Civil War Book Review: Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg

by James Durney on March 22, 2011 · 1 comment

Editor’s Note: For more information on the Siege of Petersburg, be sure to visit The Siege of Petersburg Online: Beyond the Crater!

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Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg
by Earl J. Hess

Product Details

Camp Pope Publishing
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: University of South Carolina Press (September 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1570039224
  • ISBN-13: 978-1570039225

Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg by Ealr J. HessEarl J. Hess is one of our best authors combining impeccable skills as historian and author.  He has a unique ability to capture the utter chaos of battle while presenting events in a logical understandable narration.  His extensive knowledge of the Civil War allows him to explore the linkage between and the background of events.  His books will always be enjoyable and bring a unique view to the subject.

This book is no exception.  The Battle of the Crater or the Mine Attack is a bloody failure resulting in charges, counter charges and investigations.  The results of the investigations had more to do with politics than the trying to find the truth.  In time, a story emerged that most historians accepted and entered into our collective memory.  This book is not challenging our collective memory but presenting the facts and allowing the reader to adjust their memory of event.    The result is a powerful fact-filled narrative without an agenda making for an enjoyable learning experience.

This action provides us with a look at the culture of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.  Locked into a siege each is trying for any possible advantage.  The Army of the Potomac forced into an offensive position must break the siege line.  After the bloody Overland Campaign, the men will not accept endless frontal assaults.  A mine is possible in a section of the line.  We are walked through the approval process, seeing that the operation always has a “yes, but” attached.   The digging of the mine and the counter mining looks at life under siege.  When the mine explodes, we understand the investment and the hopes going with it.  That this turns into a bloody fiasco turns on the culture of the armies.  The AoNV reacts quickly, working to seal the breach without waiting for orders.  The AOP allows itself to blunder around and be trapped in the immediate area of the crater.  During the battle lack of senior officers at the front, poor planning and worse communications result in a nasty defeat and finger pointing.

This is the first battle with Afro-American soldiers between these armies.  In a close quarter hand-to-hand fight, racism occurs.  The author spares no one in a close examination of this subject.  He makes no statements but presents the facts allowing the reader to reach their conclusions about the why and how.  The facts may surprise some readers.  This is not a pleasant incident and reflects little credit on any of the participants.

We watch the inevitable Court of Inquiry and Congressional investigation.  The participates are punished, escape punishment and or extract revenge as the case may be.  In the end, some commands are lost but the war goes on.

What happened to the Crater?  Anyone seeing it comes away with an impressed.  The author follows the Crater from the end of the war until incorporated into a national park.  This is a look at how we failed to preserve some of the most important areas from the war.  Battle histories need more information on preservation and the history of the area after the war.  This chapter is a real service to preservation and our understanding of how it happened.

This is an excellent book!  It is well written, informative and fun to read.  It may not be the final word on this battle but it has set the bar at a great height for the next one.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Greg Taylor April 3, 2011 at 12:01 am

This book is a must for me. My g-g-grandfather, Adj.William B. Phillips was one of 6 officers of the 2nd. PA Provisional Heavy Artillery to be captured at the Crater. His regiment was the first into the pit after the mine explosion having replaced the USCT regiment that initially was to go in. It is a tragic but fascinating story with many twists. I have read a number of books on the subject but this looks like a fresh treatment.

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