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Friday, June 26, 2015

THE BATTLE of the CRATER by Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen

       Watching a Tragedy Unfold

Published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2011

During the long, hot, bloody summer of 1864 the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia found themselves in a long series of battles. General Ulysses S. Grant changed the situation on the front by changing the strategy of the Army of the Potomac and the way it dealt with the Army of Northern Virginia. Rather than fighting a battle, withdrawing from one another, regrouping and then seeking out the enemy again Grant just kept his army in constant contact with Lee. His plan was simple - he knew that the Union forces had a lot more soldiers and a near limitless supply of ammunition and food, at least when compared to Lee's army. The math was simple - Grant could afford to lose more of everything so long as he was depleting Lee at the same time. 

Eventually, this settled down into a siege around Richmond and its suburb, Petersburg. Petersburg was a train hub and a vital link in the supply chain that fed the Confederate capital and its army. Both armies dug a maze of trenches, much like the ones used in World War I. 

Ambrose Burnside
The problem was, although Grant was slowly squeezing Lee's army to death, it was not quick enough. The Presidential election of 1864 was quickly coming and war weariness had settled in - this change in strategy was causing so many more Union deaths and casualties. It was feared that Lincoln would not win and his opponent, McClellan would win. McClellan's platform promised a quick end to the war and would most likely end in recognition of the Confederacy as a separate country - the war would be lost.

At this point some Union soldiers who were coal miners before the war had an idea. Why not dig a tunnel under the Confederate lines, fill it full of gunpowder and then blow it up like a giant bomb? It would literally blow a whole in their lines and a group of Union soldiers could rush in and take Petersburg and cause Richmond and Lee's army to fall. They take it to their general, the tarnished Ambrose Burnside and he loves it and he convinces his superiors to let it proceed. 

It seems simple enough, but with the Army of the Potomac, nothing is ever so simple...

Grant at Cold Harbor
This book is presented as a tragedy from its beginning where the reader gets an up close view of the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3 - the worst day of a two week long battle. There were 7,000 Union casualties in a single hour due to foolish orders to charge Confederate breastworks (compare that to D-Day in World War II - there were 9,000 Allied casualties all day). After that hour, the Union troops simply refused to charge. They would do enough to make it look they tried and then they would return to their positions.

The reader is introduced to a newspaper artist and a group of African American soldiers (U.S. Colored Troops or USCT) from Indiana who are volunteers and want to fight and prove their equality to the white soldiers but are stuck digging graves at Arlington Cemetery. When they get their chance to go to Petersburg, they are so proud and so full of enthusiasm - the reader knows what is waiting for them and knows that it will not end well.

The USCT soldiers are trained to lead the attack after the tunnel will be exploded. They drill for weeks and their white officers are confident that they will do well for three reasons: they are trained well, they are green and don't know the horrors of a frontal assault and they have something to prove as Black men and as some of the first Black soldiers to be involved in a major battle.

But, orders come and the day before the attack, the USCT soldiers are ordered to be held in reserve and experienced soldiers are rotated up to lead the charge. And, once the plan starts to change it all falls apart. Petty rivalries take precedence, weak leaders turn to drink, weak generals can't decide what to do and the men charge into one of the most hellish scenes of the war.

Gingrich and Forstchen make the fighting in and around the crater come alive - the horror, the carnage and the chaos are interspersed with heart stopping acts of courage honor and pathetic moments of treachery and stupidity. As I read this book I knew it was not going to end well. The book is like a Greek tragedy - you can see that no one is going to be left untouched but it just continues to unroll itself right in front of you.  

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: The Battle of the Crater: A Novel

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