of my training, research and academic background. I am grounded in the National Association of Interpretation definitions. I find it hard to change. I recognize that some people label themselves as reenactors but they are actually historical interpreters. A living history event can be a reenactment but not all reenactments are living histories. Most people don’t know the difference. Defining what we do and how we do it is vitally important. There is an overall push against any historical portrayals and presentation of public history in regards to Civil War and, as it pertains to the USCTs, it might result in just academic and scholarly lectures. Not all Joe Plumbers’ attend these venues but are gravitated towards the powder and tent event. The broader venue exposes people to questionable interpretation and a make-believe atmosphere. There are various calibers of public history presentations (reenactments v living histories with specific scenarios) out there. . The differences were discussed at the Civil War Institute’s “Beyond the 150th” symposium. I was very long winded and very vocal about the distinction. Everyone keeps talking about ills of reenactments and reenactors without clarification or explaining the mythodologies.

        I was wholeheartedly strongly against the type of portrayals necessary to commemorate The Crater and similar events involving USCTs. Given that the disparate treatment of black Union soldiers is mostly ignored and the general public is mostly unaware of these incidents, it needs to be broadcasted to that wider audience. I am speaking as a descendant of a USCT soldier who was the subject of the massacre at Fort Pillow. The ignorance of that incident and The Crater and other USCT engagements is monumental. The continuous “reenactment” of the Battle of Saltville without USCTs participating is contemptuous and baffling. I am satisfied that those who are submerged in the study of the Civil War have awareness, but a huge majority is not. For the most part, the general public and the media think that the 150th concluded with Gettysburg. There is another chapter that includes the USCTs which isn’t being told, and that chapter includes incidents like The Crater.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 9, 2013 @ 17:51

      Hi Yulanda,
      Your concerns about segregation in Civil War reenacting are well understood. But what do you feel can/should be done to change things and make them more integrated?

      I don’t mean to put you on the spot but a great place to depict integration in reenacting/living history is, ironically, the Confederate army and its encampments at events. As Kevin has point out before, the Confederate army in the field contained thousand of Blacks, not as soldiers, but as cooks, launderers/washerwomen, laborers and body servants. How would you feel about seeing more Black people involved in such roles in Confederate reenacting?

      • Yulanda Burgess Jul 10, 2013 @ 10:22


        The foundations need to be laid for the USCTs and Africans Americans inclusion in these events. It could include something as basic as developing the appropriate scenarios that reflects the historical events. It could include the logistics of having a USCT camp and its components (which includes contraband and family members at the 100 yard distance rule). The organizers could include rules and regulations for USCT participants (how often have you seen this???) It could include something as simple as a basic invitation to all the various the USCTs to participate. When the invitations do come, they are always at the last minute. As I’ve said, there are about 35 units out there but it appears that just a few units are exteneded these invitations. For example, the 150th Anniversary of the Crater is about a year away. My unit, nor the USCT Living History Association (to my knowledge), have been extended an invitation to participate. I apologize if I am in error, but nothing has been posted on the discussion board or its a topic secret to just a few. At the same time, the USCTs must be proactive. For example, the invitation to NPS Vcksburg was extended eight months in advance by no USCTs participated. It’s a two way street.

        As for “How would you feel about seeing more Black people involved in such roles in Confederate reenacting?” I have absolutely no problems with this portrayal. I’ve done this myself by portraying an enslaved laudress and cook. I saw no problem doing this as the foundation for my interpretation had been layed. The scenario was established and the ground rules outlines. I was also with a white Union unit for years doing the same thing. People have done these portrayals and are doing them now. The shame is that a couple are now calling themselves soldiers.


        • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 11, 2013 @ 0:29

          “I’ve done this myself by portraying an enslaved laundress and cook. I saw no problem doing this as the foundation for my interpretation had been laid. The scenario was established and the ground rules outlines. I was also with a white Union unit for years doing the same thing.”

          I must say I admire your commitment to history and historical integrity. And just yesterday, I saw a group photo of another regiment (49th New York) and their civilians, which included a Black couple. The Black man was a civilian attached to the regiment.

          When I was at the Chancellorsville 150th, my wife told me about a conversation she heard about where a Black woman told a White woman “I won’t play your slave” though I don’t know if the White woman even asked her to. I think it would be a very good thing to see more African-Americans in historic roles as camp servants and slaves (for Confederates) in Union and Confederate reenactment encampments. But I don’t know that you’d get many people to do this. I’m not sure how I’d feel about doing it myself.

    • Robin Bowley Cookson Jun 28, 2014 @ 6:28

      I completely agree with Yolunda.

  • Mike Hawthorne Jul 9, 2013 @ 13:52

    In the words of Three Dog Night, “That ain’t the way to have fun, son.”

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 9, 2013 @ 13:11

    “Would it be any different than a movie about the battle of the Crater? Cold Mountain briefly touched on that particular battle, but fell short of the depth your provided above. What if they went all the way?”

    I know you want to focus on big battle reenactments with the general public as spectators. But I think Rob raises a very good question.

    If a re-creation of a battle is done by living historians at a reenactment or if it is done by Hollywood actors (who are often accompanied by reenactors as extras) for a movie.

    If the “spectator element” is an issue, then does it really matter if people come to see it live at a reenactment or if they see it in a theatre or on home video? The last time I saw Glory in the theatre back in 1990, it was a dollar movie Friday night and the audience was full of Black kids who, sad to say, laughed at everything. Denzel Washington as Trip, a take-no-shit Black man, was especially funny to them. I’ve seen spectators at big battle reenactments conduct themselves MUCH better than any of those kids did.

    And if reenacting is disrespectful to Civil War soldiers because a person who puts on “the blue uniform” for a weekend and shoots a gun and then plays dead on the field can afterwards get up, dust his unwounded body off and go back to his air-conditioned home and full refrigerator, as opposed to the broken, mangled bodies of Billy Yank or Johnny Reb, who, in 1863, might lay on a battlefield sweltering under the hot sun for a day or two begging for water, before receiving medical attention? If so, how is that any different than a Hollywood actor who films a scene where he pretends to be wounded and die, makes a lot of money from this depiction, and then moves on to his next film?

    Since you asked, my unit (54th Massachusetts) is supposed to participate in two events next year involving Black troops who were murdered on the battlefield: Olustee and the Crater. I’m not sure just how they will reenact the Crater or if I will be attending it yet. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 13:43

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for the comment. I want to stay focused on reenactments because I believe movies involve a very different creative process and place the viewer in a different relationship with the final product.

      Do you think there might be a distinction worth acknowledging between acting and reenacting?

      Finally, I will be very interested to hear how those battles are recreated.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 9, 2013 @ 17:25

        “Do you think there might be a distinction worth acknowledging between acting and reenacting?”

        Hi Kevin,
        thanks for the response. to answer your question, yes, there is a definite difference between acting and reenacting from the standpoint of the roleplayer. Obviously, the actor in a movie has more capabilities to tell stories like those you mention. Reenactors are limited in a lot of scenarios because of safety concerns. and other factors. I don’t think you could ever really reenact the Stonewall Jackson shooting in the time and environment it actually happened in (after dark and in a forest) because no one could see it.

        Perhaps the real question we should be asking it’s more socially acceptable for some people to accept a movie full of violence than it is to have a large-scale battle reenactment. I mean no disrespect and I know you want to talk about battle reenactments only. But I’m sorry… it’s just really hard for me to separate the two and single out large-scale battle reenactments when 6 out of 10 of the top-grossing movies of last week list some level of violence as part of their respective MPAA (PG-13, R) ratings. And I know that some of the people here, on this message board, who object to big battle reenactments, will watch and enjoy some of those movies.

        Looking back in my Yahoo! e-mail, some members of the 23rd USCT (the other unit I’ve reenacted with) say there are plans to have a Crater reenactment on July 27 (I won’t be able to attend that day). There was also an event last year. The 23rd United States Colored Troops has a facebook page and if you send them an e-mail, someone may respond and be able to give you more information to answer your questions about the dramatic portrayals planned for the reenactment.

        Of the few battle reenactments I’ve participated in (Olustee 140th, Spotsylvania 140th, Chancellorsville 150th and some smaller events), the battles have all been generic depictions of Civil War Combat. I don’t know how I would feel about reenacting the atrocities of the Crater at the 150th next year. But, having said that, this may sound odd: I would LOVE to see a movie made about the Crater as the primary story (sorry Cold Mountain). I have always felt that the story of Blacks in the Civil War doesn’t have to end with Glory. Indeed, the things you described about the Crater would be hard to watch but I think the story needs to be told to a mainstream audience. And a movie showing Blacks murdered by Confederates or sold into slavery would, I think, make it that much harder for neo-Confederates to convince the unsuspecting public that thousands of Blacks fought for the South and were embraced as comrades-in-arms by White Confederates. If I had the chance, I’d be glad to be part of such a film.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 17:33


          It seems to me that one of the crucial distinctions between battle scenes in movies and battleield reenactments is that the latter claims a commemorative and educational element that is lacking in the former. I don’t really have any desire to see a movie made about the Crater, but I wouldn’t have any problem with such a production if it was done right. War movies can be very educational. I can still remember the range of emotions felt in the theatre for Saving Private Ryan. I was numb by the end of the first thirty minutes.

          I just don’t see the connection between a movie and a reenactment. They are altogether different ways of imagining the past that include very different demands on their audiences as well.

          • msb Jul 10, 2013 @ 0:14

            I hope it’s relevant to say that the audience has a different role in movies and theatre, as well.
            In a theatre, the audience is a necessary part of the performance, which in a sense could not exist without it. (A movie stays the same no matter who watches it or under what circumstances.) Further, a production can incorporate the audience: productions of “Julius Caesar”, for example, can have the audience onstage during the murder of Caesar or the lynching of Cinna the Poet, thus making them accomplices, as well as viewers, as part of the effect the show wants to make. Of course, one has a satisfaction (an out?) in the theatre that doesn’t occur with movies. All the “dead people” in “Julius Caesar” get up and take a bow at the end.

            Thinking of a re-enactment as a piece of theatre, how could/would it be shaped to evoke the desired effect on the audience? And what would that effect be in the case of the Crater? In contrast to a play, which casts a reflection on real life, I understand that a re-enactment is supposed to recreate real life.

          • Rob Baker Jul 10, 2013 @ 4:54

            Not all movies are necessarily artistic representations of the past, but are educational videos on the past. Documentaries are reenactments of the past. I think documentaries are great commemorations. A reenactment is simply a live version of a documentary, when done right.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2013 @ 4:56

              I don’t usually think of documentaries as commemorations. That said, I am sure there is room for interpretation here.

    • Robin Bowley Cookson Jun 28, 2014 @ 6:21

      My great grandfather, Lt. Freeman Sparks Bowley, led the Colored Troops in the Battle of the Crater. He wrote his memoirs about his experiences before, during, and after this battle in a book titled The Boy Lieutenant. His depiction of the patriotic and loyal traits of his colored troops is deserving of a reenactment that focuses on their contributions and amazing character, at least in my humble opinion. Delighted I came across this blog.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2014 @ 6:32

        Hi Robin,

        Wow. Thanks so much for leaving a comment. I am very familiar with your great grandfather. I explore his postwar writings in my book and just talked about him this past week at Gettysburg.

  • Mike Rogers Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:39

    Never been to an actual reenactment, but I would worry about too much of a carnival atmosphere. To do the battle justice, the truth about how the USCT troops were treated HAS to be part of it. But I don’t envision reenactment organizers or supporting organizations being comfortable with that. Guess I don’t see much value in having a reenactment where a pretend hole is blown in the ground, guys in uniforms run at each other, then it’s over. This is toughie Kevin – but I’m coming down on the side of not doing it.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:58

      Hi Mike,

      As a form of commemoration it misses the mark, in part, it places the spectator in a passive position. I keep coming back to the NPS’s decision to allow the general public to trace the steps of Pickett’s men last Wednesday. There was a small element of reenactment in the walking and it placed the individual in the center of the commemoration. Their participation made it a success and they had to work for it.

      A Crater reenactment would be appropriate only for people over a certain age. In other words the kind of entertainment value that is present in a Gettysburg reenactment just isn’t there for the Crater. Such a point highlights just how much of this is about entertainment as opposed to commemoration and education. Finally, I can’t help but think that a visitors time would be much better spent engaged in the kind of thinking and reflection that a seasoned park ranger can help to encourage.

      • Mike Rogers Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:45

        Mostly agree…Pickett’s Charge is so embedded into the national memory that walking across that ground does give one a small sense of the nature of the beast. I would disagree about your age assertion and replace it with a knowledge factor. I wouldn’t have appreciated the Crater battle until after my two trips to CWI and your book.

        Since I am , in real life, a data analyst kind of guy, I see a somewhat linear relationship between knowing what happened in the CW and how a reenactment might enhance ones understanding.

        By the way, when folks ask me the best way to see Gettysburg my first response is to hire a battlefield guide. Those guys are amazing, Even if there’s patches of snow on Little Round Top as there were in April 2003 when I dragged the family there.

  • Pat Young Jul 9, 2013 @ 11:57

    Should we reenact lynchings?

    I think that the process for a Crater reenactment would be at least as interesting as the reenactment itself. In addition to the usual suspects, a reenactment would have to be led by the African American community in the Petersburg area. It would be interesting to see modern Confederate reenactors come to terms with what recreating the 1864 reality looked like. For spectators, the event would have the aspect of race war, which might not be inappropriate.

    Certainly the controversy that would surround the event, which would go well beyond the usual heat about port-a-potties and traffic, would attract a lot of attention.

    I was at a reenactment of a local Civil War draft riot. While the event had its silly aspects, people who attended said they were surprised by how affecting it was.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:03

      OK, but do you believe it would be an appropriate way to commemorate the men on both sides who participated in this battle?

      • Pat Young Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:27

        Kevin, you ask if I “believe it would be an appropriate way to commemorate the men”. I think it can commemorate the event, whether it is a suitable commemoration of the men qua men is less certain. I could definitely envision a suitable commemoration of the Crater.

        I don’t think it would include the actual explosion, that would focus on the pyrotechnics too much, but might be broken into three parts. The first would be the tunneling. I like the idea that members of the 19th Century proletariat might get their moment in the sun ( or the shadows). The second part would begin with the immediate aftermath of the explosion and focus on the suffering of the wounded. This would last, say, a few minutes. The third part would be a naturalistic depiction of the battlefield execution of black soldiers. Each of these segments would employ just a few reenactors.

        Spectators would leave shaken and shocked. A sensitive few would be crying.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:42

          Hi Pat,

          There are definite possibilities and I like the idea of breaking it down into segments. It may be the only way to pull off such a battle, but I want to keep this on a larger scale for the moment in terms of numbers. After all, the battle employed thousands on both sides.

          Spectators would leave shaken and shocked. A sensitive few would be crying.

          Why do you think they will have learned from such an experience? Is an emotional response the goal of such an event? Thanks for the comment.

          • Pat Young Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:41

            I have a hard time imagining a large scale reenactment, but I’d like to hear other opinions.

            I do a lot of opinion research work in my field including polling, focus groups, etc. Folks in the opinion research field tell me that people learn by seeing. “Don’t tell them, show them.” They also tell me that people think with their hearts.

            I think they are right.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 15:49

              You make a good point and I think there are plenty of ways to engage people’s minds and hearts. We just disagree as to whether a battle reenactment is the way to go.

      • Rob Baker Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:28

        Not to take away from the conversation, but is the goal commemoration or education?

        • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:38

          I would say both.

  • Rob Baker Jul 9, 2013 @ 11:41

    Would it be any different than a movie about the battle of the Crater? Cold Mountain briefly touched on that particular battle, but fell short of the depth your provided above. What if they went all the way?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 11:46

      I think you raise a good question, but for now I want to keep the focus on reenacting. We probably agree that movie making involves a very different process and does not include the spectator element nor is it done as a form of commemoration. You may disagree with some aspect of these points, but let’s stick to the subject of the post for now. Thanks, Rob.

      • Rob Baker Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:23

        Fair enough.

        Before I comment on the ethics of actually reenacting such an event, I want to point out some problems of putting on such an event.

        1.) Land: Where would such a reenactment be held? It would have to be in an area. at least close to Petersburg, that would accommodate an intense field of reenactors. The owner of the land would have to be willing to allow the event organizers to dig so many hundreds of yards of trenches on his/her land. This was done at the Twin Rivers reenactment in 2010. It was pretty awesome. However, that same owner would have to be willing to allow the organizers to blow up a portion of that property. Granted this is all in the interest of an accurate portrayal and corners can be cut.

        2.) Safety: Obviously blowing up a section of property with combustible materials close by would be dangerous. I’m not saying impossible though. Those weird anvil launches that I see in Alabama all the time involve some of the same risks. The difference here is that reenactors cannot be near the explosion. Often deaths are simulated in the field with minimal risks (though accidents do happen). An explosion to simulate the Crater would be too hazardous, forcing reenactors to be out of the way, thus ruining validity from the get go. Also, there is the aspect of hand to hand combat that you mentioned. Most organizations tend to avoid this. I have been involved in two hand to hands, but they were heavily scripted and had a few hours of practice so they went ok. A 150th Petersburg would likely have thousands of reenactors, so it would be hard to get them together for scripted run throughs. Finally, don’t forget that insurance is involved in these events. It would be interesting to see if an insurance company would insure that type of chaos, from hand to hand to the Crater itself.

        3.) Scenarios: The scenario you mention would be interesting to host, organize, script and populate. I’ve only seen accurate portrayals of race in the Civil War at one reenactment. That was at the aforementioned Twin Rivers in 2010 hosted by the BGA. A local historical society had African Americans reenact slaves. It was interesting/uneasy for many. One snag that could hinder the operation is finding enough African Americans to fill the ranks. I just have not seen too many people of color at reenactments. On the opposite side of the field, you would have to find a Confederate unit willing to engage in the behavior you mentioned. Most reenactors tend to ignore race issues in the war. More than likely this can be simulated by a good living history group. I think Pat is right that such a unit would require heavy involvement from the local African American community.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 12:45

          Fair enough, but let’s just assume for the sake of argument that 1 and 2 are non issues. Under Scenarios I think you’ve pinpointed a number of factors that raise the question of whether such a reenactment would be appropriate.

          • Rob Baker Jul 10, 2013 @ 18:12

            I do not know if I would go too far as to say “appropriate,” but I could not say for sure if it would be possible. However, after playing around on Google for a few days, I did find several USCT reenactor groups. Something tells me a direct invitation to those groups would be met with sincerity and enthusiasm. I still think a good reenactment regiment that puts emphasis on accurate portrayals would lead the “charge.”

            I agree with Pat. I think it would be an emotional learning experience. I also think it would force many reenactors to come to terms with certain dark episodes of history better not forgotten.

  • Scott Manning Jul 9, 2013 @ 10:23

    Soooo, is that a no?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013 @ 10:35

      What do you think?

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