In mid-June 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac pressed forward into Virginia toward Richmond, beginning the bloody but ultimately decisive Petersburg Campaign, which would last 292 days and embrace six major battles, 11 engagements, 44 skirmishes, six assaults, and three raids. Of all these encounters, none is more grimly memorable than the officially titled “Explosion of [the] Petersburg Mine and Assault on the Crater,” of July 30, 1864.
Hollywood depicted the Battle of the Crater in Anthony Minghella’s 2003 film, Cold Mountain; no less than nine books about the battle have been published since 1938, so one might seriously have wondered what new light Richard Slotkin’s No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 could shed on this one day operation.
The early days of the campaign had taken a great toll on the Federal forces, especially at Cold Harbor, where repeated Union assaults on a well-fortified enemy suffered so many casualties to so little effect that the Northern press dubbed Grant “The Butcher. ”Undeterred, he kept on to Petersburg, where Lee’s forces again threw up formidable entrenchments. Only a narrow no-man’s-land separated the two armies in a standoff that foreshadowed the trench warfare of World War I. But Yankee resource showed itself more effective than the bewildered generals of the early Western Front. A regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners (48th Infantry) dug a 510-foot tunnel underneath the Confederate lines, at the end of which they placed four tons of black gunpowder. The early morning, July 30 explosion ripped open a 170-foot-long, 60-foot-wide, and 30-foot-deep cavity, inflicting 278 Southern casualties.
From there the assault turned sour. Gen. Ambrose Burnside had replaced his briefed and battle ready 4th Division of the United States Colored Troops at the front of the battle order with the 1st Division of white soldiers commanded by Brig. Gen. James Ledlie. This incompetent officer failed to instruct his men to advance around the crater rim, and they instead poured into its maw. Soon enough, the Confederates rallied and rained bullets and artillery down upon the hapless Union troops blocked in the front by steep walls and from behind by their own reinforcements. Nearly 4,000 Federals were killed, wounded, or missing; the Confederates lost 1,800.Grant called it “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war. Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”
Slotkin, an emeritus professor of English and American studies at Wesleyan University, who has written an award-winning trilogy on violence and the American West, as well as a novel, The Crater (Atheneum, 1980), submits the much-criticized deployment of African American troops to close analysis. His treatment of the latent racism behind every decision leading to the disaster is thorough, documenting not only the prejudice ingrained in most Federal soldiers and officers, but the sweeping generalizations Northerners made about the black race based on the actions of a few of its members. Political concerns, in anticipation of this inevitable stereotyping, led to Burnside’s initial selection of the 4th Division. “Burnside’s racialism was of the moderate variety,” writes Slotkin. “The 54th Massachusetts’s gallant failure at Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor (July 18, 1863) had made legends of the Black men and their commander. What would be the impact of a successful assault on Lee’s army, by a whole division of Negroes? And what would the public think of the general who had made it possible?”
The same political concerns, however, pulled the 4th Division from the leading position on the eve of battle, Grant explaining: “General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front . . . and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving those people ahed [sic] to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.”
Slotkin contrasts the Northern readiness to replace African Americans with Southern stereotypes and fear of change in the established order: “The South was faced with a radical choice between the preservation of slavery and national survival . . . the animosities exposed on this battlefield were the same passions that would wreck postwar attempts to reconstruct the nation as a multiracial democracy.” He describes in detail the role played by the United States Colored Troops directly under Gen. Edward Ferrero, from their being prepared to spearhead the initial assault, to the moment when they were supplanted by the white divisions of the IX Corps, and then their drive into the “Horrid Pit,” ending with “the massacre of black troops by Rebel soldiers—and some of their own white comrades-in-arms.”
(Random House, 389 pages, $28)