Civil War Book Review: Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War as Murder

Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War as Murder
by Kevin M. Levin

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Unlike Fort Pillow, what occurred at the Crater is not open to debate.  Whites on both sides murdered members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).  The battle is an example of what commanders should not do if they want to succeed.  The entire operation from start to finish lacked support from army HQ, plan changes for political considerations hurt the operation but everyone refused to abandon it.  The plan took on a life of its’ own that no senior officer had the will or courage to end.  Soldiers at the front suffered.  Command squandered a possibly good plan but fed men into a battle with little chance of success.   The Crater is the Army of Northern Virginia’s first experience with the USCT and they reacted badly.  Worse, white men in the Army of Potomac murdered members of the USCT in hope of protecting themselves.

The Crater is a popular subject with the publication of several books and a novel in the last few months.  This unique book is not another battle history but tells the story of the Crater’s history.  This is a look at how and what we chose to remember of an incident.  Additionally, the book looks at the changes time causes in how and what we chose to remember.   This is not a history of the battle but a history of the history of the battle.

The book opens with a description of the battle that centering on the attack by Mahone’s Brigade breaking the Union’s resistance.  The author insures the reader knows the important parts of the battle, without bogging down in details.  With this as our point of departure, we follow two major story lines.

The first deals with the preservation or lack of preservation from the end of the war to our times.  Petersburg wants normal.  The city wants to restore the landscape and blot out the scars of war.  The owner of the Crater wants an attraction with the public buying tickets.  As veterans visit the battlefields, the city leaders realize some preservation of the siege lines is good business.  This leads to the establishment of the National Military Park and the current preservation efforts.  A major discussion is the changes in the park’s presentation over the last 80 years.  We look at how the Civil War community, the public and minority groups accept or resist these changes.

The second story line follows the veterans, white Virginians and Petersburg’s Black community from 1865 to the current day.  This is a detailed look at race relations during this time.  We start with little official recognition that black men fought at the Crater.  Unofficially, the Confederate veterans were very willing to talk about this.  They had no problem talking about the murder of wounded and prisoners during and after the battle.  While the teller of the story never seems to be the one killing prisoners, this is a common memory.  Mahone’s Brigade was comprised of regiments from the surrounding area.  These men were very active in framing the narration and excluding Blacks.  This starts to change in the 1950s as renewed interest in the USCT and the Civil Rights movement challenges the accepted narration.

This well-written book looks into a different area for Civil War History.  It is more social political history than military history.  However, this is the story of how we understand and remember history.  This book needs to be read and remembered.


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