Jim Cullen: Review of Kevin Levin's "Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder" (Kentucky 2012)


Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

Kevin Levin is quietly reinventing the historical profession. This quest is particularly intriguing because he lacks a Ph.D. (he holds a master's degree in History from the University of Richmond), has never taught a college course at more than an adjunct level, and recently left his teaching position at St. Anne's-Belfield, a boarding school in Charlottesville, Virginia. One thing Levin does have, however, is a blog. Of course, so do a lot of people. But Levin's blog, Civil War Memory, is exceptional in its technological savvy, ability to attract advertisers, and the prodigious quantity of content he generates for it.

Of course, none of that would matter if Civil War Memory wasn't interesting. But it is, deeply so. Levin writes gracefully and with real insight about race relations, the academic/public divide, and often fiercely contested questions of collective memory, in arenas that range from battlefield sites to popular culture. He's got over a thousand regular followers, and gets almost 50,000 page views a month. Actually, Levin does what what a successful academic scholar is supposed to do: participate in -- and enlarge -- intellectual conversation by drawing on recent research. This was the noble dream at the heart of the creation of the modern university system, but one that has been fitfully realized at best.

People are starting to take notice of Levin. His coverage of a dispute between scholars over their respective books on Mississippi's Jones County during the Civil War got the attention of the New York Times, and Levin's work has since appeared there as well as in publications like The Atlantic. He typically has a few speaking engagements a month, which in recent months have included talks at the OAH and at Yale. It's a little unclear how, or whether, he's actually making a living from all this, but his editorial work ethic has clearly been paying at least some dividends, figurative or otherwise. Given the contraction in the historical profession, it's hard not to believe what he's doing will become some form of the norm for anyone who wants to make it in this business. Years from now people will say he showed the way.

This context seems worth reviewing as a prelude to discussing Levin's first book, Remembering the Crater, which has just been published as part of the University of Kentucky's "New Directions in Southern History" series. One of the more surprising aspects of this good piece of scholarship is how traditional it is, a brief monograph of the kind you expect from a recent Ph.D. staking a historiographic claim he hopes will land the brass ring of an assistant professorship. The notes section registers the requisite list of visits to archives, the footnotes themselves are rich in primary and secondary sources, and the blurbs come from scholarly heavyweights in Middle Period history like David Blight and Earl Hess. The book effectively ratifies Levin as a switch hitter, a guy who can hold his weight with the old guard even as he pushes out on an electronic frontier. This is high praise (with a few reservations I'll get to shortly).

Levin positions himself squarely in the sub-field of memory, a specialty that emerged about two decades ago, and one in which the Civil War has been a particularly fruitful frame of reference. The point of departure here is Battle of the Crater, which took place on July 30, 1864. The engagement, part of a rotating wheel of struggle between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1864-65 for control of Richmond, began as an attempt by the part of the Union army to break the impasse by seizing control of Petersburg, the rail lifeline to the capital of the Confederacy. When an initial attempt to use stealth failed, Federal engineers developed a plan that involved tunneling under Rebel lines, planting thousands of pounds of explosives, and exploiting the confusion that would follow exploding them by sending an offensive to break Southern defenses. A key part of the plan involved using specially trained forces of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), a fraught tactical decision given the racial dimension of the war and recent atrocities against black soldiers by Confederates at Fort Pillow, Arkansas earlier in 1864. Such factors and the racial prejudices against African Americans among Union officers (as well as concern they would be cannon fodder) led to a change of plan that resulted in the USCT participating in, but not leading, the assault. It proved to be a debacle -- the last real Confederate victory in the war. Levin rehearses the military background of the battle skillfully. He does a particularly nice job in his attentiveness to the Petersburg landscape, which puts him on the cutting edge of recent Civil War scholarship.

His real interest, however, is less the battle than the way it has been remembered by subsequent generations in Virginia and elsewhere. At first, the need to avoid antagonizing the victorious federal government led to relatively discreet memorials that acknowledged, if minimized, a black role. But the end of the Reconstruction era brought with it increasingly insistent affirmations of the Lost Cause and an attendant desire to erase African Americans from collective memory, one particularly evident in the 1903 re-enactment of the battle, where black Union participants were entirely absent. (This was an event witnessed by a teenaged Douglas Southall Freeman, and an inspiration for his famous multi-volume biography of Lee.)

Yet such an erasure was not always as easy as one might think. Levin pays particular attention to the career of Brigadier General William Mahone, who led the successful counterattack at the Crater. He later went on to play a major role in postwar Virginia politics, where he collaborated with northern Republicans and Virginia African Americans to fashion a relatively progressive program that supported state-funded public schools, for example. Mahone's military credentials made it difficult for his critics to assault his credibility, but that didn't stop them from trying -- and ultimately succeeding.

Eventually, however, the long night of Jim Crow was followed by the dawn of the civil rights movement. Media coverage of the struggle for equality peaked during the Civil War centennial, complicating the efforts of segregationists and Civil War traditionalists (who of course were often the same people) and gradually bringing about a more inclusive vision of the war. That sense of inclusiveness involved not only reintegrating the USCT into the story of the Crater and the Civil War generally, but also widening the focus of battlefield study to include more social and cultural history. 

In its broadest outlines, this is a familiar story. As Levin acknowledges, it fits squarely in the paradigm of the reconciliationist, white supremacist, and emancipationist phases of post-Civil War history traced by David Blight in his landmark 2001 book Race and Reunion. Levin asserts that Blight "does not go far enough in explaining the interplay of race and politics in national reconciliation as well as the deep divisions between former Confederates and white Virginians." Certainly Levin explores some intriguing nuances here; Mahone's career in particular stands out in this regard. But the outcome of the story is plain (and, in the wider context of Southern history, predictable) enough.

One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history -- or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on "heritage," whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they're affirming a heritage of -- one wonders if the story is this simple. What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.

A final critique: the subtitle of this book is "war as murder." Yes, the (racial) ferocity of the battle, and the summary executions that followed, make it different than other battles of the Civil War, or other battles in U.S. history generally. And the attempt to forget these atrocities are an essential part of the story. But Levin's larger point is less about the racial violence per se than how an event is remembered and gets used for later partisan and/or ideological purposes. It's not so much war as murder as it is war as palimpsest (though "palimpsest" is probably not a great word for the cover of a book for anyone but Gore Vidal).

In any event, Remembering the Battle of the Crater is itself a document of a profession in transition. Faithful in his fidelity to traditional scholarship, Levin is a particularly credible and engaging vessel for taking it into the twenty-first century. Long may he wave.

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