African-American soldiers contributed greatly to the cause of the Union during the Civil War. By 1865, nearly one out of five men in blue was of African descent, but because the United States Colored Troops (USCT) never won any famous battles, their efforts are often overlooked. Today, black Civil War soldiers are mostly known through the film Glory, which features a dramatic Union defeat–the Battle of Fort Wagner. One of the reasons authors Newt Gingrich and William Forscthen wrote their novel, The Battle of the Crater, was to help “right a wrong,” and inform the public about another group of brave African-Americans, hopefully helping to change the negative impression some still have of black soldiers.
The Battle of the Crater, part of Grant’s siege of Petersburg, took place in July, 1864. Gingrich and Forstchen have chosen to tell readers the story through the eyes of fictional character James Reilly, an artist for Harper’s Weekly, with an earlier connection to President Lincoln. The book opens immediately before the action at Cold Harbor, which was a terrible Union defeat. Reilly is visiting the Union Army to see his soldier brother, who is killed at Cold Harbor. It is in these opening pages that Reilly’s values are set for the reader: he is the one artist in the mighty stable of Harpers’ illustrators (including Thomas Nast, Winslow Homer, and Alfred Waud) with the strength of character to draw war as it really is, not as his editors want it portrayed.
At Arlington, after the battle, Reilly accompanies his brother’s body to be buried by the 28th USCT, who are burying Washington’s dead during the night. There he meets Sergeant Major Garland White.
Garland White was a real person. He was literate, and was ordained as a minister in 1859, but was also the property of Robert Toombs. When Toombs came to Washington to serve as Senator from Georgia, in 1853, White came with him as a house servant. By the early 1860s, White had run away to Canada, but returned to the United States when the war broke out. He was instrumental in recruiting men for the 54th Massachusetts, then went west to recruit for the 28th and 29th USCT, turning down the rank of Sergeant Major offered to him by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
It is during this fictional meeting that Reilly learns the 28th will be joining General Burnside’s Ninth Division of the Army of the Potomac, currently holding siege at Petersburg, Virginia. After speaking to President Lincoln, and agreeing to continue in his role as Lincoln’s “eyes and ears,” Reilly joins the siege as well.
Much of the information presented in this book is well-researched, and very probative. The authors skillfully use the origin of the idea to blow up Fort Pegram, which came from the Pennsylvania coal miners under the command of Colonel Henry Pleasants, to introduce the problems with the plan. The first and most troubling set of issues was the personal and professional discord between Generals Burnside and Meade. This pitiful West Pointed bickering leaves the commanders of the Army of the Potomac looking small and spiteful. The fallout from this attitude was a serious lack of accurate and timely communication within the AoP itself.
The second set of problems concerned the 28th. This division was brought to Petersburg for one purpose: to be trained to go aroundthe demolished fort after the explosion and cut the Jerusalem Plank Road, which had continued to function during the siege by enabling supplies to be brought to Petersburg from Richmond. This could have been the final stroke that cut the Confederacy’s throat, leading the Union Army into the capitol city of the Confederacy. When Meade, with Ulysses S. Grant’s tacit approval, ordered Burnside to pull the 28th from leading the assault, all planning went up in smoke, much like Fort Pegram. Reilly’s conversations with Sergeant Major Garland White are the vehicle used by the authors to clarify the sad reality of racism which was directed toward the USCTs, and was responsible for the change in battle orders.
Through the narrative of James Reilly, the reader follows the Union soldiers into battle after the crater is blown, sharing their horror, confusion, fear and anger. The lack of command vision in the AoP is appalling. Both Gingrich and Forstchen make this failing clear, but they show a great deal of respect for the men in the ranks who, without the leadership they needed, ran instead into the crater left by Fort Pegram, where they were massacred by shell-shocked Confederates.
The novel ends with quotes from the Court of Inquiry convened just after the Union loss, where whitewashed testimony from the top of the military down, hung General Burnside and the 28th out to dry, again scapegoating a fatal flaw within the command structure of the Army of the Potomac.
I have one criticism of this novel, which otherwise is an excellent read. It concerns the characters of two soldiers of Irish heritage, Sergeant Major Kevin Malady and Private Michael O’Shay. Both are fictional, but bear an eerie resemblance to two other Irish fictional characters in the films Glory and Gettysburg. Malady is the drill sergeant brought in to design the drill and train the men of the 28th to charge around Fort Pegram, which would be, hopefully, somewhere above it’s original location. Malady verbally abuses the black soldiers, much like the drill sergeant in Glory, and just as in the movie, his relationship with his men has an identical ending. O’Shay, too, is much like the famous-but-fictional Irish private in Gettysburg, Buster Kilrain. Demoted back to private multiple times for being “drunk and disorderly,” he is still lovable, and refers to Colonel Pleasants as–yes–”Colonel darlin’.”
The Battle of the Crater is an entertaining, worthwhile historical novel, and does much to further the understanding of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. It does little, however, to further our understanding of the Irish.
No Quarter: the Battle of the Crater, by Richard Slotkin
The Petersburg Campaign: The Eastern Front Battles, June-August, 1864, Vol. 1, by Edwin Bearss and Bryce Suderow