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No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 21, 2009
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
Again and again and again quotations are unattributed in the text. The reader wants to know who uttered the words the author thought important enough to quote. The book should also have been properly indexed--when the source of a quotation does appear in the text, he often does not appear in the index. An example is Private Bird of the 12th Virginia Infantry, who is quoted and mentioned in the text but not indexed.
Dr. Slotkin makes valuable observations on the command decisions in the Battle of the Crater, the command structure of the Army of the Potomac, and the importance of United States Colored Troops to the Federal war effort. He finds at work in the Battle of the Crater the same animosities that wrecked Reconstruction. Even here, though, he seems at a loss: Nat Turner's rebellion took place just down the Jerusalem Plank Road from Petersburg in 1831 and it had an impact on how the Confederates--particularly the Southside Virginians in Weisiger's Brigade--reacted to the employment of United States Colored Troops in the assault of July 30, 1864.
In his next book, Dr. Slotkin must get the facts straight, name his sources in the text, and properly index them.
Author, "The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864"
_____, "The Petersburg Campaign"
Co-Editor, "Civil War Talks: The Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and his Fellow Veterans"
The writer seems much more interested in the Union side of this story than the Rebel side. Notice that I used the word "interested" not 'biased." He is fair to both sides, but the emphasis is toward the Yankees. Their personalities are fully developed while we're given mere sketches of the Rebels.
One of the primary themes of this work was the use of black troops in the battle and how the Rebels reacted to them. This was the strength of the book. I found this aspect very interesting.
But the Federals lost the battle and by the end of the day the bottom of the huge crater caused by the explosion was so drenched in blood that it could almost be compared to a bath tub.
What worried me a little as I began Richard Slotkin's book was that it might turn out to be excessive in its political correctness. African-American soldiers, known at the time as US Colored Troops (USCT) were heavily involved in the fighting. The ratio of dead to wounded was much higher than among the white troops who participated. The last thing I wanted to read was that it was the UCST who stood their ground to the end, the white Federals who ran away and deserted them, and the white Confederates who rushed in and slaughtered every black in sight.
Thank God Slotkin is a professional historian and sticks to the rules. There are few editorial interpolations. They come at infrequent intervals and are thoroughly balanced. Of course the USCT were singled out for execution on the field. (There were incidents in which white Federals bayoneted their black comrades.) Some of the black POWs were killed while being marched back behind Confederate lines. It's understandable. How do you avoid race as a variable in a Civil War battle between the Union troops and those representing a slave-holding society. But even at that, there were Confederate officers who tried to put a stop to the murders and abhorred those they could not prevent.
It's understandable too that Confederates in the heat of battle shouldn't spare a despised black man even if he were on his knees begging to surrender. But, as Slotkin points out, the USCT were motivated by their white officers with a slogan like "No quarter!" and "Remember Fort Pillow" -- an earlier engagement in which black suffered disproportionate casualties. The slogans were introduced because the USCT in this instance consisted of green troops who, it was felt, being new and being black, might need an extra shot of elan. And so the USCT, when they were finally sent into the maelstrom, took the slogans seriously and shouted them loudly enough for Confederate troops to hear and respond with equal viciousness. Both sides began yelling, "No quarter!" It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There isn't space to describe the battle itself and it was in fact so confusing -- in the book as in history -- that, not being a military historian, I found it hard to follow. Of the several Union generals involved, two of the most important spent the battle back in the medical bunker drinking medicinal whiskey. The USCT, who had been designated and trained to lead the assault, were replaced at the last minute by white troops who were fagged out, reduced in number, exhausted. General Burnside, in immediate charge of the operation, spent his time sending messages, on those occasions when he could be bothered to send messages, in a spiteful exchange with his superior, General Meade, and urging his subordinates to charge into the battle at all hazards without telling them how to do it.
And, man, did they need someone to tell them how to do it. The mine explosion wrecked a salient in the Confederate lines, true, but the Confederates had expected an assault in the area and prepared for it effectively. They responded speedily. After the initial blow, there was a launch window of an hour or less before the Southerners could recover and mount a counter attack. But the assault was slow. And it was made over broken ground. Some Union soldiers stopped to gape at the crater and a few climbed down to dig out some half-buried Confederates. The landscape around the crater was a topological nightmare of which the Union had only the most rudimentary knowledge. Deep trenches in the neighborhood of the crater zig-zagged, running this way and that, some into dead ends. It was like a trap into which some innocent animal had rushed.
I also have to applaud Slotkin not just for his balanced and thoroughly believable story of one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the Civil War -- one of the few in which the bayonet became an important weapon -- but for the effort put into the research. Unless you've done it yourself, it's hard to comprehend how much work it takes to dig up this sort of information, organize it in your mind and on paper, and make it presentable. I've done it a couple of times and respect anyone who can do as good a job as Slotkin has. True, I couldn't follow the various semi-independent movement in the battle, but it's clear that the author did.
The crater outside Petersberg, Virginia, is still there. It's now part of a National Park. But it's been weathered down by 150 years of rain until now it looks like little more than a grassy hollow in the earth. The issues of which the battle was emblematic are disappearing at the same slow rate.