Peters (Valley of the Shadow, 2015, etc.) continues his visceral Civil War series with the Union Army’s 1864 assaults around Petersburg, Virginia.
Sourcing biographies, letters, and historical documents, Peters creates a superbly detailed retelling of the Civil War confrontations near Petersburg, bloody butchering that marked the beginning of the war’s end. The story begins with a massive explosion behind Confederate lines. There’s much ugly history uncovered. The North’s employment of African-American soldiers at the Battle of the Crater was controversial, even among some Northerners and Union troops, some of whom turned on the black soldiers. Peters doesn’t shy from relating instances of shocking barbarism, and from there, he chronicles bloodletting at places far from the common historical record, including Second Deep Bottom, Globe Tavern, and Reams Station. Prepare for a narrative of near unrelenting violence, which shifts only occasionally to reimagined headquarters conferences and some homefront anecdotes such as Gen. Francis Channing Barlow’s, nearly collapsed from internal parasites, attending his wife’s New Jersey funeral. Sickened by the slaughter, Harvard-educated Barlow thought "if he ever had a soul he seemed to have lost it" in war’s crucible of cruelty. Peters' fast-paced novel is entirely a story of men at war, from the quiet, calm, relentless Grant to Lee, aware that slavery had cursed the white South, to a young up-from-the-ranks 50th Pennsylvania lieutenant named Brown, worried because he "sensed a beast" growing inside himself. The narrative is chronological, beginning in the relentless summer heat and continuing through the fall campaign. With thoughtful yet candid judgments of generalship and empathetic appreciation for the common soldier’s sacrifice, Peters' descriptions of battle, with blood misting the air and men whose limbs or faces have been shot away, are cringeworthy yet a reminder of the half-million lives sacrificed to preserve the union.
Rich in detail and rendered with a literary flair, this is magnificent fiction that Civil War buffs will want for their libraries.