Monday, July 16, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Have you ever waited and anticipated for a movie to premier and then finally gone to see it only to leave the theater a little disappointed and wanting more? Well, that is kind of how I felt about Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder by Civil War Memory blog author Kevin Levin.

As a youth, few battles captivated my imagination like the Crater. The audacity of the plan - to blow a hole in the Confederate line by digging under it and then packing the mine with gun powder - was the stuff a ten year old boy wishes he could recreate in miniature. The fact that plan did not ultimately work really was beside the point to me at the time. I wanted to know more, and, my then ever-ready reference book, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton, provided little assistance. It only mentioned that at the last minute USCT soldiers were "replaced by war-weary white troops." There was no mention that a whole division of those USCTs did in fact go into the battle and that a number were killed and beaten after they surrendered or attempted to surrender.

That last point, in fact, is Levin's point in writing the book. He contends, and correctly so, that until relatively recently the role of the USCTs at the Crater and their harsh treatment during and after the battle has been largely ignored in the public's memory of the fight.

If one searches "Battle of the Crater" on, at least eight books quickly appear, a number of which were written in the last few years. So, when I first heard about this book on Levin's blog I was happy to see someone finally exploring this perspective of the battle since so much has been written solely on the military aspects of this particular engagement. What drew me to the book was that Levin chose to focus on how the Battle of the Crater has been remembered, particularly in public history. But, I think to do that to the best effect, more needs to be told about those atrocities that occurred in the battle and also what coverage they received at the time. For example, I remember reading in another book that at one point in the battle a Confederate soldier was so incensed by having to fight African Americans that when he captured a USCT soldier he used his ramrod to brutally beat the black man. This act of whipping a man viewed as an inferior is symbolically significant and would have added to an understanding to why the Confederate soldiers reacted the way they did at the Crater, but this tragic account and others like it, which I think would have added to the story, are left out. And, while Levin does touch upon the subject of antebellum slave insurrections and their relation to the atrocities at the Crater, in my opinion this fascinating connection is not explored enough in the text. Too bad.

Another personal disappointment is that the author seems to stray from the Crater itself and focuses more often on a history of memory at the Petersburg National Battlefield (PNB). In one sense this may seem like splitting hairs since the Crater is indeed part of the PNB, but that is my point, it is only part of the PNB, and in my opinion the author probably should have stayed closer to the subject of the title. Surely there are enough accounts/sources specifically on the Crater's wartime and postwar story to provide a fuller telling from the Confederate, white Union and USCT soldiers that were there. For instance, pension records perhaps would allow the telling of more soldiers stories like USCT Louis E. Martin, who was vividly depicted on page 22.

Perhaps I am being too critical of what is not in the book rather than what is presented. But I personally think that much more could have been examined and discussed on this fascinating topic as the book only covers 140 pages of text and includes over 20 illustrations.

So to sum up this reader's impressions: I was happy to see this book's subject explored and published, I only wish the coverage would have gone deeper and more direct context provided . On a scale from 1 to 5 I give Remembering the Crater: War as Murder a 3.5.    

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