Book Review - Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen
When it comes to adding "color" to a historical event, I don't do a great job in my mind. I can read a paragraph spanning weeks or months of history, and that's as far as my mind takes it. I miss the pain, suffering, glory, and everything else that actually occurred. It's for this reason that a good historical fiction novel can open my eyes and help me understand some event on a much deeper emotional level. Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen are masters of the historical fiction genre, and they once again hit a home run with their new novel Battle of the Crater. I was offered an advance reader copy of the book, and was blown away by the raw emotion that Gingrich and Forstchen add to the Civil War battle also referred to as the Battle of the Mine Explosion (depending on what side of the conflict you were on).
Battle of the Crater focuses on a battle that occurred on July 30th, 1864 during the Civil War. Northern and Southern troops were faced off outside of Petersburg, Virginia. The South had to hold the line, as a break there would likely allow the North to take Petersburg and Richmond and end the war. They were dug into trenches and had a fortress (Fort Pegram) that was well situated to hold their position and break the siege. A plan was devised and presented to Major General Burnside that was audacious in its effort and scope. A group of soldiers who were also miners would tunnel under the open battlefield, ending up under the fort. They would pack the mine full of explosives and blow a hole in the Confederate line, followed by an immediate charge of black soldiers who would be trained especially for this operation. In the course of a few short hours, they could take Petersburg and Richmond and deal the death blow to Lee's army.
Of course, what is planned and what happens are two different stories.
Crater tells the story of this battle from the primary perspective of one James O'Reilly, an Irish sketch artist who works for Esquire to report on the war. He's also very close friends with Lincoln, as Lincoln gave him a job in his law office when O'Reilly first came over to the States. Lincoln trusts him deeply, and asks O'Reilly to report back to him on what he sees on the battlefront, free of any political slant or agenda. O'Reilly sees it all... the suicide charges by the North, killing thousands of soldiers in minutes... the death of his brother... the dedication of the black soldiers who have the need to prove that they are worthy of full citizenship in the US. Most importantly, he is there as the political gamesmanship and egotism between Burnside and Major General Meade turn the battle plan into chaos, leading to the massacre of thousands of troops and the devastating defeat of the Union army in that battle. Even though Meade changed all the plans and caused the attack to fail, Burnside is held responsible for not taking charge, disregarding orders, and responding to the evolving situation. Burnside is relieved of his command in an inquiry after the events, and it's apparent that the decision on who to blame has already been made. Even with O'Reilly making a plea to Lincoln to correct what is a miscarriage of justice, the decision stands as it's the most politically efficient way to deal with the loss.
Gingrich and Forstchen take the factual details of what happened at Petersburg and add the color, emotion, and horror of war. They paint a vivid picture of the squalor behind the lines, the agony of battle injuries, and the hopelessness of the soldiers rushing into what they know to be suicide. The arrogance of the leaders is also apparent, from how many commanded their troops from a distance, to how each step was often considered more from a political angle than a battle strategy. Most importantly, they highlight the role of the black soldiers in the North, how they had to overcome the discrimination and racial barriers to be considered the equal of their fellow soldiers on the battlefield, and how regardless of how well they did, they still ended up unfairly shouldering a significant amount of blame for the loss. This additional color and nuance are what I miss when I read the stark details of the battle on a site like Wikipedia. There, I learn about the event. In Battle of the Crater, I live the battle.
I'm not a Civil War historian or scholar, so I can't tell you whether the small details of the book are completely accurate. With the passing of time, history is interpreted and shaped, and everyone has theories as to what exactly happened and who was to blame. You may not agree with particular motivations or how things supposedly happened behind the scenes. But for me, Battle of the Crater is an outstanding book, both for historical detail and bringing to life what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War. Perhaps if more people would take the time to read books like this, we as a society would be far more reluctant to rush off to battle and sacrifice our youth in wars that are not fought to be won, but to make generals look good.
Obtained From: Publicist