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Mark LewisSlotkin is too scrupulous a historian to write propaganda. No Quarter offers a riveting narrative and fair play to both sides, while exhuming an important episode from relative obscurity.
—The New York Times
Three decades after publishing a novel on the Battle of the Crater, Wesleyan professor emeritus Slotkin offers a historical analysis of an event meant as a turning point in the Civil War but remembered instead as one of its greatest failures. Most accounts focus on the slaughter of hundreds of black Union troops; Slotkin takes a broader perspective. The Crater was intended to draw on the Union's strengths, like the mastery of industrial technology, and the physical energies liberated by black emancipation. A regiment of coal miners dug a 500-foot tunnel under a Confederate strong point and packed it with four tons of blasting powder. A division of African-Americans was to exploit the blast to open the way to the Confederate capital, Richmond. The Civil War might have ended by Christmas. Instead, Slotkin describes a fiasco. "Jealousy, intransigence, incompetence, and even cowardice" among Union generals resulted in "a combination massacre and race riot," as white Union and Confederate troops turned on the blacks. Slotkin depicts all this and the army and Congress's subsequent whitewashes with the verve and force that place him among the most distinguished historians of the role of violence in the American experience. (July 21)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
By 1864, the North and South had settled into a positional war around Richmond and Petersburg, VA, with trenches, cannon, disease, and delay. Gen. Grant decided to try a mine, digging under a portion of the fortifications and cramming the tunnel with explosives. It was the largest explosion ever seen at the time—and led to a crushing Union defeat, with 4500 dead. There have been lots of books about the Crater, but the eminent Slotkin does a respectable job. Civil War history enthusiasts will want this.
PETERSBURG, JUNE 21, 1864
The opposing trenches zigzagged in a shallow four-mile curve across the countryside east of Petersburg. Between them was a junkyard of broken rifles, smashed kegs, scraps of blanket and uniform, bodies putrefying in the blast-furnace heat. This wrack marked the crest of a wave that had begun piling up seven weeks before and a hundred miles north.
The Union had started the campaign with high expectations. Its armies were under a new general in chief, Ulysses S. Grant, who as commander of the Union Army of the Tennessee had captured two entire Confederate field armies and driven a third from the battlefield in abject rout. The full strength of the Union was put forth in coordinated offensives on the two most critical fronts. Sherman in Georgia would drive against the Confederate Army of Tennessee with a hundred thousand men. (Union armies were named for the rivers associated with their operations, Confederate armies for the states they were assigned to defend.) Grant would oversee the advance of three different armies in Virginia. The Army of the Potomac with four infantry and one cavalry corps, under General George Gordon Meade and Grant himself, would go against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. A small force under General Franz Sigel would advance from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to seize the supply-rich Shenandoah Valley. And the Army of the James (two army corps) under General Benjamin Franklin Butler would land on the south bank of the James River, where it could strike against the vital railroad lines that ran through Petersburg, carrying supplies for Richmond from the south.
On May 5, Grant’s army crossed the Rapidan River and was immediately assailed by Lee’s troops in a vast thicket of second-growth timber called the Wilderness. For two days the armies grappled in intense close-in combat. Blinded by the thick woods and dense undergrowth, troops blundered into one another, charge and countercharge broke up among the trees, the underbrush took fire, and the wounded lying between the lines screamed as they burned to death. On the second day the Union’s General Hancock led a massive assault that nearly broke the Confederate line, only to see his corps routed by Longstreet’s Rebel troops erupting out of the jungle on their flank. But Longstreet’s counterattack broke against the Federal reserve line, and Longstreet himself was critically wounded. The Federals lost 17,666 men, the Confederates about half that many.
Yet instead of retreating after this tactical defeat, as his predecessors had done, Grant continued his offensive, marching his infantry east and then south to turn Lee’s right flank and force the outnumbered Rebels to leave the forest and fight in the open. Once again Lee forestalled him, moving along the shorter line to seize the strategic road junction at Spotsylvania Court House, where his troops threw up strong field fortifications to offset the Federal advantage in numbers and artillery. Lee’s position was in the form of an inverted V, pointing north.
Grant’s strategy required him to maintain the offensive, and if he could not destroy Lee’s army, he had to hold it in place so that Butler could operate against Richmond. So he pressured Lee’s lines continuously with probes and threats against the flanks, and staged five major assaults, one of which (on May 12) smashed in the point of the V, wrecked one of Lee’s infantry corps, and nearly succeeded in cutting the Confederate army in two. But after almost two weeks of fighting, Lee’s lines still held, with losses for both armies climbing into the tens of thousands.
These losses might have been outweighed by strategic success if Butler and Sigel had carried out their assignments. But while Grant’s army was fighting at Spotsylvania, Sigel’s force was routed by Confederates in the Shenandoah. At the same time, Butler was making a botch of his campaign against Richmond, allowing his thirty-five- thousand-man army to be bottled up in the Bermuda Hundred peninsula five miles north of Petersburg.
Grant now altered his plan of campaign. He would try again to turn Lee’s flank by swinging his infantry out to the east and south and forcing Lee’s troops to scramble to stay ahead of him if they wanted to prevent Grant from breaking their supply lines and keep him from getting between the Federal forces and the Confederate capital at Richmond. There was another battle when the Confederates headed Grant off at the North Anna River twenty miles south of Spotsylvania. But Grant simply made another sweep to the east and forced the Army of Northern Virginia back to the Cold Harbor crossroads, only six miles north of Richmond. There on June 7, Grant made his worst mistake of the campaign, ordering frontal assaults that the entrenched Confederates destroyed with shocking speed.
Undeterred by these losses, Grant now planned a complex series of maneuvers that, if successful, might lead to the capture of the vital rail nexus of Petersburg. With that city in hand, he could force Lee to choose between withstanding a siege in a starving Richmond or abandoning his trenches
for an open-field battle against Grant’s superior forces. On June 9, Grant sent most of his cavalry raiding to the west, to threaten the supply route from the Shenandoah and draw off Lee’s cavalry. Then with one division of cavalry and the infantry of V and VI Corps, Grant repeated his by now predictable pattern of maneuvering around Lee’s right flank, as if he intended to strike directly at Richmond through the swampy flatlands between the Chickahominy River and the north bank of the James River. Since Lee’s army now stood with its back to Richmond, the Confederate general would have no choice but to shift his troops from Cold Harbor to block that threat. But the flanking maneuver was a feint, designed to hold Lee in the defenses of Richmond north of the James. Behind the screen set by V and VI Corps, the bulk of Grant’s infantry and artillery were making a wider swing that would carry them all the way across the James River, by steamboat and pontoon bridge, to strike with overwhelming force the single division that held Petersburg and the Bermuda Hundred lines.
The plan was daring and risky, and it worked brilliantly. On June 15 the first of Grant’s infantry corps—the XVIII under “Baldy” Smith— moved against the Petersburg forts, ten thousand infantry against a scratch force of twenty-four hundred. A division of Black soldiers led by General Hinks stormed one of the outer strongpoints and captured a Confederate battery. But the inner lines looked formidable, and Cold Harbor made Smith leery of storming entrenchments. He halted to wait for reinforcements. The next day he had three corps in hand, the II and IX in
addition to his own, some forty-eight thousand troops. For a moment it seemed to the Union’s soldiers that they might win the war at a stroke. The low volume of fire, the look of the POWs, and above all the ease with which Negro troops had defeated White men told the veteran infantry that they faced outnumbered second-rank troops. Despite their ingrained fear of attacking entrenchments, many actually begged their commanders to send them in.
Yet the generals still hesitated to attack positions that appeared so strong, and the endemic failings of the Army of the Potomac’s command structure reasserted themselves. Orders got mixed, reinforcements arrived tardily, assaults lacked proper coordination. A soldier in the 14th New York Heavy Artillery described how it was: “[The] cry was forward . . . and forward we went & drove them like sheep & held the works for nearly 2 hours till we got out of ammunition then they charged us & away we went back as fast as our legs could carry us but rallyed immediately & took them & held them & the rebs just got right up & skedadalded & our troops are advanced a good ways in advance of where the rebs was & they say petersburg is on fire.”
But in fact Petersburg was safe. By stripping his other garrisons Confederate General Beauregard managed to put fourteen thousand men into the forts, which were as formidable as they looked. They could not keep the Federals from storming their lines, but the cost they imposed in time and casualties prevented a breakthrough.
More Federal troops kept arriving, and General Meade assumed command, but in two more days of fighting (June 17–18) the Federals failed to break the Confederate defense. The heavy casualties of the previous six weeks had reduced both the number and the quality of the men in the ranks. The generals at the front had been demoralized by the futile and costly frontal attacks at Cold Harbor. Instead of obeying Meade’s orders to attack in concert, the corps commanders kept questioning his management:
“Is it intended for the IX Corps to go forward simultaneously?”
“I do not understand the arrangements for my supports.”
“Is the order to attack peremptory, or shall I be allowed some discretion?”
By July 18, with Lee’s divisions finally arriving in front of Petersburg, Meade had exhausted his patience and resources. “What additional orders to attack you require I cannot imagine. . . . Finding it impossible to effect cooperation by appointing an hour for attack, I have sent an order to each corps commander to attack at all hazards and without reference to each other.” It was a confession of failure and a fatal error of judgment. Regiments and brigades attacking in succession had no chance against entrenched troops and artillery. The combat veterans knew their opportunity had passed, wrote their names on bits of paper, pinned them to their shirts so their bodies could be identified, and went forward with grim fatalism to face one last day of furious attack and bitter-end defense.
Then the armies went to ground with a vengeance, in desperate haste scraping rifle pits out of the dry Virginia dirt, to hold the ground their violence and labor had won. Experience made them practical experts in field fortification. When dark covered them, they used pick and spade to turn rifle pits into breastworks, and then deepened the breastworks into trenches, six feet deep with logs laid along the parapet and loopholes for riflemen. Nightly details laid obstacles in front of the trenches: abatis, small trees cut and set in rows, trunks braced in the ground and tops interlaced facing the enemy to entangle and hold an attacking column, like barbed wire in later wars; and chevaux-de-frise, fences of heavy sharpened stakes, butts rooted solidly in the ground and spear points facing outward to impale an attacker. It would take weeks for the engineers of two armies to survey and perfect the lines, but after two days the infantry positions were already strong enough to break any frontal assault, and the area between the lines had become what a later generation would call a no-man’s-land. The armies were locked in place, immobilized under the hammer of a blazing sun: “The heat and dust are intense and the streams and springs are fast drying up . . . the sufferings and loss in the line are something which I cannot think of without trembling. Our consolation must be a Christian one, that the enemy is probably even worse off.”
The military standoff marked a balance point in the war and, in the long political struggle that had divided American society into warring sections—a crisis of morale that tested the armies and the societies that had created them—tested their willingness and ability to sustain the struggle.
Civilian morale in the North was shaken by the terrible cost of Grant’s operations: between 65,000 and 70,000 casualties in seven weeks, out of an army whose initial strength was 120,000. Yet Grant appeared no closer to destroying Lee’s army than when he had begun; and if the position Grant had seized was indeed advantageous, it was not much different from the one McClellan had achieved in 1862 at far less cost. Voluntary enlistments were falling off, and the loss of confidence was hurting the sale of government bonds and the value of the currency, which was weakening the government’s ability to sustain its armies. Opposition newspapers decried Grant as a “butcher,” leading the nation’s young manhood to slaughter to satisfy abolitionist fanatics.
Yet there remained in the North a hard core of support for the war. Abraham Lincoln was the voice and the agent of that determination. In the midst of the Petersburg fighting he told a Philadelphia audience: “We accepted this war for a worthy object . . . and the war will end when that object is attained. Under God I hope it never will until that time.” As for Grant, he had won “a position from whence he will never be dislodged until Richmond is taken.” The crowd cheered Lincoln.
But victory depended on the army’s effectiveness and its soldiers’ willingness to fight.
Military Morale, North and South
At the start of the campaign more than half of Grant’s hundred thousand men were veterans, with two or three years of service. Many of the three-year enlistees were eligible to be mustered out with honor in the spring of 1864. Yet despite the loss and suffering they had endured, more than half chose to reenlist for the duration. These were men who had outlived the spread-eagle patriotism of 1861. What they had left was pride in their regiments and an illusionless determination to finish the job that had already cost them and their comrades so much hardship and grief. Regiments of these Veteran Volunteers had carried the burden of combat since the Wilderness, spearheading every offensive, throwing themselves into every breach. To fill their depleted ranks, the federal government had resorted to conscription but allowed drafted men to buy “substitutes” to take their place. State governments, whose constituents feared and resented conscription, offered bounties for enlistment, which made volunteering somewhat more attractive but also created a new class of criminal: the “bounty jumper,” who would take an enlistment bounty, desert, reenlist under another name (or in another state) for a second bounty, desert, and so on. The system maintained the army’s numerical strength, but the army’s quality was degraded as the Veteran Volunteers were replaced by men brought into the ranks by greed, coercion, or stupidity.
The quality of combat leadership was also seriously degraded. Casualties were heaviest among the veteran NCOs and junior officers who took the lead in assaults or stepped forward to rally men wavering or in retreat. The failures of the frontal assaults at Cold Harbor and especially at Petersburg had also weakened the soldiers’ faith in the higher commanders. Colonel Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts wrote to his father, “The feeling here . . . is that we have been absolutely butchered, that our lives have been periled to no purpose, and wasted. In the Second Corps the feeling is so strong that the men say they will not charge any more works. . . . Father, it is discouraging to see one’s men and officers cut down and butchered time and again, and all for nothing.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted November 15, 2011
Well rounded coverage of one of the biggest blunders of the Civil War. Those interested in the Civil War and/or American race relations will enjoy this book. From the perspective of the student of the Civil War, photographs, diagrams of the mine tunnel, and orders-of-battle would have been useful additions. But these are minor criticisms and in no way detract from an excellent book.
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