War As Murder
Mem. Ed. $24.99
Pub. Ed. $35.00
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Review by William C. Davis
There were some very nasty places to get caught if you were a soldier in the Civil War, but a few became legendary—or infamous depending upon point of view. Interestingly—and only coincidentally—two of the most famous both involved United States Colored Troops. One, of course, was Fort Wagner on Morris Island, off Charleston. There on July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the Union’s first black regiments to see action, saw far too much of it when they fought their way into the fort and then found themselves trapped and had to fight their way back out.
The other instance came on a much larger scale a year and a fortnight later on the siege lines around Petersburg, Virginia. There, Pennsylvania coal miners dug a tunnel beneath the no-man’s-land between the Union and Confederate earthworks, filled a large gallery at the tunnel’s end with tons of gunpowder, and on July 30, 1864, detonated it in one of the largest explosions of the war.
What followed was bungled from beginning to end as a division of white soldiers were sent charging into the resultant gap in the Confederate lines, while their commander remained behind, probably drunk, and then after it was evident that the attack was a failure, a black division was sent into the Crater as well, only to be ravaged in what one Confederate commander called a “turkey shoot.” More than 500 Union soldiers were killed outright in that hell-hole, and another 3,200 were wounded or captured. Worse, some of the captured Negro soldiers were executed by their captors, and there were even accounts of captured Union white soldiers bayonetting black comrades in order to win favor from the Confederates and save themselves.
The Crater was one of those episodes that many wanted to forget. So-called “memory studies” have come to the forefront in recent years, thanks to the work of distinguished scholars like David Blight, Lesley Gordon, and Carol Reardon. Add to their number now Kevin M. Levin, whose new book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, provides an outstanding look at how people North and South, participants and their cultures, dealt with the awful recollection of those hours of carnage and brutality in the Crater.
The site itself became a tourist attraction even before the war ended, and thereafter millions would visit the place. Levin looks at the Crater’s role in tourism, histories, and popular culture, including current film, to see how Northerners, Southerners, and Blacks, have chosen to preserve, alter, or erase the memory of what happened there, especially where race was a factor in the carnage. “Until we are prepared to confront the tough questions about race in our Civil War history and elsewhere,” he concludes, “we will continue to struggle to engage in honest dialogue about race in our society today.” Remembering the Battle of the Crater is an outstanding look at what we choose to remember vs. what we ought to remember, and what the difference says about us.
Hardcover Book : 208 pages
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky ( July 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-631496
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 x 0.52inches
Product Weight: 12.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)