Today is the 152nd anniversary of the battle of the Crater. For those of you new to the blog, this is a battle that I spent a number of years researching first as a masters thesis at the University of Richmond and later as the subject of my first book, Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, which was published in 2012 by the University Press of Kentucky. For those of you who missed it, I recently learned that the book will be released in paperback next spring.
In 2014 I gave a talk on the memory of the battle as part of the National Park Service’s 150th commemoration in Petersburg, Virginia. You can watch it here.
Reading (the Crater) initial battle plan, I could not have imagined that such a strange and unique engagement had completely and totally been overlooked in my CW studies thus far. Had I been remiss in my approach to CW topics? The overwhelming sadness that I feel over the butchered USCT (a result of mismanagement of the Union forces) mixed with the guilt of somehow forgetting them. It kicked off a dance of now and then, as an unexpected questions surfaced over who and what is chosen to be commemorated, and who and what is easily forgotten. The battle was a CSA victory — a victory that probably never should have been, but a victory nonetheless, an opportunity snatched up with the blood-thirsty zeal of Maj. Gen. William Mahone. Was it celebrated at the time? As usual, more questions than answers. My conscience demands that I read into this further. Next year on this date: I will remember The Crater and hopefully I will have an even better understanding of what took place there.
Was it celebrated at the time?
The massacre was justified more than it was celebrated. Soldiers and civilians highlighted that it occurred as a way to galvanize support at a time when the war was not going well for the Confederacy.
Shoshana, If I may add something here – If you live in a state South of the Missouri, Ohio or Potomac Rivers, you have a hidden history of progressive activists, Black and White, in the post -war period. Here in Charlottesville, we have a tempestuous conversation started over how our public space is memorialized. I intend to give a talk on what voices have been silenced in the public mind at our local library. Part of my dialogue will center on James Longstreet. Di Nardo’s collection of essays does a beautiful job of showing how much distortion entered the field of CW memory, particularily around this figure. Point is, there is power in merely exposing people to the truth. One blogger here revealed (at least to me) that in N.C. there is a non-partisan movement to stand for human rights – The Fusion Movement. Knowledge can be translated into a momentum towards change.
I appreciate the additional clarification offered by Mr. Levin & Mr. Simcoe. I have been influenced by the fact, indeed, a significant chunk of my formative years was spent in the Deep South. It is forcing me to both purge & relearn CW history at an exhausting rate. It also exposes me to occasional embarrassment when I ignorantly insert a dose of Lost Cause rhetoric now and then (which BTW, until recently, I did not know what “Lost Cause” was). It would have been easier to start from zero knowledge than to be forced to take a vacuum to the steel trap that is my brain.
Well, you know, Lincoln once said that he thought his brain was made of steel: ‘It takes a long time for me to allow a new idea in, first I must turn it ’round and ’round, examine it from every angle, until I am satisfied. Then I allow it in.’ That’s a pretty close paraphrase. He was just working it out until he knew he could let it take the pounding of the political realm and the press! I would say that when I went back into this subject, @ 7 years ago, I had much to re-learn. But the fertilization process has led to a much faster learning/realization curve. And the newer publishing is so much more textured and insightful.
Kevin, if I might ask an abstract question: what lesson do you think 2016 people should take from the Crater incident?
With Dylan Roof, Black Lives Matter and police shootings, racial violence is still at the forefront of our culture. For me, I think there is a message that violence can’t solve problems. A lot has happened and changed since the 2014 anniversary — does the Crater mean something different to you now than it did 2 years ago? I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Forester, I too think a feeling of interest/humility in such immense events in the past should not necessitate slavish obedience to culture feuds or political views in the present. The South Side seems to have bred independent thinkers: Mahone, George Thomas and Union General Newton, who author Styple says was a spy for Lincoln in the McClellan cabal. Petersburg as the hotbed of Black and White progressive effort..interesting. Instead of Langston Park, its Lee Park, of course! In Charlottesville here, the street name fronting UVA Hospital is Lee St., not Dorsey Cullen Dr., much more appropriate. I’m working on a project concerning Progressive politics in the post-war South; carefully excised from our nation’s narrative.
I’m working on a project concerning Progressive politics in the post-war South; carefully excised from our nation’s narrative.
I assume you are familiar with Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party, which I cover in detail in my book.
I have just plundered UVA library for that title this summer. Through your book I discovered Ms. Dailey’s ‘Before Jim Crow.’ My uptick in reading after ‘absorbing’ Bruce Catton and Fletcher Pratt as a teen (b1954) came after 2000 with having time and disposable income to build my library. Longstreet caught my eye early on. A good friend of my wife and I – Patricia Winter – is working on multiple U.S. Grant projects; she also has novels about Welsh explorer Madoc and south Mississippi native cultures.
You might already know of Charlottesville’s recent public space/memorials controversy. I hope to give a talk this fall at the central library on a constellation of themes regarding local/Virginia ‘lost’ memory.
Glad to hear it. You may also want to check out Brent Tarter’s new book on the Readjusters. Haven’t had a chance to read it, but I am sure it is excellent.
If you are interested in the subject, the book is definitely worth getting.
Make sure to take a good look at the Fusion Movement in NC.
Marvelous! I wasn’t aware of Moral Mondays. Thanks for the tip.
The original fusion movement in North Carolina goes back to the late 1800’s. It referred to a coalition of new enfranchised African-Americans (mainly Republicans) and Democrats from the western parts of the state that had opposed reconstruction. In the 1890’s the efforts of these groups was thwarted by a series of bills which effectively disenfranchised African-American voters. There was also violence against the movement, especially in Wilmington.
It’s a bit dated, but I found Carl Degler’s book, The Other South: Southern Dissenters in the Nineteenth Century, to be particularly helpful.
Thanks for the tips.
I watched that talk back when you gave it! I wanted to go to that anniversary in 2014, but finances would not permit it.
It’s such an obscure battle in mainstream culture. I discovered the Crater through your blog in 2012, back when your book was first coming out. Being primarily obsessed with Norfolk and Tidewater/Hampton Roads, the Crater was a VERY important event effecting everything from race relations to railroad politics.
Later, I found out I had a great-great-grandfather in Mahone’s brigade (J. L. Nicholson, 61st VA), though I’m not entirely sure if I should be proud of that or not. But anyway, he was there and I’ve got his tinware spoon he was carrying in the battle (along with a Bible, butcher’s knife, buttons and his photograph from 1875). But I was already intellectually invested in the Crater before I discovered a family connection, and I try to avoid emotional nostalgic nonsense. He might have been a hero or a murderer … or maybe both, who knows. I would still be fascinated with the Crater if I was Japanese or something, it’s not about “heritage” for me.
The Crater is a microcosm of American race relations, past and present. It really should be required learning in all high schools and colleges. My US History class in college never even mentioned it. :-/