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on June 17, 2012
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.
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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.
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on November 16, 2011
This fine work of historical fiction is gripping and moving. It brings the historical setting alive through the character development of the fighting soldiers. It gives a human face to history by detailing the character of the generals.

The book operates on several levels. As a reader you will become empathetically engaged with the black soldiers' quest for a recognition not only as created equals but also as brothers in arms. You will recognize the PTSD that gripped all ranks from private to general. You will understand the illustrator's outright rejection of glory in his quest to find dignity amidst the human carnage.

The authors' alternative histories were fun to read. They were full of action and moved along well. They were fun but had no soul. This book is about real men and real battles. It moves along and it emotes. I found myself reading from inside the fight and caring so much about the men involved to be brought to tears not only for the loss of life but also for the triumph of spirit.

This is a very good book that teaches both history and character. It entertains and it inspires.
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on January 27, 2013
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This is incredibly powerful historical fiction. Many readers will stay up long into the night to finish this book.

Several times while reading this novel, I found myself racing to my computer to learn more about the actual event and the people involved in the Battle of the Crater. I was extremely impressed by the historical confirmations I found related to its content.

The engraved illustrations taken from contemporary accounts in Harper's Weekly are superb. I am assuming there was some reason, and would have liked to have seen a note in the introduction, as to why the authors included illustrations by a modern amateur artist.

The character development is powerful. I was enraged by General Meade's office politics and awed by courage of the Pennsylvania coal miners and the US Colored Troops.

Readers seeking more information will enjoy a related article to be found on the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities' website and should also see the National Park Service's "Battle of the Crater for Teachers."

Great novel. Yes, read it.

Kim Burdick
Stanton, Delaware
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on December 5, 2011
Gingrich and Forstchen have done a superb job of crafting a story about real people and events that will resonant with readers and provide them with a clear understanding of this tragic battle and lost opportunity to end the war with fewer casualties. Not many Americans today have a firm grasp of our nation's history or possess the interest to read non-fictional accounts of these critical times gone by. Thus, good historical fiction like "The Battle of the Crater" can both entertain and educate readers. As a writer of Civil War historical fiction ("Two Brothers: One North, One South"), I particularly admire a work where historical facts are woven into a well-told story that's fair to the historical persons while remaining true to the events, as we understand them. With minimal reliance on created characters and circumstances, the authors have blended a mixture of heroic deeds and human failures that accurately portray what happened near Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864.
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on November 20, 2015
People familiar with Civil War history are familiar with the Battle of the Crater - a great idea that failed because no follow up action immediately took place. Unions troops just charged into the crater where they were shot down like fish in a barrel by Cconfederate troops on the rim. This book gives the reality of how a follow up action was planned and carefully rehearsed only to be set aside for political and personal reasons. Then it became a matter of orders, counter orders, disorder.

The authors do an excellent job of mixing fictional characters with real historical individuals and creating dialogue that would be in keeping with what is know of the real individuals. The dialogue thus does seem real and unforced it makes the novel flow right along. The descriptions are well done and the battle action is often brutal as it was in historical fact. Even if one knows the outcome of the battle one still finds that this is a real page turner.
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on June 30, 2013
I like this book and his other set in the American Revolution. They released this one during the 2012 primaries and so the other reviews, positive and negative, have some bias. There is a better historical treatment they drew from for this book but I want an audio book. It was well read and worth the time. They praised the US Colored Troops units; possibly to a fault but considering they were volunteers in a country where they did not have equal rights this is understandable. Sadly, with I could not find historical documentation about the telegrams mentioned in the book but I did not do very deep research. Overall, I think the book and reading were well done and is value-added as a historical fiction for this remarkable, sad, and relatively unknown battle during the siege of Petersburg.
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on August 29, 2014
Superb historical fiction about a little known Civil War battle. This story is about a very important but little known battle late in the Civil War. The book exposes some of the politics of the Army of the Potomac. This was one of the first battles in which entire regiments of black solders were committed in battle. The author takes us into staff meetings and strategy sessions with the commanders and discusses civil war tactics in a very detailed fashion. It reads like a novel. I highly recommend this book for any civil war buff or any military buff for that matter.
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on February 10, 2012
This is a sobering account of a battle of the Civil War that I didn't know about before reading this book. This conflict is far behind us, yet it is NEVER far behind us, nor should it be. This book is a vivid reminder of just why we should never forget the lives lost and damaged in any war. The imagery of battle is so realistic that the reader feels they just crawled out of the trenches and are lucky to be alive. Maybe take a shower and get the dirt off. This is a riveting read; a vicarious armchair experience at its best!
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on March 22, 2012
Their works are always entertaining, and I think as they keep writing, G&F's prose and story flow get more honed. They obviously took great pains to research the topic. This highlights one of the many wastes of life committed by the "leadership" of the Army of the Potomac; one wonders how the North ever won the war. It certainly sheds new light on George Meade, who generally gets rather bland mention in histories, but apparently had some real problems and was criminally negligent during this battle.
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