Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William Fortschen

Sketch of the Explosion
from Union Lines
by Alfred Waud
U. S. Grant called it a "stupendous failure" and blamed it on the "inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault."

In The Battle of the Crater, the authors, Newt Gingrich, William Fortschen, and Albert Hanser, allow us to relive the events of July 1864 outside of Petersburg, VA. The historical team has created a compelling novel examining the actions of the soldiers and officers involved in this sad chapter of the Civil War.

The story is told through the eyes of James Reilly who is an artist for Harper's Weekly and a friend of President Lincoln. After Reilly's brother is killed at Cold Harbor, the artist travels to Arlington, VA where he helps carry his brother's body to a grave site. There he meets Sergeant Major Garland White of the 28th United States Colored Troops (USCT). He visits with Garland and shows him the sketches from Cold Harbor. As the burial detail hurries to finish their night time task, their commander Colonel Russell announce that they have been assigned to the First Brigade of the Fourth Division of Ninth Division of the Army of the Potomac and are headed to the Union forces at Petersburg. Reilly and Garland begin a bond of friendship that will eventually reunite them at Arlington. 

Reilly meets with Lincoln to brief him on the disaster at Cold Harbor. He is reluctant to continue his services as a White House spy, but Lincoln convinces him that he needs his eyes and ears at the front. Reilly agrees under the condition that he can be imbedded with the 28th USCT. Thus, Reilly finds himself in one of the colossal mistakes of the Civil War, the Battle of the Crater.

At the Union line outside of Petersburg, we meet Colonel Henry Pleasants and his force of former Pennsylvania coal miners. The miners come up with a plan to blow up "Pegram's Battery" or "Elliot's Salient" by tunneling below the Rebel works and planting explosives. Pleasants likes the idea and so does his commander, Ambrose Burnside. The authors present Burnside as an innovative general who is haunted by his failures at Fredericksburg. Burnside see the plan as a means to cut Lee's defenses, march into Petersburg, and end the war. Unfortunately, his proposal is only given lukewarm support by Meade and Grant. When the 28th USCT march into camp, Burnside designates them to lead the attack on the Confederate position.  

Gingrich and Fortschen allow us to follow the training of the 28th, the construction of the tunnel, and the petty fighting between Meade and Burnside. Meade's lack of support peaks when he changes the order of attack and removes the 28th from leading the assault. Burnside's response is a complete collapse in judgment and total failure of leadership. 

We join the units at the front and march with them into battle, sensing the outcome, but hoping that success can be salvaged. The hope of triumph is dashed as Confederate forces rally and slaughter the Union troops trapped in the crater a victim of their own leaders as much as the enemy. 

The novel ends with the whitewash court of inquiry and Lincoln's indifference to its outcome. Burnside and the 28th are sacrificed on the altar of the greater public good.

What makes the story of Garland White especially compelling is that it is based on fact. He enlisted as a private on December 14, 1863 in the 28th USCT and left the service as a Chaplin with the rank of Major. At the time of his enlistment, he was 25 years old 5 feet 6 inches with black hair and eyes. To learn more about Garland White and the 28th USCT, please read the February 1994 issue of The Indiana Historian.  

I rate this novel a Lieutenant General with 3 out 4 stars. However, it should be mandatory reading for all African Americans to better understand the heroics of their ancestors who helped preserve the Union in spite of impediments placed by their own generals. This would be an excellent novel to read during Black History Month.

Readers may want to read William H. Powell's account "The Battle of the Petersburg Crater" and Henry Goddard R. Thomas' recollections of "The Colored Troops at Petersburg" published in Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Modern Library).

A copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher St. Martin's Press.

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