36 of 43 people found the following review helpful
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 Harper's Weekly 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
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2011
Once again, Newt Gingrich and Bill Forstchen collaborate to weave another best seller historical novel, The Battle of the Crater. The title conjures up images of large holes in the ground, but where and how? The authors chronicle the build up to and the terrifying consequences of a little known American Civil War battle between units of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Centered in the Eastern Theatre of action in Virginia and the battle for Petersburg, a key stronghold of the South protecting the confederate capital, Richmond. The novel focuses on a young man from Ireland, James Reilly, who is thrust into the war as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, a New York based magazine that featured political cartoons, illustrations and news of the day.
Reilly has long had an association with Abraham Lincoln, first as a young law office assistant for Lincoln, and later as a confidant for the President reporting his observations and drawings of battles. Reilly notes that men of the Union Army, fearing death, pinned hand written notes to their shirts so they might be identified following a battle. They seldom were.
The novel introduces the USCT, United States Colored Troops, thousands of black soldiers fighting for the North who were trained for a special mission involving an intricate tunnel designed to deliver explosives under the rebel fort, to pierce and divide the defenses of the South. The men who designed and constructed the tunnel were a mining engineer and experienced coal miners from Pennsylvania. They used their experience with mining tools such as a theodolite, a survey instrument designed to provide information about angles and distances. Few other essential tools were provided, but the digging continued. The idea was novel, and in a perfect world, might have worked.
The tunnel digging was colorfully detailed. Cave-ins, construction of the ventilation shafts, and the sheer magnitude of the operation was carefully described. In contrast, the storyline continued with several paragraphs from the confederate point of view. They thought they heard voices and coughing from beneath the soil. They nervously suspected a tunnel was being dug under their feet. After about a month of digging with inadequate equipment and faulty explosive, the fuse was finally lit in the very early hours on July 30, 1864. Nothing happened. After some time, as they suspected, the fuse was flawed and volunteers crawled into the tunnel to relight the fuse. When the blast finally occurred, hundreds of confederate soldiers were killed and a gaping crater cut through the South's stronghold.
The Union battle preparation is filled with heroics, courage, command stupidity and most of all, the lack of communication. At the last minute, the black soldiers, well trained for the mission, were replaced by white, untrained troops. Major General George Meade, the apathetic overall commander of the operation, had doubt in the black soldiers ability and feared that if the operation failed, he would be accused of wanting to "get rid of the blacks." The 9th Corps of USCT were given a reserve role. That decision would prove to be a fatal error.
Instead of charging ahead, the replacement white unit fell back. Finally, some slowly walked forward in a highly disorganized fashion. It was like a bad dream for the North. Meanwhile, the trained 9th Corps were enraged at the sight of the panicked white soldiers before them. After hours of confusion, the South, under good leadership, surrounded the rapidly collapsing attack by the North. Slaughter was at hand, blacks murdered, whites murdered, like shooting fish in a barrel.
This battle, like so many, illustrated the frustration on both sides and the war continued.
Unlike many novels, painted with a broad brush and leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the cracks, Gingrich and Forstchen paint with a fine brush, filling in detail that might otherwise be missed. Their rich description of events would make for a wonderful screen play. The description of the training of the black troops provide the reader with all the emotion, frustration and reality of the real event. The frequent interludes with James Reilly flesh out the story. History can't be changed, but the story, told with exacting care, is a great read.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2011
The Battle of the Crater is Gingrich and Forstchen's fourth historical novel on the Civil War, and the first that is not a "what-if" or "alternative" history--but it is also one of their very best.
The Battle of the Crater is the heroic story of the largest combat deployment of African American troops in the Civil War. The 28th Indiana regiment was composed largely of freemen born in the north, who volunteered to fight at a time in the war when it was increasingly difficult to recruit white soldiers to the Union war effort. The regiment was highly trained for a top-secret, spec ial mission concocted by miners from Pennsylvania who dug under a Confederate fort in order to blow it up from below. The story of these men is inspiring, heroic, and tragic, as bickering in the highest ranks of the Union army results in last-minute changes that lead to disaster.
Gingrich's and Forstchen's training as two historians with Ph.D.' s shines through, with fascinating and often jarring details that drive home the incredible horror of the war as well as the sacrifice that so many made. When we see, in the first chapter, soldiers pinning their names addresses to their backs in advance of a perilous charge, we understand the human dimensions of history in ways we cannot through history books. And when we meet Abraham Lincoln in an hour of self-doubt and political vulnerability, we begin to grasp something of the personal trials he faced as he tried to restore the union.
The story itself is told through the eyes of James Reilly, an illustrator for Harpers Weekly, one of the most important magazines of the time, who has an additional, secret mission when he is on the front lines of battle observing the for his sketches. Perfectly placed to provide honest reports revealing the true state of the war his magazine attempts to rose-up, Reilly doubles as a correspondent for someone else--someone at the highest levels in Washington.
Battle of the Crater is a fast, well-written book that tells one of the great, untold tragedies lost in American history. That it can be so thrilling while remaining based on historical fact is a testament both to the authors' skill as storytellers and to the bravery of the men who undertook one of the most ambitious missions of the war.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Gingrich and Forstchen have written one of the most meaningful Civil War novels to date. It reveals the northern general's blunders and also reports hereto unknown information on the brave United States Colored Troops ( the USCT ). After reading this historical novel, I wonder how the Union won the war? The missteps and bobbles by Generals' Meade and Burnside are mind boggling! Sending thousands of troops to their meaningless death is unconscionable, if not criminal! Why would leadership send wave after wave of Union soldiers against Confederate troops hidden in protective trenches only to be slaughtered like sheep?
The novel is narrated by a Harper's Weekly artist and illustrator, James Reilly. He is also a friend and visual spy for Abraham Lincoln. Reilly's job is to be at the front lines sketching what he sees and listening for officer and troop reactions towards the war. Shortly after the Union debacle at Cold Harbor in Virginia, James Reilly meets up with the 28th USCT of the 4th Division- Ninth Corps. They are led by Sergeant Major Garland White under white Colonels' Russell and Pleasants. After laboring as a burying detail at Arlington, Virginia; the black unit is finally going to see action near Petersburg, Virginia. Once at the site of the conflict, the black troops are trained every day by battle hardened sergeants. The plan by Col. Pleasants is to tunnell underneath the Confederate lines to their fort and blow it up, while the colored troops charge the shocked Johnny Rebs and continue the attack all the way to Richmond, thus ending the war. The plan was approved by a enthused, but shaky General Burnside and begrudgingly by his disobliging superior General Meade. Just before the operation, Gen. Meade changes everything! You will have to read all 364 pages to obtain the unpleasurable results of his decision.
This is the third novel I have read from authors' Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen and it is by far their best. The empathy I felt for all the characters is a direct result of the authors excellent prose and character development. The black Sergeant Major Garland White was a real person and had actively recruited blacks for the famous 54th Regiment of Massachusetts as seen in the movie 'Glory' . Do I recommend this novel? Does a one legged duck swim in a circle? You betcha!!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I visited the Crater over the summer and saw this book at the gift shop. I wrote the title down and when I got back from vacation, I bought it. I have always been a Civil War buff and have a passion for reading. I started this book a couple of days ago and have sailed through it. I was impressed by the background given the attention to the 28th and how it showed their dedication. Very enjoyable book and well worth reading.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle Edition
Before reading this book I didn't know much about the Battle of the Crater and my interest has now been sparked. Gingrich and Forstchen made me a fan with their Pearl Harbor and George Washington series and they don't disappoint here. The grit and grind of prolonged war evolving into a stagnant entrenched conflict is fully painted here. The characters bring the heart and soul of this novel to life before the readers' eyes. James Reilly is a journalist illustrator for Harper's Weekly while serving as President Lincoln's eyes and ears spy on the front lines. Sergeant Major Garland White is a black man sent with his unit to prepare for a potentially war-ending thrust through Confederate lines toward Petersburg. Guarding the heart of the Confederacy are General Lee's dig in troops, supplied by a heavily protected road that seems untouchable. Central to the South's defense is Fort Pegram around which any attack must go to reach victory. But perhaps that's not the only way. The frontline soldiers from West Viriginia have an audacious plan. The reader is taken through every step of preparing for the final attack. The story is filled with famous figures and I found it very interesting to learn something about the rivalry between General Burnside and General Meade in particular. Their interactions here have profound effects on the battle and the larger war itself. The United States Colored Troops (USCT) are to be the tip of the spear in executing the attack and their incorporation into the war is fascinating. The social and political issues involved in putting black troops on the front lines is well handled here. It's frustrating to see the politics and personal grudges that cause such confusion and blunt the army's effectiveness. The battle engages with a bang and the action is fast and furious. The authors do a great job of portraying the brutal and deadly conditions on both sides. The Battle of the Crater is both highly entertaining and informative. I appreciated a nice afterword explaining a bit of what happens to the surviving historical characters. The Battle of the Crater is a great story of heroism on both sides with a healthy dose of action, history, and entertainment.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Matches well with the battle description in Harpers pictorial history of the Civil War, thus, historically accurate and with a wealth of additional character and situation detail, all presented as a very readable and interesting manner. I enjoyed it.
on September 23, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I must admit that I have not read anything by Newt Gingrich before, but this book was a pleasantly written book, albeit one that had a complicated view of the titular incident in the book, The Battle of the Crater, which was an attempt to break the siege of Petersburg through the use of mining explosive technology. As might be imagined from a work by Newt Gingrich, the work itself deeply involves politics on a variety of levels as well a somewhat complicated plot. There are a few people the story is told through, the main pov character is an Irish illustration artist for Harper’s Weekly who happens to be a protege of Abraham Lincoln, with rare personal access as a behind-the-scenes envoy asked to give an honest view of the front, as a way of circumventing the smokescreen coming from from the headquarters staff. In many ways, this book dovetails nicely with the last book I read about Lincoln’s voracious appetite for accurate information to better inform his own judgments.
The book itself is a tale told in several chapters, in a largely chronological fashion, the Battle of the Crater from the slaughter at Cold Harbor, which marked the breaking point of the Army of the Potomac when it came to frontal charges (in a fashion not unlike those faced by WWI armies in analogous trench warfare), through the plan and execution of a mine tunnel dug underneath a key fortress astride a key supply route for Petersburg that was the responsibility of a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners, along with the efforts of a green regiment of black troops from Indiana that sought to prove themselves as worthy citizens through leading a charge that could bring about the capture of Richmond. These good elements are more than balanced out on the debit side by the excessive caution and timidity of Union commanders like Meade and Burnside, whose interpersonal drama leads to mistakes and hostility that leads to sabotage of the plan and to political recriminations in the resulting court of inquiry, where the Irish protagonist’s value as an emissary from Lincoln allows him to win the trust of others who figure out his identity and in turn trust him to bring the truth before Lincoln’s eyes about the mismanagement of military affairs because of personal politics.
As might be expected, this novel speaks with a heavy political angle, albeit a complicated and unconventional one. Lincoln is portrayed as being humane and deeply beleaguered by the pressure of trying to win the Civil War in the midst of an election campaign, deeply interested in the truth but also possessed of the political savvy to recognize when the verdict of history is relied upon to correct present wrongs. Lee, although briefly portrayed, is shown as kindly and honorable, without the sort of ruthlessness and killer instinct that he must have possessed to have behaved as he did in war, however wrapped as it was in the courtly politeness of an aristocratic Southern gentleman. Grant is portrayed as savvy in his own fashion, aware of the political feuds of his army even as he seeks to use it to gain victory. Nobility is seen in black and white, and south and north, in a rhetoric that obviously seeks for reconciliation through reunion, along with the righting of ancient wrongs. Most notably, the book points out at its close that there was at the time of the book’s publishing no marker at the site of the crater in honor of the 4,000 mostly freeborn black American citizens who made up the fourth division of the 9th corps of the Army of the Potomac who fought and died while their division commander was drunk behind the lines. This particular novel shows how the wisdom of ordinary people can be let down by the weakness of their leadership, which offers perhaps the most subtle and pervasive political point of the entire novel, albeit one that seems to inform much of the political career of Mr. Gingrich as well.
on June 18, 2012
Format: Audio CD
Walt Whitman wrote, "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not -- the real war will never get in the books."
One hundred and fifty years have passed since the beginning of the American Civil War, and truer words have never been written. Many have tried in words to capture the experience of those who fought this nation's most tragic war. A few are more successful than others. Newt Gingrich and his co-author William R. Forstchen, are among those few.
Their novel, "The Battle of the Crater" is set during the summer of 1864. The war in the eastern theater has settled into a stalemate with both armies entrenched and facing each other around Petersburg, Virginia. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania, a mining engineer in his former civilian life, proposed to hasten the end of the war by tunneling under the Confederate line and detonate a large explosive charge directly beneath the enemy's feet; leaving a hole in the line for the Union army to charge through.
Given the go-ahead by Major General Ambrose Burnside, Pleasants supervised the construction of the mine, while the troops who were expected to exploit the break in the Confederate defenses. Two brigades of United States Colored Troops were chosen for the assault, one to go around to the left of the crater and the other to right.
James O'Reilly, an Irish artist correspondent for Harper's Weekly is Gingrich and Forstchen's primary protagonist. But Harper's isn't his only employer. O'Reilly, a close friend of President Lincoln has been sent by him to provide an honest report from the battlefront and also on the performance of the Colored Troops.
Under the guise of reporting for Harper's O'Reilly is in the trenches of the Union Army around Petersburg, and witnesses the digging of the mine and the meticulous training of the Colored troops. He is also privy to the bickering between Burnside and Major General George Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
The day before the attack Meade, fearing political ramifications if the assault should fail, ordered Burnside not to use the Colored Troops. Brigadier General James Ledlie's 1st Division was selected for the job. The result was a catastrophe. Instead of attacking around the rim of the crater as the colored troops were trained to do, the white soldiers charged into the crater, trapping themselves, and providing an excellent opportunity for the Confederate forces gathering on the rim of the crater to fire down into the swirling blue vortex of Union soldiers.
Burnside makes matters worse by sending the Colored Troops in and exposing them to dangerous cross fire. O'Reilly follows the Colored Troops into the battle and not only witnesses the battle from within as it degenerates into bloody and savage hand-to-hand combat, but becomes a participant in it as well.
While listening to the audiobook of "The Battle of the Crater," I was reminded of the opening fifteen minutes of Anthony Minghella's film adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel "Cold Mountain." Though the film brings us closer to what it might have been like during the fighting in the crater, Walt Whitman may have been right. The real war may never get in the books, but Gingrich and Forstchen have done an admirable job trying.
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The Battle of the Crater is not one of the Army of the Potomac's best moments. Conceived as the attack that would break the stalemate at Petersburg it became a bloody fiasco. A regiment of coal miners dug under a Confederate fort several hundred feet away. They place a large amount of black powder in the mine. You can still see the resulting crater at the park. A specially trained USCT Division would attack as the dust settling, break through and cut a vital road. Lee's army, split in two would be force to withdraw, Richmond would fall and Lee's surrender would occur in 1864. A series of bad decisions disrupted the plan turning a masterstroke into a bloody disaster. This battle is the first time Lee's army fought Black men in uniform.
Historians writing non-fiction face limitations on what they write. While they may speculate, they may not state. They cannot create conversations, no matter how logical or realistic. They cannot tell what motivates the participants nor can they state why they took the action they did. Historians writing fiction are not as limited. While staying within accepted historical facts, they may include what is suspected but not proven. This allows for a more dramatic, personal and definite look at an event. The more the authors know about history, the better they can make the story.
Gingrich, Forstchen & Hanser have been working together for several years. They can couple training in history with excellent writing skills. This produces a very accurate novel that sits on a firm historical foundation. Their books can be enjoyed by history buff and general readers. I feel that the more the reader knows the more enjoyable the book is.
Lincoln, Grant, Meade, Burnside and a host of historical and fictional characters hope, plan, bicker, fight and die. The relationship between Meade and Burnside is excellent. The authors capture the seniority and position problems with certitude. The portrayal of each man is excellent. Meade, smarting under the sting of Gettysburg, his army "commanded" by Grant served under Burnside at Fredericksburg. He has definite feelings about the man and his abilities. Burnside has his own set of problems. Early in the war, he was a genius. Antietam and Fredericksburg ruined that. His good work in Kentucky forgotten. Burnside reports to Grant but receives instructions through Meade. Burnside's corps is the "bastard child" at the Army of the Potomac's family dinner.
We follow the USCT through the eyes of Sergeant Major Garland White. From digging graves at Arlington to fighting in the Crater, we see what being Black was like. In training, we see the Irish and the Negros interact in honest, frank writing that can be uncomfortable. Combat is brutally honest, bloody and deadly. The actions of white Union soldiers are well documented and presented factually, with no apologies.
This is a "Historical Novel" not a history. The Crater is informative, entertaining, challenging and very enjoyable.