PETERSBURG, Va. — Leading Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is behind an effort to have African-American Union soldiers recognized for their role in the Civil War Battle of the Crater.
Gingrich, along with co-author William R. Forstchen, wrote "The Battle of the Crater: A Novel" that was released in November and recounts the role that United States Colored Troops played during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864.
In the acknowledgments and afterward of the book, the authors call for a monument to be placed in Petersburg National Battlefield at the site of the Battle of the Crater in recognition of "forgotten" African-American soldiers "who, on a terrible day in July 1864, did indeed offer up the 'last full measure of devotion.'"
The idea of a monument for United States Colored Troops has the initial support of National Park Service officials who oversee the battlefield. "We are definitely open to putting something near the Crater to let people know about the role of United States Colored Troops," said Petersburg National Battlefield Superintendent Lewis Rogers.
"Today as we approach the 150th anniversary of the battle, there is still no formal recognition of the role played by these soldiers in that fight," Gingrich and Forstchen wrote.
About a year ago, battlefield officials were in discussions with representatives of Gingrich to discuss how to place a monument at the Battle of the Crater site, Rogers said. One of the main contacts on the effort was Kathy Lubbers, who is Gingrich's literary agent and his daughter. "They were pushing us hard for five to six months," Rogers said.
However, the effort has stalled since Gingrich, who could not be reached for comment, announced his presidential bid.
Gingrich and Forstchen wrote that Petersburg National Battlefield officials "are delighted to work with us to fulfill a long-held dream of ours to see a monument placed on the site of the Crater in memory of the thousands of USCTs who fought on that field. As far as we can have been able to find out, not a single battlefield monument to any USCT regiment exists on ground they fought for. We hope to rectify this long-overdue honor and acknowledgment."
While there is no monument for a specific USCT regiment, there is a monument at Petersburg National Battlefield that recognizes United States Colored Troops on ground they fought on. The monument was placed on the Petersburg battlefield in the summer of 1993 and is inscribed: "In memory of the valorous service of regiments and companies of the U.S. Colored Troops, Army of the James and Army of the Potomac, Siege of Petersburg 1864-65."
Nearby there are informational signs that describe fighting by African-American troops on June 15, 1864, where they "recorded their first major success of the war in Virginia." During two hours of fighting, African-American troops routed Confederate defenders and captured dozens of Confederates and six cannons on the Dimmock Line.
The current proposal is to move the existing USCT monument to the Battle of the Crater site and reface it to refer to specific units that fought in that battle. The monument could then be rededicated. The battlefield's current management plan recommends no further monuments at the park. "We don't want a forest of monuments," Rogers said.
Also, the National Park Service is considering a trail near the Battle of the Crater site that would have waysides or informational placards that would teach visitors about the battle and the role of African-Americans in that particular fight and in the overall war. Park officials say they have also been approached by the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., about the effort for a monument.
However, the National Park Service would have to find money for such an effort and that could be a challenge in the current political climate with Congress cutting the federal budget.
The effort has particular meaning for Rogers. "The USCTs are one of the lesser know things known in the Civil War," he said. "I'm an African-American and I didn't have much of an interest in the Civil War because I didn't know of the contributions of African-Americans."
Rogers said many African-Americans are not aware of the major contributions of African-American soldiers during the Civil War and typically think of the period as it relates to slavery. During the war, a total of nearly 187,000 African-Americans served in the Union army. Of those, the greatest concentration of U.S. Colored Troops was at Petersburg. During the Petersburg Campaign, USCTs would participate in six major engagements and earn 15 of the 16 total Medals of Honor awarded to African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
More than 4,000 United States Colored Troops fought in the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, and represents one of the largest concentrations of African-American soldiers on any battlefield during the war. As a result of the battle, 1,327 soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the fighting.
The Battle of the Crater stemmed from a Union effort to dig a tunnel packed with gunpowder under Confederate fortifications and blow a hole in the defensive lines around Petersburg. United States Colored Troops were trained to be the first units to charge the Confederate works after the blast, but a last-minute order placed untrained white Union soldiers in the front of the attack. As a result, the attack bogged down and many Union soldiers charged into the crater rather than going around it. The ensuing battle was a bloody defeat for the Union.