From Publishers Weekly
Three decades after publishing a novel on the Battle of the Crater, Wesleyan professor emeritus Slotkin offers a historical analysis of an event meant as a turning point in the Civil War but remembered instead as one of its greatest failures. Most accounts focus on the slaughter of hundreds of black Union troops; Slotkin takes a broader perspective. The Crater was intended to draw on the Union's strengths, like the mastery of industrial technology, and the physical energies liberated by black emancipation. A regiment of coal miners dug a 500-foot tunnel under a Confederate strong point and packed it with four tons of blasting powder. A division of African-Americans was to exploit the blast to open the way to the Confederate capital, Richmond. The Civil War might have ended by Christmas. Instead, Slotkin describes a fiasco. Jealousy, intransigence, incompetence, and even cowardice among Union generals resulted in a combination massacre and race riot, as white Union and Confederate troops turned on the blacks. Slotkin depicts all this and the army and Congress's subsequent whitewashes with the verve and force that place him among the most distinguished historians of the role of violence in the American experience. (July 21)
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In July, 1864, after the Battle of the Crater, Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his chief of staff, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.” The sadness had many aspects: the squandered effort to dig a mine, packed with gunpowder, under enemy lines; drunken, incompetent Union officers; rookie black units thrown into battle, to be slaughtered by Confederates determined to take no black prisoners. Most horribly, some white Union troops, driven by fear of Southern retribution and their own racism, attacked the black troops on their own side. The gaping pit left when the mine exploded became the scene of a race riot. Slotkin is aware of the great lack in his otherwise interesting book: the voices of the black soldiers, whose perspectives, unlike those of the whites on both sides, are not detailed in letters or regimental histories. The battlefield is now “a hollow in the grassy slope,” dotted with memorials—none of them to the black troops who died there.