Prolific military historian Axelrod (Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps, 2007, etc.) takes a powerful look at one of the Civil War’s more grotesque episodes.
In June 1864, Confederate and Union positions dug in for what looked to be a long, intractable siege of Petersburg, Va. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, serving under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside in the storied IX Corps, suggested that the impasse could be ended by digging a huge tunnel beneath a key section of the Confederates’ 20-mile entrenchment, planting explosives in it and detonating them, then launching an offensive taking advantage of the element of surprise. What seemed simple on paper became increasingly complex and thoroughly misguided in execution. Pleasants’ 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, which dug the 510-foot tunnel, was plagued by problems arising from the soldiers’ ignorance of modern engineering. The Union’s post-explosion plans were a classic case study in military incompetence. Descriptions of scores of Union soldiers losing their lives in a massive trench devised by their own army make for a suspenseful, devastating read. If the Battle of the Crater wasn’t nearly as bloody as Antietam or Gettysburg, it was nevertheless one of the Civil War’s more grisly events. Using just enough illuminating field correspondence, Axelrod details the faulty reasoning of both armies at almost every level of command, revealing no lack of human bravery and foibles among the men behind the medallions. He nicely accents his economical narrative with analyses of the main players’ personalities: how rancor in the ranks led to disorganization; how grudges and jealousies undermined unity of purpose; and how poor equipment, and even poorer intelligence and racism, ensured the offensive’s total failure.
Another example of how miraculous the Union’s ultimate win really was.