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Author Levin Remembers the Battle of the Crater

By    |   Friday, 29 August 2014 07:37 AM

Kevin Levin discussed his book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, to mark the 150th anniversary on July 30 of the horrific Civil War battle fought in Petersburg, Va. The event, covered as part of C-SPAN's American History TV series, was held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Petersburg.

The organizers chose two churches as the venues for the programs because they were in existence at the time of the war. St. Paul's dates back to 1643, and the building where the lecture was held was built between 1855 and 1857. Generals Lee, Pickett and other Confederate leaders worshiped at the church, and the pew Lee used is marked by a plaque. Levin, an instructor in history at Gann Academy in Boston who has also written for The New York Times and The Atlantic, was introduced by Chris Bryce, chief of interpretation for the Petersburg National Battlefield.

This writer first became aware of the battle while stationed at Petersburg for officer basic in 1972, and it had special resonance because of the crucial part played by Pennsylvania coal miners, where this writer grew up.

Feelings about the war are so ambivalent that one wonders whether this war should have been avoided and 620,000 lives saved. It would be interesting to know how scholars think relations between the South and the Union would have developed.

The American History course at the University of Pennsylvania this writer took did not consider these questions, because the professor famously ended the first semester with the outbreak of the war and resumed after the holiday break with Reconstruction, presumably having covered the war during the break.

Levin focused almost completely on the racial issues raised by the battle. These included the decision, whose authorship is a bit obscure, to send two units of black troops into the battle to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to fight for their freedom. This incited extreme reactions by the black fighters, the Confederates and the white Union soldiers.

According to Levin, the black Union soldiers were determined to avenge losses at the battle of Ft. Pillow, and they declared there would be no quarter. The Confederates executed any black Union soldiers who fell into their hands, and Levin reported that their casualties were twice that of white Union soldiers, with many, if not most occurring after the battle was over. Furthermore, when black Union soldiers fled the front, they were shot by their Union comrades. When Union prisoners were paraded through the town after the battle, the Confederates made it a point to mix the races to humiliate white Union troops.

One of the most interesting stories involved the successful business and political career Confederate Major General William Mahone achieved as a Republican politician during Reconstruction with the support of free black people.

Nearly lost in this presentation was the unique sapping maneuver by the Union miners who blew up the Confederate fortifications with 8,000 tons of explosives at the start of the battle.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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Kevin Levin discussed his book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, to mark the 150th anniversary on July 30 of the horrific Civil War battle fought in Petersburg, Va.
Levin, Union, Confederate, black
Friday, 29 August 2014 07:37 AM
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