Best Civil War Books on the Battle of the Crater: July 30, 1864
On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, I’d like to point out the best books on this Civil War battle. There has been a rush of excellent books on the Crater over the last several years. Other than the constant churn of new Gettysburg books, I cannot remember a similar rush of books on the same event in this short of a time frame. For fans of the Siege of Petersburg, however, times have been good. Without further ado, let’s get to the list of best Crater books…
- Into The Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg by Earl J. Hess (Published September 2010)
The best book on the Battle of the Crater, period. Hess uses the most sources, uses them well, and doesn’t take anything for granted. He debunks some “facts” as myths and only further reinforces others. In addition, Hess does a good job of placing the Battle of the Crater in the wider context of Grant’s Third Offensive and the entire Siege of Petersburg. Many excellent maps are tied well to the text. This book is worth the cover price for the extensive bibliography alone.
- The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History by John F. Schmutz (Published January 2009)
If Earl J. Hess’ Crater book is the best on the Crater, Schmutz comes in a close second, and is probably the best when you consider strictly military history. Schmutz, like Hess, utilizes a wide variety of sources. The author also covers the First Battle of Deep Bottom early in the book, an added bonus. The price for the hardcover at this point in 2014 is a ridiculous $230 due to unscrupulous third party sellers, but the paperback is still at a reasonable price. Two of the author’s ancestors were involved on the Union side, including one who was a member of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, the first regiment to reach the Crater.
- No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 by Richard Slotkin (Published July 2009)
This is the first book to really have at least a secondary focus on the questions surrounding the use of an entire division of Black troops on the Union side, and the consequences of their presence on the battlefield. Slotkin discusses the massacre of Black troops by Confederate soldiers, as well as the post-war political situation which made the fight for the Crater’s memory perhaps more important than most Civil War battles. Slotkin’s dive into the subject has since been surpassed in Kevin Levin’s look at the Crater and its memory. I include a link to a review Levin did on Slotkin’s book at Civil War book review. In addition to the new social history slant, Slotkin also delivers a pretty good tactical history of the battle, probably third in line behind Hess and Schmutz. Add it all up, and though Slotkin’s book isn’t the best at either the strict tactical history or the new social history, it is one of the best three or four books on the battle when taken as a whole. Slotkin also wrote a novel about the Crater with the rather unimaginative title The Crater: A Novel. I cannot comment on that one, having not yet had an opportunity to purchase it.
- Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder by Kevin Levin (Published June 2012)
The focus of Levin’s book is different. Rather than going into a lot of detail about the military aspects of the battle, the book looks at how competing groups fought to have the Battle of the Crater remembered during Reconstruction and beyond. This is a good companion to any of the books which are strictly military histories of the Battle of the Crater. Schmutz and Levin make a nice pair if you’re in the market for multiple books on the Crater.
- The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, The Civil War’s Cruelest Mission by Alan Axelrod (Published July 2007)
Axelrod’s book is written for the general, non-ACW buff reader, and he mostly succeeds in that mission, pun definitely intended. If you check the notes, you’ll see tons of “Ibid.”‘s occurring, and they mostly refer back to the Official Records. I found it a little odd that Axelrod utilized the ORs so heavily in what was meant to be a popular history of the Battle of the Crater. Still, if you are going to utilize mostly one source, the ORs are the one to go with. I’d recommend this book for those of you wanting to get more familiar with the battle without having to delve into the tactical minutiae of which I’m such a fan. It’s a better intro, in my opinion, than the Cavanaugh/Marvel H. E. Howard volume orJohn Cannan’s book on the subject.
- The Petersburg Campaign: The Battle of the Crater “the Horrid Pit” June 25-August 6, 1864 by Michael Arthur Cavanaugh (Published June 1989, 2nd ed.)
Here is what I originally wrote when this book was one of two modern studies of the battle: “This is a book in the Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series. The title of this book is a bit of a misnomer, since the First Battle of Deep Bottom is also covered, in effect chronicling Grant’s entire Third Offensive against Petersburg. Grant sent Hancock’s II Corps north of the James, and his attack drew many Confederates from the Petersburg trenches. After this, the Pennsylvania miners exploded the mine they had dug under the Confederate trenches east of Petersburg and a tragedy unfolded. While two Union IX Corps Generals, Ledlie and Ferrero, got drunk in a bombproof, their men jammed into the new Crater created by the explosion and milled about instead of pressing the attack. The initially bewildered Rebels quickly recovered and attacked to the edge of the Crater. Thousand were killed, wounded and captured, for absolutely no gain. Burnside lost his command as a result of the debacle and the Confederates quickly dug trenches more behind where the Crater was located. This is a very good book on the Crater. The maps were good and showed the terrain very well, but they almost never went down to regimental level. This book is a must-have for fans of this campaign.”
Now, after a multitude of good books on the Crater have come out in the last seven years or so, I would rank this one at best sixth on the list. It’s still a good introduction to the Crater and is not a bad book by any means. It’s just that more recent scholarship has allowed other authors to surpass this effort, especially in regards to the issue of race, massacre, and memory.
- The Crater: Burnside’s Assault on the Confederate Trenches July 30, 1864 by John Cannan (Published October 2002)
This is a book from the “Battleground America Guides” series aimed at newcomers to the battle. All in all I thought Cannan’s book was a decent one, though I do have some complaints. Let’s start off with the glaring error on the cover. It shows “June 30, 1864″ rather than the correct date of July 30, 1864. The maps were all brigade level, and no indication was ever given as to which brigades belonged to which divisions and corps. There is no order of battle either, and both of these things combine to make it more difficult for someone new to this fight. Also, as this book is in a standard series, it did not seem like Cannan was given much leeway as far as coming up with new ideas and interpretations of the battle, which is a shame in my opinion. The book contained 167 pages, and aside from a three-page index, everything else was text. There were no footnotes. This is a definite flaw, and reduces the value of a book tremendously.
- Blue & Gray Magazine, Vol. XXX, No. 5 (2014): The Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864 by Emmanuel Dabney (Published July 2014)
Petersburg National Battlefield Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney, who also maintains a blog called Interpretive Challenges, pens the main article in this edition of Blue and Gray Magazine. This was an inspired choice by Editor Dave Roth, with the issue arriving less than a month before the 150th anniversary of the battle. Wiley Seord’s Letters series features a letter which focuses on the First Battle of Deep Bottom, and is penned by Grant staffer Frank M. Kelley. A series of six maps shows the main battle area, and Dave Roth shares the driving tour duties with Chief of Interpretation at Petersburg National Battlefield Chris Bryce.