“Remembering the Battle of the Crater”

Published:July 10, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

We received Kevin Levin‘s new book in the office yesterday. A former Charlottesvillian, Levin is the proprietor of the Civil War Memory blog. His book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, is, as you might expect, a study in historical memory, and one that focuses largely on issues of race. That’s because, as our entry on the battle explains, black troops played a prominent role in the fight that occurred on July 30, 1864. And many of those taken prisoner that day were killed by Confederates.

Anyway, I’ve only read the introduction and the first chapter—which details the battle and its immediate aftermath—so I can’t pass judgment on the whole. But I do want to express some mild frustration at the way in which Levin constructs his arguments. His book is so interesting, I want them to be better!

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Mentioning the film Cold Mountain (2003), Levin writes in his introduction that its opening battle sequence, dramatizing the Battle of the Crater, is accurate and that it even

briefly acknowledged the presence of United States Colored Troops (USCTs). At one point in the battle sequence, a black Union soldier and a Native American in Confederate uniform exchange glances. [Director Anthony] Minghella’s negotiation of the race issue, however, avoids any references to the well-documented executions of many black soldiers after their surrender.

Levin then writes: “It is the absence of race, exemplified here in Cold Mountain, that is the subject of this book: this process of preserving a certain kind of memory that moves to minimize or ignore the participation of USCTs in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.”

This is a great thesis, but a less than great way to introduce it. How does Minghella ignore the black troops? Levin’s already noted that they’re there in that opening sequence. And to argue that he minimizes them, or does not show them being executed by Confederate troops, suggests that, for Levin, the battle must serve a primarily historical function in the film. But an account of the battle, as Levin notes, wasn’t even included in the novel on which the film is based. The battle here is backdrop for the purposes of drama; it seems unfair to expect the director to weigh down his film, right at the start, with issues of race when such issues are not at all the subject of the film. Here, good drama rightly trumps good history, and Levin perhaps goes out on a limb using such a scene to introduce his thesis.

A few pages later, Levin recounts how after the battle black and white Union prisoners were marched through the streets of Petersburg and were the victims of often racially tinged taunts and insults. He suggests that accounts of the battle “tend to ignore or downplay this moment in the overall narrative of the battle,” but he does not acknowledge that very few battle narratives highlight what came after the battle in favor of what happened during the battle.

Better, perhaps, for Levin to more simply ask: How much attention should this event get? Or, better yet, what kind of attention?

Levin’s arguments falter more substantively in the first chapter. If you’re interested, I’ll explain after the jump. But let me again emphasize that this critique a) does not reflect the whole book; and b) is not necessarily a judgment on Levin’s conclusions. I’m just attempting to read the book closely.

IMAGES: Kevin’s book cover; Mahone’s Counterattack by Don Troiani

The Battle of the Crater was a big disaster for the Union’s Army of the Potomac. It began with a giant mine explosion behind Confederate lines, after which Union troops were supposed to march quickly through or around the resulting crater. Instead, they got mired inside of it, and eventually Confederate general William Mahone staged a fearsome counterattack. At one point, some black soldiers managed to advance past the crater, but, as Levin writes, “the raw black soldiers were forced to retire back into the crater.” He even quotes one of the black soldiers: “Instantly the whole body broke.”

Levin goes on to note the pride that black soldiers took in their performance and contrasts that with the mixed notices they received from Northern newspapers. He suggests that these newspaper accounts were motivated by politics—Republican papers praised the USCTs, while Democratic ones panned them—but he also writes, “Most were influenced by accounts from the field, which offered minimal praise of the performance of USCTs.” Accounts, in other words, like the one above, in which “the whole body broke.”

One expects that Levin will now examine those accounts from the field: were they accurate? were they racially biased? Except that he doesn’t immediately do that. Instead, he writes that negative portrayals of the black troops “reflected deeply ingrained racial prejudices that were pervasive throughout the North.”

So the newspaper accounts were not simply the result of partisan biases. Nor were they simply the result of perhaps faulty field reports. They were the result of racial prejudice. The reader can’t help feeling a little frustrated here, because Levin’s arguments don’t stand still for very long!

Still, he inches closer to an examination of those field reports by pointing out that the white officers of black regiments were racially prejudiced themselves, and therefore their field reports reflected as much. According to Levin, the assessments that white officers gave of their black troops “were based on facile observations that merely solidified long-standing assumptions.”

This seems like a leap, though. After all, Levin points out that white officers agreed to command black regiments as a means of advancement. So how was their advancement served by denigrating their own troops’ performance? Or perhaps their racism outweighed their self-interest. Levin may be correct in his assessment, but he does not adequately back it up.

And even after all that, he notes that the black troops’ officers at the Crater gave their men’s performance a “mixed” assessment. Is it possible that their performance actually was mixed? Or does Levin mean to argue that those accounts that described a poor performance were racially motivated, while those accounts that described a good performance were not? And should he not take into account those positive accounts that might have been motivated by politics that were sympathetic to African Americans? In other words, those few officers who supported black troops might have been motivated to exaggerate the quality of their performance in battle.

Levin notes the anger felt by Union soldiers after the defeat and how it was directed both at the high command—Meade, Grant, and Burnside—and at the black soldiers, who were reputed to have “skedaddled” during the battle. That Levin earlier quoted a black soldier admitting to that very thing seems no longer relevant. The white soldiers who groused in letters home were reacting out of “deep-seated racial prejudices” and “the growing sense of frustration with the course of the war,” Levin explains. And it may well be true, but it may also be true that their descriptions of the performance of the black soldiers was correct.

After the Battle of Chancellorsville (1862), for instance, many Union soldiers blamed German-speaking infantrymen for skedaddling in the face of Stonewall Jackson‘s famous surprise attack, calling them the “Flying Dutchmen.” It was unfair; there were actually more non-German soldiers with their backs to the Confederates on that day. At the same time, it was true.

This is where Levin’s writing frustrates me. He too quickly brushes aside issues related to historical truth in favor of examining the motivations of those writing after the fact. The latter is important, but it makes sense only after we understand the former.

Late in the first chapter, Levin finally includes a paragraph of evidence suggesting that unfavorable accounts of black troops in the battle are unfair. Even this evidence, however, is unsatisfactory. “Union soldiers focused specifically on the ‘panic-stricken retreat’ of the USCTs as the moment when the battle was lost,” Levin writes, “but failed to include the fact that various units had managed to maneuver themselves in a forward position just as Mahone’s counterattack began.” In other words, yes, there was a “panic-stricken retreat,” but they also did good things. But if we take into account a devastating defeat and growing frustration with the war effort, why should we expect descriptions of the battle to focus on the positive? Why shouldn’t they focus on “the moment when the battle was lost”—unless that wasn’t the moment, an argument Levin fails to make.

All of which is to say that Levin’s book so far, although interesting, is composed of arguments too loosely held together to fully hold up.

PS—One final, tiny factual quibble: on page 26 Levin mentions Gabriel’s Conspiracy, a planned slave uprising near Richmond that, with Nat Turner‘s actual uprising in Southampton County, provided some of the cultural context for Confederate soldiers facing black troops at the Crater. This provides a fascinating contribution to our understanding of the Crater, I think, and one that might yet benefit from more contemporary evidence. However, Gabriel likely did not carry the surname Prosser (that was his owner’s name only) and his conspiracy was in 1800, not 1801.


4 Comments on ““Remembering the Battle of the Crater””

  1. Kevin

    Hi Brendan,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to give the introduction and first chapter such a close read. I pick up with Cold Mountain again briefly in the final chapter, which will hopefully reinforce what I mentioned in passing in the intro. Not to ruin it, but a scene showing a USCT being executed at close range after the battle was cut. For one reason or another the director chose to open the movie with the Crater. Of course, I don’t expect the movie to be weighed down by getting every last detail right, but its inclusion does leave room for some thoughts about how it was used.

    You make some very good points re: my characterization of assessments of USCTs by Union soldiers and officers. My brief analysis of officers of USCTs was based on Joe Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle. I never argued that all of their assessments of the men under their command were influenced by racism. I found a number of officers including Freeman S. Bowley who continued to write in support of his men into the 20th century. Bowley clearly believed that the service of these men ought to lead to civil rights following the war.

    What struck me about the accounts of Union soldiers was not that they point to the Confederate countercharge as the moment when the battle was lost, but that they specifically pointed to the black soldiers, who were mixed in advanced earthworks with scattered elements of white regiments. It is the black soldiers that are singled out for having collapsed in the face of Mahone’s charge. They are the ones blamed for Union defeat on July 30. As one Union soldiers noted after the battle, “Everybody here is down on the niggers.”

    I am not sure why you suggest that I am not concerned with historical truth. The performance of the Fourth Division was clearly mixed. They likely made the best of what was a confused and chaotic situation. That’s not, however, what most newspapers and accounts by fellow Union soldiers described. I could be wrong, but it seems to me they were looking for a scapegoat and the black soldiers stood out as an easy target. Given the controversy about the use of black solders in battle both on the home front and in the army I do believe that race played a role in how they were characterized specifically at the Crater.

    I spend much more time on the Confederate response to black soldiers, though I am surprised you didn’t choose to say anything about this. Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and I hope we can continue this discussion.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the response and clarifications, Kevin. I didn’t intend to suggest that you’re “not concerned with historical truth,” only that certain issues (such as judging the performance of the USCTs as best as historians today can figure) are better sorted out before examining the nuances of contemporary reactions.

    In other words, let me get straight what happened before we delve into how what happened is remembered. I do realize that history is not quite so cut and dried, however. It’s not always clear how we separate one from the other.

    It’s just that I became confused and frustrated as I found myself playing the skeptic and wondering — well, maybe those black troops *did* perform poorly! And I don’t doubt that race played a role, probably a significant role, in how they were characterized. I just wasn’t fully convinced by your argument.

    You did spend more time on Confederate reactions, and I thought your discussion there, and your introduction of the Gabriel/Nat Turner context was well handled.

    Congratulations on the book, and I look forward to reading on!

  3. Kevin

    You bring up a really good point re: the distinction between what happened and how it is remembered. As far as I can tell the black soldiers performed no better and no worse than many of their white comrades.

    I am also very weary about the fact that you can find support for just about any thesis in the records of Civil War soldiers. That said, I am struck by the fact that much of what I read in northern newspapers and especially in white Union soldier accounts focused specifically on the black soldiers. That said, I found it much easier to nail down the Confederate response and the broader response on the home front.

    Thanks again, Brendan.

  4. Pingback: Lights, Camera, Action: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. | Read North Carolina Novels

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