Tuesday, April 20, 2010

CWL on No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864

No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 , Richard Slotkin, Random House, 2009, 410 pp., maps, index, notes, bibliography, $28.00.

Richard Slotkin's account of the July 30 1864 battle is remarkably wide in its context and deep in it details. Strategy, tactics, and personalities are used to frame this kaleidoscopic portrait of brutality. The Battle of the Crater was a terrifically bloody and brutal fight on a nauseatingly hot day at Petersburg Virginia. After two and a half months of the Overland Campaign, the siege of Petersburg began. Within six weeks of the start of the siege the 511 foot tunnel with a double cassion of eight tons of gun powder was under the Confederate line at Elliot's Salient. The tunnel was dug, built and loaded by the Irish miners in the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry preparation by the troops of the Federal Ninth Corps, the Federals exploded a 511 foot long tunnel that travels from the Federal picket line to beneath a Rebel salient.

Slotkin states the purpose of writing No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater 1864 "is to give the reader a clear and accurate account of the strategic setting and the battle action as it developed by hour by hours, and to show how the culture and politics of the place and time shaped the way the soldiers fought and the meanings they saw in their experience of war". Slotin does precisely that. Keeping a steady and suspenseful narrative pace, crisply setting the personalities into the story, and revealing the mindset of the characters regarding race, war exhaustion, the 1864 Rebel and Union elections, and desertion. For the most part this is a soldiers' story but Slotkin judicially handles politics, politicians and political attitudes to reveal the culture in which the soldiers fought and sacrificed.

The author has captured episodes that are memorable. In the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters were trained scouts and crack shots from the Chippewa, Ottawa as well as other tribes. They appear several times briefly throughout the book. Slotkin offers a final glimpse of them in the Crater. They are huddled with their shirts over the heads and plaintively chanting their tribe's death songs.

The possibility and perception of atrocities against blacks is addressed by Slotkin. The Crater was fought in the shadow of the awareness of the 1864 tragedies at Fort Pillow, Poison Springs and Saltville. The 25th North Carolina's war record is covered including their first encounter against black Federal soldiers, freedmen and white Southern collaborators during the 1864 Plymouth, North Carolina campaign. The North Carolina's had a different response towards each group. The violent response varied toward each group with the black the degree of violence meted out. The regiment's second encounter with black Federals is at the Crater. Going into battle the USCT brigades were told that as the Confederates gave no quarter to black troops
they would give no quarter during this battle. The unspoken words by the USCT captains was the no quarter would be given to the Southerners during this day of battle. The blood gets deep in the Crater and in the entrenchments beyond it.

Slotkin describes the tedium of trench warfare and the unexpected brutality of death by mortar round, by sharpshooter or by dysentery. Colonel Pleasant of the 48th Pennsylvania, architect of the tunnel, Brigadier General Ferraro, commander of the USCT Division, Major General Burnside, commander of the Ninth Corps, and Major General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac among the many Federals are well described and fully presented. Major General Mahone, Brigadier Generals Ransom, Weisger and Sanders, General Lee have succinct and well craft portraits.

Within the chapter 'Preparation for Battle' the reader is able to locate 15 decisions that caused the attack to fail at the Crater. The tactical objective was to seize Cemetery Hill and cut control the Jerusalem Plank Road. Slotkin is not forceful in describing these harbingers of failure but he allows the reader to think through the conditions and choice made and not made. The author is well practiced in the art of narration and as a story No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater 1864 is extremely well paced and even suspenseful. Slotkin drive carries the story past the battle to the truce and into the Court of Inquiry. Readers of traditional battle studies will find issues not generally encountered. Provocative issues are addressed by Slotkin. Soldiers' opinions on race and politics, their hearth and homes, and slavery and freedom.

A few quibbles: CWL likes maps. There are four that cover the Overland Campaign, the siege and the battle. More maps would have been helpful, especially those showing the maze and labyrinth of Rebel earthworks behind Elliott's Salient. Also, a brief discussion of newspaper illustrations and photographs depicting the battle would have been enjoyable. Coverage of The Crater in historical memory would have been welcomed also. Slotkin does offer material on the post-battle newspaper coverage and the court of inquiry (August 6-September 9, 1864). An order of battle for the Federal Ninth Corps and those Rebel troops brigades would have been convenient.

Text by CWL.
Middle and Bottom Images: The entrance to the mine. Photography by Civil War Librarian.

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