The Battle of the Crater and Reconstruction Memory

crater lovellToday I read a very thoughtful post by John Rudy at his Interpreting the Civil War blog. He added his voice to the recent chorus of posts on the challenges and importance of properly commemorating the final two years of the Civil War. I agree with much of what he has to say.

But the war after Gettysburg morphs into that long, bloody, messy slog across Virginia or Tennessee and Georgia. It changes from prisoner exchanges into prison camps and the bloodiest ground on the American continent. Politics gets ugly, as Peace Democrats make a true, concerted effort (and nearly succeed) at unseating one of modern America’s most beloved historical figures. Battles become racialized, as men are massacred in battle not simply because of the color of their uniforms, but because of the color of their skin. The war gets ugly.

I’ve expressed optimism from the beginning and continue to hold out hope for the final two years, though I agree with John that it is going to be a challenge. This is, indeed, not your grandfather’s Civil War, but as Brooks Simpson rightfully notes, that does not mean that we should declare victory. I’ve noted multiple times, for example, that we need to reign in our embrace of an emancipationist narrative that is much too reductionist. I see it all the time here in Boston. You would think that everyone was an abolitionist, though the monuments in and around the city tell a slightly different story.

I am already beginning to think about what I am going to say next summer in my keynote address to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. The scope of the battle offers a unique opportunity to begin to talk about the challenges of Reconstruction, which as I suggested the other day, is likely to get short thrift in our sesquicentennial.

There is no grand narrative that can be applied to this battle without losing sight of salient aspects of the story. Confederates and the white population of Petersburg and much of the rest of the Confederacy understood the significance of the battle and the presence of black Union soldiers. Black Union soldiers embraced the fight as another demonstration of their fitness for citizenship, while their white comrades and much of the rest of the country remained ambivalent, if not opposed, to civic equality even as they embraced the necessity of emancipation.  The fight at the Crater anticipates competing, if not contradictory, visions of what a reconstructed Union might look like. It is, as John Rudy, describes it: ugly.

The Crater is but one example of ways that we can use the final two years of the war to engage students and the general public around some of the toughest and most divisive questions that the Civil War forced on the American public. Americans ought to feel justified in celebrating the end of slavery and emancipation, but it is my hope that educators and historians will make room for deeper understanding that may not admit of any clear answers or resolution.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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9 comments… add one
  • Mary Ellen Maatman Aug 5, 2013 @ 12:34

    Regarding Forester’s comment: When I was researching the debates over Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, one of the disfranchisement devices under discussion was based on whether an applicant for voting registration had served in the Civil War. Most of the white delegates who were veterans favored this device in the belief that blacks had not served in the war (note to the believers in “Black Confederates”–they acknowledged they had “camp servants,” but clearly distinguished those from soldiers). One delegate, Thomas Goode Jones, corrected them by recalling that he “fought against” USCTs in 1864 (with no mention of “Black Confederates” 😉 ). My point is that the mass amnesia began early.

  • Forester Aug 1, 2013 @ 13:30

    People just need to know that blacks fought there, period. “North and South” omited USCTs in their Petersburg scene, as did “Cold Mountain.” Since most folks get their history from movies, they’re oblivious.

    I don’t know what happened to the Petersburg veterans … it’s like they caught mass amnesia. All of my Confederate ancestors were at or near Petersburg (my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side was there, I found that in online records). Yet NONE of the old people in my family know about the USCTs or the racial parts of the war. My late father (born 1938) visited the Crater site several times in the 40s/50s and never knew anything about racism at the battle until I found out from your blog (and I don’t think he believed me when I told him). My grandfather (age 92) met some really old ex-slaves who told him about the War, but it was a “nice” version. Why the hell SLAVES would further Lost Cause myths is anyone’s guess, but they did.

    Whenever I talk to non-CW buffs, I have to tell them the Crater story from scratch. Mass amnesia indeed. >_<

  • grandadfromthehills Jul 31, 2013 @ 20:13

    Thanks for sharing this! I see a couple of things in this. One is that discrimination against blacks was not just a Southern thing – it was very much evident in the North and South. The other thing is that reflection upon this scar in our nation makes me wish the emancipation and acceptance of the Africans enslaved in America could have been accomplished without a war. Then again, I wish there had never been an “Indian problem or War.” I am still a firm believer that history is so important so we do not repeat our ancestors sins.

    Sam Vanderburg
    Gun Barrel City, TX

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2013 @ 9:34

      Most Americans regardless of where they lived in the 1860s were racist by our standards. The emancipation of 4 million slaves was an important consequence of the war, but we should remember that it was the secession of states and the firing on a federal institution that was the immediate cause of war.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2013 @ 9:34

      Most Americans regardless of where they lived in the 1860s were racist by our standards. The emancipation of 4 million slaves was an important consequence of the war, but we should remember that it was the secession of states and the firing on a federal institution that was the immediate cause of war.

  • Ben Allen Jul 31, 2013 @ 16:15

    I wouldn’t be very worried that the ugliness of the last two years would cause a lack of interest. Look at how Britain is obsessed with the Great War. Now that conflict was definitely ugly, from the beginning to end, with the trenches on the Western Front and bloodbaths like the Somme and Paschendaele. Also, battles like Antietam and Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Shiloh, Fredericksburg and Chickamauga were just as sanguinary as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. There is hardly anything glorious about any of them. Probably the only reason for any decrease in the general public’s fascination with 1864-65 would be that John Bachelder ensured that Gettysburg would be remembered as the turning point of the war. That can easily be remedied if the states’ sesquicentennial organizations, the NPS, museums, and the Civil War Trusts put as much dedication into commemorating the final two years as they have done the first two.

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Jul 31, 2013 @ 12:50

    Thank you. Both you and John Rudy strike good, thoughtful notes. Given that I’ve been immersed in research focused on the last two years of the war I think there is a vast amount to absorb and think about, and I do hope the Sesquicentennial doesn’t effectively end although I think you make a persuasive case that it will, or might. Reconstruction is so poorly understood that I’d really like to see it commemorated and studied more. I’ve also had to immerse myself in that period, and that was truly an education.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2013 @ 12:56

      Hi Mary Ellen,

      Rather than worry about whether it will end or even whether it ever began (as a few people have opined) we should continue to look for a wide range of signs of life from NPS events to teacher workshops and the development of new educational resources. There is also quite a bit on the local level that is never picked up by the media, but is accessible if you know where to look on social media. The role of social media in allowing individuals to share ideas, resources, and organize events is well worth reflecting on even if it is difficult to measure objectively.

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