(8/23/12 Web Exclusive Civil War News Book Review)
Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder. By Kevin M. Levin. Illustrated, photos, notes, bibliography, index, 192 pp., 2012, University Press of Kentucky, www.kentuckypress.com, $35.
The Battle of the Crater has captured the imaginations of historians, veterans and the public since the horrific events of July 30, 1864, when the Ninth Corps dug a tunnel under the Confederate lines at Petersburg, packed it full of gunpowder and blew it up.
The resulting battle, one of the worst of the war, began with great promise for the advancing Union forces but ended with the wholesale murder of surrendering members of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).
In recent years, nearly a half-dozen books and a motion picture have examined the tactical aspects of the Crater fight. Now well-respected Civil War blogger Kevin Levin has written his first book on how the battle was remembered by the veterans who fought there and in public memory.
Levin focuses on the soldiers of William Mahone’s Confederate Brigade, mostly men from the Petersburg area who in the postwar years were given credit for the Federal repulse, and on the black veterans of the USCT. Mahone, the man primarily credited with stopping the Federal advance, became a popular hero of the event.
Surprisingly, Mahone affiliated himself with the postwar Readjustment Party, a coalition of blacks and poor whites, as he rose through the ranks of Virginia politics.
Mahone did not ally himself with Jubal Early in the creation of the Myth of the Lost Cause after the war. Early’s faction was the one most responsible for the cover-up of the murder of surrendering USCT members at the Crater. Mahone’s separation from the Myth creation led to many Virginians disregarding the role his men played in the Battle of the Crater.
Levin investigates the role of history writing and the gradual erasing of the participation of black troops in the battle, They generally were remembered only in the postwar memoirs of several USCT officers. In addition, there was no USCT participation in reenactments during the first half of the 20th century.
It was only after the National Park Service bought the Crater Battlefield and included it in Petersburg National Battlefield that the role of the USCT troops and their subsequent demise in the battle became generally known to the public.
After the Civil Rights Movement, the battlefield managers set out to end the wrong by installing markers and leading guided programs. These revealed what USCT soldiers did at the Crater fight, including the subsequent murder of many surrendering black soldiers. Levin is an expert at tracing the changing interpretations of the battle over the last century and a half.
In conclusion, this is one of those books that will make you realize that history is not always transparent and that the passage of time may be necessary for a more accurate picture of what actually occurred to emerge.
Levin has produced a book that belongs on the shelves of those who want to know what happened at the Crater and how those events have been remembered.
Robert Grandchamp earned his MA in American History from Rhode Island College. He has authored nine books on American military history, including the forthcoming Colonel Edward E. Cross and Rhode Island and the Civil War: Voices from the Ocean State. He lives in northern Vermont.