Monday, June 18, 2012

Review: The Battle of the Crater

By Newt Gingrich & William R. Forstchen

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.

Book: ISBN 978-0312607104, Thomas Dunne Books, © 2011, Hardcover, 384 pages, Map & Illustrations, $27.99

Audiobook: ISBN 978-1427213280, Macmillan Audio, © 2011, Unabridged, 10 Audio CD’s, Running time: 12 hours.  $44.99

1 comment:

Jim Miller said...

William R. Forstchen left the following comment on my review on

Thank you for your extremely kind review and also for your quoting of Walt Whitman, one of my favorite poets. . .who having seen the tragic reality, knew what he was speaking of when he wrote, wondering if the reality of just how horrifying it was, would truly be remembered. Newt and I set out with those words in our hearts, rare has been a Civil War history, novel, or film that truly captured the terrible reality of it. I teach a college level course on the war and the first night, I'll pull up the move "Gettysburg" and show the clip of Pickett's Charge, from when the Confederates reach the fence on the Emmitsburg Road until going over the wall. I act as if I approve of the portrayal, "this is how it looked. . right?" And then I show them Saving Private Ryan, the frightful scene of Captain Miller, nearly deaf and in shock from the noise, screaming "get off this beach" and his "Point of View" as he dashed forward. THAT was the level of firepower and destruction directed at Pickett's Charge. (And also, what canister and .58 caliber minie balls could do to a human body at close range). I have walked the battlefield of Gettysburg dozens of time and I know Newt must of been there numerous times as well, often the two of us together as we worked on our Gettysburg trilogy ten years ago, and discussed this very issue. I have walked the length of Omaha Beach twice with a veteran of that fight and helped another veteran who was there write his autobiography "Honor UnTarnished." Not in the slightest to denigrate the heroic, near superhuman effort on Omaha, we sustained over 2500 casaulties taking that bloody beach, across a front nearly two miles wide. Pickett's Charge in contrast sustained over 7,000 casualties that at the climax, was compressed into a front barely two hundred yards wide. We tend to glorify it, unable to image the true level of carnage. I think that is what Whitman was speaking of. Thanks to the brilliant work of Spielberg we now understand the one, I wonder if we will ever truly grasp the other. As you know our novel opens at Cold Harbor. That charge lasted less than twenty minutes, casaulty estimates run between 6,000-10,000, it was so horrific the truth was suppressed and then all but forgotten and you will find few monuments on that stricken field. When I think of the charge at Cold Harbor, the film image that comes to mind is the last minutes of the movie "Gallipoli."

I thank you for bringing this issue forward and truly, it is high praise indeed what you wrote. The ultimate goal that Newt and I sought in writing this book. . .that the tragic sacrifice was realistically presented, and the honorable serive of nearly two hundred thousand "men of color" of the USCTs memorialized, an honor long over due.

With respect,

William R. Forstchen