Monday, May 4, 2009

Schmutz: "The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History"

[The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History by John F. Schmutz (McFarland ph. 800-253-2187, 2009) 7x10 Hardcover, 12 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 351/428. ISBN: 978-0-7864-3982-9 $75]

There exists no great shortage of books and articles written about the horrific July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater, but it's safe to say none are remotely comparable to John F. Schmutz's recently published study. To say a narrative is "detailed" is an oft overused description, but the sheer amount of data contained within The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History fairly demolishes our conception of just what constitutes the informational extremes of microtactical battle histories. At first glance, 350 pages of main text is not terribly unusual, but this book's large trim size and densely packed small print would comfortably fit inside a more typical arrangement of twice that length, or more.

The author's recounting of events leading up the the battle, including the early attacks on Petersburg and the Deep Bottom diversion, is helpful in presenting to the reader the strategic and operational circumstances that led to the hatching of the mine scheme that appeared so promising on paper. Schmutz's apparent knowledge of the layout of the ground, and how very specific terrain features would affect the conduct of the battle, is impressive. One of the book's finest passages in this regard is its analytical tactical discussion of the placement of the Confederate artillery in the area surrounding the target salient.

The centerpiece of the study is the battle narrative, which is equally balanced between Union and Confederate perspectives (from commanding generals on down to private soldiers). Schmutz's presentation of Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps attack and the Confederate response unfolds methodically. First person accounts are interspersed throughout, and the astonishing brutality of the close quarter fighting is effectively conveyed. Of course, it is well known that the Crater offensive involved a significant use of black troops [Edward Ferrero's 4th Division of IX Corps] by the Army of the Potomac, and the author does a fairly good job of describing the range of circumstances (ideological and tactical) that led to much no quarter combat between the two sides.

While history generally accords Burnside the lion's share of the blame for the fiasco, Schmutz is especially critical of Army of the Potomac commander George Meade's meddling with the attack's tactical arrangements (including the infamous decision to replace Ferrero's prepared, but inexperienced, unit with a white division) and his global lack of support. Burnside's many failures*, along with those of his division commanders, are certainly not overlooked, but the author's reasoned criticism of Meade's actions, while not broadly original, is documented and analyzed here to a degree not found elsewhere.

I do have several issues with the book's content and presentation. The text very much needed more editing. Typos in the form of misspelled names, incorrect word usage, etc. abound to an alarming degree for a finished manuscript. Additionally, while most of the writing when viewed in isolation is really quite vivid and effective, the narrative does not transition smoothly, with ideas and passages too often repeated. The cartography is another major weakness for a study of this type. The original maps are far too small, forcing them to be presented at an organizational scale (most commonly brigade level) not adequately matching the text's minutely detailed recounting of regimental movements and battlefield positions. Additionally, the inclusion of some operational scale maps would have been helpful in gaining a fuller understanding of events leading up to the battle, as well as providing more precise locations of supporting units.

Examination of the bibliography and notes reveals a most satisfactory amount of original research and appreciation of the secondary literature. Four appendices were included, providing an order of battle, casualty numbers by regiment, and listings of union officer casualties and Medal of Honor/Confederate Roll of Honor recipients. There are also many fascinating passages in the explanatory endnotes.

It's probably safe to say this book will receive very mixed reviews, as it is of a type especially vulnerable to varying critical concerns about just what makes a modern Civil War book worthwhile. However, while the work exhibited in The Battle of the Crater does have its flaws, I would not wish to begrudge overall praise for Mr. Schmutz's painstakingly researched contributions to our understanding of the command level decision making and small scale tactical details of the battle. There are high points of military analysis, as well. While the book's price and sheer density and volume of information presented will likely keep away the casual reader, dedicated students will benefit from reading this study [for reference, at the very least]. In constructing a strictly military record of the Crater battle, I can't imagine a future publication exceeding the depth of detail offered by this one.

* - Ambrose Burnside's initial plan involving the 4th Division as the attack's spearhead was good, but his improvisation in the face of Meade's last minute changes was bungled. Burnside was either too vague in his orders or unable to make himself understood (or more likely 1st Division commander Ledlie disobeyed or misinterpreted orders) that the lead division was to continue on past the breach. The IX Corps commander also failed to clear the obstructions from his lines preparatory to the attack, funneling the primary attackers and support columns through a narrow passage to the front. He also deprived his troops with the means of removing his own and the enemy's obstructions. Finally, he allowed all the supporting columns to plow into the rear of the ones that came before, creating an inextricable mess at the point of attack.


  1. Drew,
    Good review. It should be interesting to see what Richard Slotkin has to say in his upcoming book 'No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864'. He is a very interesting historian who has already written a fascinating novel on the Crater battle and an interesting novel on the young Lincoln. His new Crater book looks like it will have a substantial number of pages to address this fascinating battle. And at least his book will be around $60 cheaper than Schmutz's book. I know that its beating a dead horse but McFarland's prices are hard for me to stomach and build a collection of books from them.

    Thanks for the informative review,

  2. If memory serves, we passed on this manuscript and I offered Mr. Schmutz detailed advice he (or his publisher) may not have followed.

    He seems like a good fellow, and I hope his book does very well for him.



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