Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder

Article excerpt

Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder. By Kevin M. Levin. New Directions in Southern History. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Pp. [viii], 184. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8131-3610-3.)

Kevin M. Levin's insightful work opens with the battle of the Crater as depicted in the 2003 film Cold Mountain, which presents the battle as most Americans think of it: Union detonation of explosives under a Confederate fortification followed by terrible hand-to-hand combat and Confederate victory. It is no fluke that the film glossed over the pivotal role of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Instead, its interpretation is the culmination of a nearly 150-year-old contest over how the battle should be remembered.

Levin, known to many historians for his acclaimed blog Civil War Memory, deftly explores the role of race in this battle for memory. In reality, the USCT played a pivotal role and fought bravely in the face of terrible conditions. Petersburg was the first time that General Robert E. Lee's soldiers faced former slaves on the battlefield, and they responded that day with a violence that held "no tactical purpose" (p. 29). Many captured black troops were executed by Confederate soldiers bent on preserving racial hierarchy in the South.

Memory, however, rarely matched reality. In the battle's aftermath, white southerners denigrated the contributions and abilities of the USCT, while many northern accounts ignored them or, influenced by racism, blamed them for the northern loss. In the decade and a half after the war, the former Confederate soldiers' visceral responses to African Americans became more muted, and a paternalistic assessment of black presence and celebration of Confederate heroism emerged in reunions and written accounts. At the turn of the twentieth century, Virginia veterans' memories became implicated again in shifting racial politics. …

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