Kevin Levin’s Remembering the Battle of the Crater
Let’s get straight to the point here. Kevin Levin’s new book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, is an exceptionally solid work. The book is meticulously researched, and most important, it provides insights into the ever-dynamic (and my personal favorite) sub-field of historical inquiry: memory studies. The book begins, fittingly enough, with the battle itself – underscoring the deeply ingrained racial prejudices against the black soldiers of the United States Colored Troops. It then traces, through the development of the Lost Cause narrative and the systematic exclusion of black people from the southern body politic, how blacks were essentially written out of the Crater story, not only in the South but for some northerners as well – even though they played a significant role in the bloody attack.
I found the chapter called “Whites Only” among the most compelling. This discussion of how early battlefield interpretation left little room for the commemoration of the black soldiers who fought there is clearly building (admittedly so) on David Blight’s conclusions in Race and Reunion. Early reconciliation gestures formed the foundation of the park’s development. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, northern (white) veterans would travel south to visit the sites of their past battles. In the case of the Crater, they were often treated cordially by their former enemies including William Mahone and others. When meeting, veterans from both sides discussed shared virtues of bravery and fortitude – and significantly noted “all feelings of sectional strife [were] entirely forgotten or blotted out.” (91)
These meetings, aiding the efforts to put land aside for the creation of a national park, unfolded against the backdrop of a challenging balance between economic development and historic preservation. Without question – the promotion of tourism loomed large for Petersburg officials – and by 1932, land had been secured for the dedication of a national park. The Crater site (formally a golf course) was added in 1936. A subsequent battle reenactment (in 1937) and the National Park’s interpretive signage and literature scarcely noted the involvement of African American soldiers in the Union attack.
This narrow commemorative focus took hold and continued through the twentieth century – into the era of the Civil Rights movement and the Civil War centennial. Early commemorative efforts combined to write a persistent message: reconciliatory gestures and shared racism worked to minimize the sacrifices of black participants at the Battle of the Crater. Only recently has the African American narrative gained a place on the battlefield.
Things that I would like to discuss with Kevin over beers:
Without question the interpretive stance at Petersburg (and many other battlefields) for the longest time framed the war as a white man’s conflict. Equally true – northern veterans on missions of reconciliation intentionally played down issues involving race. This book does a splendid job at focusing in on a particular place as an emblematic site of one strand of Civil War memory.
Those who read Cosmic America regularly know that I think this particular strand of memory was atypical in the contexts of commemorative cultures broadly defined. But I admit that it existed in certain times and in certain places. I will also note that this strand of memory is significant in terms of how Americans write twenty-first century commemorative culture that challenges a national racist past. As such, Remembering the Battle of the Crater is an outstanding source, which convincingly shows how groups of people can interpret history according to their needs – reconciliation and economic benefit – and in fact, develop commemorative themes that dictate empowerment.
My bar-stool questions for Kevin (and he will have some time to think about it, we next meet in March 2013): what did the veterans (those whose reconciliatory efforts helped develop the site as a national park) have to say when their former enemies were not around? Were they so cavalier about dismissing racial issues or black peoples’ involvement in the war? Were they quite as forgiving when it came to former enemies? How would you define a national commemorative ethos and where does the Crater story fit in?
Of course I have questions…that’s what I do. And my own conclusions may diverge somewhat from those offered in Remembering the Battle of the Crater. But all of that notwithstanding, I say buy the book. Read it. You’ll thank me later for the recommendation.