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Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder [Hardcover]

Kevin M. Levin

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Book Description

June 19 2012 New Directions in Southern History
The battle of the Crater is known as one of the Civil War's bloodiest struggles -- a Union loss with combined casualties of 5,000, many of whom were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Union Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The battle was a violent clash of forces as Confederate soldiers fought for the first time against African American soldiers. After the Union lost the battle, these black soldiers were captured and subject both to extensive abuse and the threat of being returned to slavery in the South. Yet, despite their heroism and sacrifice, these men are often overlooked in public memory of the war. In Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War is Murder, Kevin M. Levin addresses the shared recollection of a battle that epitomizes the way Americans have chosen to remember, or in many cases forget, the presence of the USCT. The volume analyzes how the racial component of the war's history was portrayed at various points during the 140 years following its conclusion, illuminating the social changes and challenges experienced by the nation as a whole. Remembering The Battle of the Crater gives the members of the USCT a newfound voice in history.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Pr of Kentucky (June 19 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813136105
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813136103
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 476 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,183,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Remembering the Battle of the Crater is a well-researched and well-written book. Civil War buffs should find it to be an especially interesting read." -- Roger D. Cunningham, The Journal of America's Military Past

About the Author

Kevin M. Levin has published writings have appeared in numerous publications, including The History Teacher, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Southern Historian, and Virginia at War, 1865. He is also the writer of a well-known blog, entitled Civil War Memory (http: // He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Building history a memory at a time July 30 2012
By James W. Durney - Published on
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.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Battle of the Crater Sept. 11 2014
By Dwayne the Luddite - Published on
This book is well documented but reads more like a thesis (which it was) than a history. The author's premise may be debatable and I don't agree with the entirety of his premise but the references cited within do support those ideas as intended. (Again - it is more of a thesis than a history so keep in mind that the citations are INTENDED to support his premise.)

I cannot dispute the majority of this book and it jibes well with other accounts of General Mahone's (and other's) actions and, to my mind, even more importantly it confirms and expands on Mahone's actions as a political figure with the 'Readjuster Party'.

If you're looking for a rousing 'yee-haw' story of battle (from either side's perspective) then this book may not be for you (Killer Angels is a GREAT read for that).

If you're interested in fleshing out your understanding of this battle and the figures involved then the citations footnoted in this book alone are well worth following up with. You'll find plenty of other books to read just by checking out the sources he cites.

Folks who are living in the past or who are racially motivated might do well to read something else more along their 'party lines'. History is a study of fact & while the author proposes an interpretation of motives that might offend some (of either side); his effort at footnoting his sources should be noted. (That means; if you doubt his premise then read and -->VERIFY his sources and then come to your own conclusions! You don't have to trust this book, what has been spoon-fed from schools, race-baiters or even reviewers such as myself).

Agree or disagree: I found books listed in his footnotes which may help increase my understanding of these events and for that alone I thank him.
3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book on the Civil War in Memory May 3 2013
By Bill - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I just loved this book. Couldn't put it down. Extremely well written, and persuasively argued. I have led groups of college students on tours of the Petersburg Battlefield six times over the last decade, but this book will make my next visit to the battlefield a few weeks from now so much richer. Anyone interested in the memory of the Civil War will find this an immensely rewarding read.
4 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A liberals attempt to change history Aug. 1 2014
By Carlton Jerry Dunford - Published on
Kevin Levin has an issue with the truth. He is a man who has an axe to grind with the South, the Southern people, the Confederate States Army, both then and now. He writes blogs that attack Southern people who stand up for their ancestors and their Southern memorials and he will adjust the facts to suit his Liberal thinking as he does in his book. He will call the men who defended themselves against a sneak attack in Petersburg, Virginia murderers, as they were attacked by a Federal army. These Southern defenders only existed to protect themselves, their families, their homes and not to gain land, or to take over the United States, but only to defend their state after they were Invaded by the Federal army, please do not forget the facts here.

Kevin Levin wants sympathy for the attackers while he supports the crimes by the Yankee soldiers who were led by such incompetents as General Burnside, James Ledlie, Edward Ferrero and others. Their were competent good Northern leaders such as General George E. Meade, who had it right when he and his close advisers suggested that the colored troops only be used as engineers and laborers, not infantrymen or fighters, but Grant and Lincoln wanted the blacks to succeed so as to prop up their illegal war, but it failed, just as the writer of this book fails when he attempts to slander the Confederate army as murderers, rather than as Southern men who were defending themselves from a attack by a trespassing army of men who wanted to kill them.

Lincoln and Grant wished to show the South and the rest of America that the blacks were up to the job, and what they did was to get them killed in another Northern attempt to push liberal ideas and lies down the throats of Conservative Southerners just as it is being attempted today by Levin and his left wing Liberal associates in their blogs and books. In 1864 when Ledlie drew the short stick and now had to send his blacks to their meeting with death by way of the sharp steel bayonets, musket balls and and cannon fire from Mahones Confederate defenders, Elliot's cannons roared and fire, iron and lead was sent tearing into the U.S.C.T. black men, which is not indicated in the regiments flag scene which is so incorrectly depicted just as Levines book attempts to do, to deceive the reader. Save your money, stop buying fiction when accurate written historical books are available about what happened at the battle of the crater. This was a Yankee blunder, just as this book is.
2 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Battlefield, Tourist Attraction, Golf Course, National Park Sept. 12 2013
By Patrick Young - Published on
I purchased this volume with some trepidation. Its author, Kevin Levin, is not just a historian and an educator, he is also arguably the most popular Civil War blogger on the net. I began reading him several times a week beginning back in 2010 when I was first contemplating my own Civil War project. My worry was that since I had read nearly everything Mr. Levin had written over the last two-and-a-half years on his Civil War Memory web site, would the book be just a reduction of that writing to paper?

While what I read on Levin's blog has echoes in the book, in fact it is an altogether different product of Levin's research and ruminations from the dozens of blog entries that preceded its publication.

The book itself consists of three different sections. The first describes the brutal Battle of the Crater outside of the Virginia city of Petersburg in 1864. If you've read the novel Cold Mountain or seen the movie of the same name, that fictional work begins with explosions under the Confederate lines that created the Crater. The devastation temporarily disorganized the Confederate defenders, Union troops poured into the smoking hole, the Confederates counterattacked and overran the Northerners, massacring black Union troops.
The Crater

The Crater

The book looks at how Southern whites interpreted the battle at the time. Confederate soldiers wrote home that black troops had been deployed by the thousands to serve as a warning to home folks that an army of black avengers was descending on the South and that all whites had to mobilize to defend their society against this revolutionary force. They also bragged about killing captured black soldiers, equating the murders of black soldiers, illegal under the laws of war, with the accepted killing of rebellious slaves by their white owners. To white Southerners, the blacks were not soldiers, they were insurrectionists.

The second section looks at the use of the memory of the Crater by the Confederate general who led the counterattack. General William Mahone rose to political power after the war based on an alliance between lower class whites and newly enfranchised African Americans. This made him a target for white supremacists throughout Virginia. His one shield was his notoriety as the Rebel hero of the Crater. His opponents attacked his war record in a 19th Century version of Swiftboating, but Mahone was able to control the historical memory of the battle to his own advantage.

The third section of the book looks at the writing out of the African American role in the battle and the whiting out of the murder of blacks. Visitors to the battlefield for three-quarters of a century would have learned nothing of what really happened there. They would be served a reassuring narrative in which white men on both sides fought one another in manly conflict and reconciled after the war was over. The men who fought there were all heroic, all decent, and all white.

The desire to maintain the fiction of the Civil War as a whites-only episode in our history was so strong that when the 100th anniversary of the battle came in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights movement, most events were cancelled rather than allow blacks to intrude on the celebration of white masculinity that was to have taken place. As late as the 1970s, National Park Service personnel were not versed in the role of blacks in the battle and local African American college students said that the main purpose of the park was to glorify the Confederacy.

Real change in interpretation at the battlefield park was spurred by the release of the movie Glory and the airing of Ken Burn's Civil War just two decades ago. These two works were the first time many Americans learned of the key role of blacks in the war.

Levin concludes with a look at how scholars and the African American community have reintegrated the role of black soldiers into the interpretation of what happened when Union troops rushed forward into the Crater.

Kevin Levin's book is a wonderful examination of a battle that throws American racial politics into sharp relief. It examines the complex interaction of a historical event, how it was remembered by whites and blacks, and what was forgotten and why it was relegated to oblivion. The recovery of memory is part of the book's optimistic conclusion.

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