What A Real Review Looks Like

CraterThe other day I blogged briefly about a disagreement over a reference I made to a “real [book] review” as opposed to what I would call reader feedback on Amazon book pages.  Sure, there may be some dedicated Amazon reviewers out there, but I tend not to go there for substantive and thoughtful critiques. It just so happens that earlier today my publisher passed along what is clearly the most critical review of my book published to date. Thanks to Jason Phillips, who is the new Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University, for reading it and reviewing it for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Jason has a reputation for hard hitting reviews. There are aspects of his review that I agree with and a few with which I disagree, but overall I have no complaints. I certainly think that I could have done much more with the white Northern memory of the battle. I have no intention of writing a formal response here since that would be bad form. My goal is simply to highlight what I think is a pretty good example of a “real review.”

Kevin Levin has selected an excellent subject to study Civil War memory. Among other things, the battle of the Crater marked the first time that units in the Army of Northern Virginia fought (and massacred) United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). Levin insightfully explains how the presence of black soldiers signified everything that Confederates fought for and against without excusing the atrocity. His analysis of the career of Gen. William Mahone, the Confederate hero of the Crater, may be Levin’s greatest contribution. As leader of the biracial Readjuster Party after Reconstruction, Mahone threatened white supremacy and the Lost Cause myth. Levin shows how postwar Virginians’ memories of the Crater not only pitted whites against blacks and northerners against southerners but also former Confederates against each other at a time when political divisions fractured the state. Tracing the memory of the battle into the twentieth century, Levin describes the rise of white memory and efforts, since the civil rights movement, to add a black counter- memory to scholarship and site interpretation. Public historians in particular will benefit from this book.

Despite its laser focus on the memory of a single battle, the book misses important aspects of its subject. Following David Blight’s thesis, Levin insists that the presence of racism explains the absence of race in memories of the Crater. Prejudice has always shaped Civil War memory, but a persuasive argument for the absence of race must recognize the presence of other elements that overshadowed it. Simply put, the Crater has always meant more than racial warfare. For starters, it was called the Crater for a reason. The battle displayed the awesome and ingenious use of explosives and how ruinous they could be to the earth. Even during the battle, men stopped to gawk at the spectacle of destruction and collect souvenirs. Levin discusses how the explosion scarred Petersburg’s landscape in ways that attracted tourists but obstructed progress in a place that was eager to bury traces of war. More research in this direction could have engaged recent environmental histories of the conflict. The battle also symbolized incompetent military leadership. Levin hardly mentions the fact that the officer in charge of the assault, Brig. Gen. James Ledlie, and the division commander of the U.S.C.T. regiments, Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, stayed behind to drink brandy in a bombproof. Their dereliction framed how many Americans remembered the colossal failure: the Union brass wasted hundreds of lives and a golden opportunity to end the war. This memory would have been more apparent if Levin had studied how most Union veterans remembered the battle. He stresses the disappearance of black Union troops in historical memory while contributing to the disappearance of white Union soldiers in historiography—a problem that historian Gary Gallagher has recently noted. Black units constituted only 21 percent of the Union force engaged at the Crater. How did 79 percent of the Union troops at the Crater remember the event?

Levin provides passing references to white Union veterans attending reunions at Petersburg, but he does not analyze how these men and their communities recalled the debacle. A military court of inquiry into the disaster generated testimonies that constitute the first “official” memory of the Crater, but Levin does not interpret these sources either. When he studies the Crater’s centennial, he predictably envelopes the event within the civil rights movement but misses how the Cold War also shaped public memory of the battle. Levin notes that the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce created a centennial brochure that marked the site as the “birthplace of total war,” but he does not consider what that idea meant to people who recently experienced the Cuban missile crisis (p. 114). One hundred years after the Crater, many Americans faced the same injustice that black soldiers suffered: to be murdered for supporting racial equality. Yet at the same time, every American risked the horrid death that Confederates suffered at the Crater: to be awoken before dawn by a massive, fatal explosion. This point does not diminish African American courage and memory. Instead it suggests how overlapping historical contexts can eclipse the heroism of minorities without resorting to racism.

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

Purchase your copy today!

12 comments… add one
  • Kevin C Oct 31, 2013 @ 20:32

    Glad to see such great info on this important battle. I would also agree that we should steer away from saying that these Virginians under Mahon in the ANV “encountered and massacred” these brave men of the 9th Corps. It makes it seem as if these men did not fight valiantly that day , but rather stood there and allowed themselves to be murdered. The USCTs managed to capture a rebel battle flag and over 200 prisoners. They fought desperately, (often hand to hand) to push forward, to hold their positions after their forward movement was checked, and finally to prevent themselves from being murdered in cold blood when surrounded. Rebel account often mention being driven by a negro brigade, and of the horror (which incensed them) of seeing enraged negroes charging at them. All of this was done late in the fight. Had the USCTs been able to lead the charge as originally planned, and had the proper support on their flanks, the war may have ended differently, possibly in 1864 as opposed to 1865. But sheer bigotry lead the day and clouded the military judgment of 2 of the unions greatest generals. Sad that bigotry caused the deaths of even more men on both sides.

  • yankeefifergal Sep 7, 2013 @ 14:54

    I think the reviewer states erroneously that “the battle of the Crater marked the first time that units in the Army of Northern Virginia fought (and massacred) United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.).” Perhaps he meant fighting and killing en masse? Otherwise I’m pretty sure it was the 23rd USCTs were the first to fight the Army of N.V. on May 15, 1864.

  • Brad Aug 29, 2013 @ 9:57

    Call me old fashioned but I do want to read reviews from academics who are knowledgeable about the field. I trust their reviews. If I want to get a book about Lincoln that Michael Butlingame or Douglas Wilson has reviewed I know I can trust what they have to say. I don’t know anything about anyone who posts their comments at Amazon and have no foundation on which to evaluate their opinions.

  • Paul Irwin Aug 28, 2013 @ 14:43

    Do you really believe the average person looking to buy a Civil War book wants to read all that intellectual gobbledygook? Most people want to buy books that are interesting and enjoyable to read, but that “real review” tells me neither – in fact, it leaves me uninspired to buy your book. Such a review may be beneficial to you as the author but it is not beneficial to the general book-buying public. I get far more useful information from the Amazon “feedback” that you so derisively reject; I guess that means I’m just too simple understand your book.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2013 @ 14:46

      Thanks for the comment, Paul.

      Do you really believe the average person looking to buy a Civil War book wants to read all that intellectual gobbledygook?

      I made no such assumption.

      …in fact, it leaves me uninspired to buy your book

      Sorry to hear that, but I don’t read reviews to be inspired. I read them to get perspective on how others evaluated the argument. BTW, I typically don’t read reviews until I’ve read the book myself.

      I guess that means I’m just too simple understand your book.

      Don’t be so dramatic.

      • R. Alex Raines Aug 29, 2013 @ 9:08

        “Do you really believe the average person looking to buy a Civil War book wants to read all that intellectual gobbledygook?”

        The average reader of Civil War books? Yes, we want to know this intellectual gobbledygook.
        The average reader of books who has decided to buy a Civil War title? Doubtful.

  • cagraham Aug 28, 2013 @ 11:03

    Being defensive would be bad form, indeed, but engaging his review, I don’t think, would be. A response would be useful and generative if you take what he says as a jumping-off point for further development of your topic… or by challenging his premises as a means to refine his own ideas. That is the advantage of this publishing format…

    I know you know this already and don’t need to hear it from me… I just want to encourage you to think about a response because I’d be interested in what more you (and he) have to say about all this.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2013 @ 11:06

      You are absolutely right. I like that the blogging format allows for this kind of exchange and I suspect that Jason would be game as well.

  • congomick Aug 28, 2013 @ 10:07

    There’s certainly a link between the Petersburg trenches, the Crater and the Western Front, especially with troops from mining communities. However, Jason Phillips gets carried away with his Cuban Crisis analogy. Perhaps he is recalling a childhood panic, when successive US governments deliberately scared the bejasus out of the population by greatly exaggerating the number of Soviet missiles capable of reaching the American mainland.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2013 @ 10:14

      I wasn’t sure exactly what point Jason was making re: the Cuban Crisis. Perhaps he will chime in at some point because I am definitely curious. Having read Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation, I wish I had said more about the impact of the physical landscape on memory. Unfortunately, other than MKN’s book I just haven’t thought much about environmental history.

      • R. Alex Raines Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:26

        Here’s my take on Jason’s comment regarding the Cuban Crisis is that you missed the parallels between the 1860’s and the 1960’s in an important way, specifically in discussing how the ongoing Cold War (Cuban Crisis = 1862) impacted public memory of The Crater. I think he chose the Cuban Missile Crisis because its the closest to playing a game of thermonuclear war we’ve ever gotten. A better way to phrase the complaint, I think, is that he is generally upset by the lack of examination of how the Cold War affected interpretation of the Civil War. The problem with this, I think, is that the Cold War covers a fairly long stretch of time and is too broad to make any good generalizations.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:42

          I said a little bit about how the Cold War shaped a consensus view of the war during the Centennial years, but I am still not sure what it might mean to connect the Crater specifically to it. My brief interpretation follows Robert Cook’s excellent study of the Centennial. Let’s wait to see if Jason chimes in at some point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.