Thursday, July 11, 2013

Re-enacting the Crater, Wilson’s Wharf, & New Market Heights: Are We Ready?

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has been struggling with the thought of re-enacting past events (or, in this case, lynchings) that have an overt theme of racial atrocity. This has sprung up, in part, due to the recent uproar over Peter Carmichael’s comments about re-enactors and re-enacting (for more on that, see here).

Levin wonders whether it would be appropriate to re-enact the Battle of the Crater next July for the 150th anniversary of the battle, since one of the salient features of that fight was the wanton slaughter of United States Colored Troops who were killed in the act of surrender.

While I can’t speak to the appropriateness of such an event, I can say that there will definitely be re-enactors at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the battle, no matter what form it takes. I portray a white officer with the newly reconstituted 23rd United States Colored Troops – the unit that sustained the highest losses of any USCT regiment at the Crater – and we will be there to educate the public about this important battle along with several other re-enactment units.

While I see the obvious value in having this dialogue, what I find confusing about it is that it assumes that there are currently no re-enactments of battles in which racial atrocities occurred.

There are.

Fort Pocahontas, near Charles City, VA, has hosted an annual re-enactment since the late 1990’s. This was the site of the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf, where Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalrymen were humiliated and defeated by two brigades of USCTs under Gen. Edward Wild. We know that several USCTs who were captured before the attack were executed and a trooper in the 2nd VA Cavalry noted "We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them." The Confederates failed, and a larger massacre on par with Fort Pillow was thankfully averted.
Courtesy of

This is obviously not the same scale as what transpired at the Crater, but the element of atrocity is still very much there.

Nevertheless, every May, re-enactors from all over the country descend upon the site of the fort. I have many friends who attend this event and I have heard nothing but the highest praise. The people who host the event are currently in the planning stages of the 150th anniversary re-enactment that will take place next May.

Also taking place next year will be a re-enactment of the Battle of New Market Heights.

Anyone who has read my book knows that there were many USCTs killed after they had either been wounded or had laid down their arms. The slaughter was so great that one member of the Texas brigade bragged in his diary, “we killed in our front about a million dollars worth of niggers, at current prices.”

How Henrico County plans on handling this visceral racial element will be interesting to see play out.

I guess the crucial difference is the fact that both Wilson’s Wharf and New Market Heights were victories for the U.S. Colored Troops.

Would the public stomach a depiction of these racially charged battles only if the end result was victory for the African American soldiers?

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. If you have seen some of the videos from Poland of reenactment of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising ... well, the Poles do not worry about just who they might offend by reenacting events, such as throwing the Doctors & patients from a hospital out of third story windows!! In Europe, it is still considered HISTORY, even if was an atrocity in other people's minds!! I know well that such things cannot really be portrayed in American reenacting ... but, it STILL makes me wonder ... WHY NOT!! IT IS after all, written about in all of the history books!!!