Saturday’s talk by Wilson Greene, Executive Director at Pamplin Park, was delivered in a way people don’t typically hear when they hear about the American Civil War. He specifically focused on one particular battle, the Battle of the Crater.
“The Battle of the Crater was not a decisive battle,” Greene said. “It didn’t settle anything. It was a great morale booster for the south, but it didn’t change the tactical or strategic calculus around Petersburg. I think it’s famous or infamous for all the things that I talked about today.”
In Greene’s talk, he spoke first about the significance of how African-Americans fought for the North in the Civil War. In the four military divisions that were involved in the Battle of the Crater, three of them were white, and one was an African-American division. Greene spoke about how despite the fact that the African-American division was in the best shape, they were not sent in first because the commanding officers feared bad publicity would come of it. So instead, the division that was sent to attack first, was led by the most incompetent general in for the North, who coincidentally, drew the short stick when the three generals of the white divisions drew to decide which division would attack first.
According to Greene’s talk, the Union forces were successfully able to blow the mine, but the fighting that ensued afterwards was quite brutal. Greene in his talk described the details of what white confederate soldiers did to the black Union soldiers, and in some instances the other way around too. Greene explained how many African American soldiers who tried to surrender were killed without mercy by Confederate soldiers, and how race played a big role in the brutality of the battle.
“One of the biggest issues that we have in our country today is the balance between security and freedom,” Greene said. “Do we let illegal immigrants come in? Some people passionately say yes, that’s the American way and then other people say no. Well the same thing was going on in the Civil War on both sides. Martial law being created, newspaper reporters and editors being arrested because they were being seditious Democrats complaining about the intrusions on civil rights by the Lincoln Administration, Republicans saying this is what we have to do to save our country, what’s different?”
Green said that the issues that were dealt with in the Civil War continue to come up in modern society. He also believed if more people studied history, a lot of these problems today could be better understood, and avoided. His talk about the Battle of the Crater was just one example.
“The question occurs to us, how could something like this happen?” Greene said in his talk. “How could this be tolerated by men who normally adhered to the convention of what was considered civilized warfare? That’s a question that deserves more time than we’re going to give it.”
Greene said that one of the answers to this question was because of evidence that the south believed that the African-American troops were not going to give quarter to the confederates, so the confederates decided they were going to play by the same rules. He also said that neither southern culture or the confederate military, recognized the legitimacy of African American soldiers. Greene also said that one of the results of the battle was that captured union soldiers, both black and white, were lined up, and forced to parade up and down the streets of Petersburg beside each, to subject them to more humiliation.
“If the black troops had not been involved I don’t think the outcome would have been different,” Greene said. “But we would have not seen the level of bitterness that we saw from the Confederates. I think that racial attitudes in the mid-nineteenth century were such that every white person in the United States whether they lived in the North, or the South would be considered very severe racist by our standards today.”
Greene has been the executive director of Pamplin Park since it first opened in 1994. He has worked in Civil War public history for 44 years and started his career at Petersburg National Battlefield and has worked in battlefield preservation. He’s also written several books about the Petersburg campaign and about the Civil War Petersburg. The first of his three volume history series about the Petersburg campaign comes out next month.
Pamplin Park features major attractions including The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, the Tudor Hall Plantation, the Battlefield Center, the Military Encampment, the Breakthrough Trail and the Banks House.
“We were founded 23 years ago to preserve the breakthrough battlefield,” Senior Marketing Specialist and Graphic Designer Charles Winford said. “It’s where the Union forces overcame the confederate forces and ended the siege of Petersburg. It started Lee’s retreat, a week later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse so it’s a very important piece of geography.”
Winford explained how the Pamplin Foundation discovered that the land came up for sale. He said that Will Greene asked them to preserve it. The Pamplin Foundation not only preserved the land, but they bought it and made it into a museum to feature Petersburg and Dinwiddie and their significance in the Civil War.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to them,” Winford said. “They’ve continued to support us and that’s why it’s Pamplin Historical Park. Our mission is education and preservation so we preserve these earthworks which are the largest and best preserved Civil War earthworks in the country.”
Winford also explained how lucky the park has been to obtain all the artifacts that they have on display. One such artifact was a pistol that was owned by Captain Charles Gould who was the very first man over the earthworks on April 2, 1865. He was the first union soldier to penetrate the Confederate defenses.
“It’s through generosity of members and people of the community and people who have become aware of the significance of our museum that we’ve been able to acquire these things,” Winford said. “They’re very personal to the entire area, not just of the museum but the community too.”
Pamplin Park offers various accommodations for members of the community as well and tourists. The park offers Civil War themed birthday parties for children ages 8-12. These two hour birthday experiences include 19th century games and crafts, a rifle demonstration and drill, and celebration time for gifts and treat. These parties are designed for groups of 10-50 people. The park will also be hosting a rally camp on the weekend of August 20-21, designed to give tourists the experience of a Civil War soldier. Tourist will play the role as a newly enlisted private.
“In our main museum we tell the story of what the common soldier would have gone through and the common civilian and the common slave,” Winford said. “So that people can get a personal sense about what it would have been like to live during that time.”
Pamplin Park is located on Boydton Plank Road in Petersburg, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We’ve been able to grow quite a bit over the years,” Winford said. “Through community participation and lots of events that we have, lots of new exhibits. We have at least one new exhibit every year. Our shared history is a personal thing. It’s not just something that you read in a textbook with numbers and dates and names, it’s something that happened to people just like you and me. It makes it very real when you think about it in those terms.”