In a market glutted with Civil War books, Slotkin delivers a fresh, well-told tale.



The offbeat history of a truly explosive Civil War battle.

Historian Slotkin (Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality, 2005, etc.) focuses on a particularly unusual battle, which occurred July 30, 1864. Ulysses S. Grant and his Union forces were determined to seize Petersburg, Va., a heavily fortified, key supply point for the Confederate capital of Richmond, but his soldiers were bogged down in trench warfare against Robert E. Lee’s Confederates. To break the stalemate, Henry Pleasants, a Union lieutenant colonel and former mining engineer, proposed that Union soldiers dig a tunnel underneath one of the Confederate forts, pack it with explosives and blow a hole in the Confederate line. Major General Ambrose Burnside supported the plan, but others, including Grant, were less enthusiastic. Consequently, the soldiers tasked with the digging were supplied with inferior equipment and supplies. Nonetheless, the tunnel was completed in a month and packed with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. A regiment of African-American soldiers had been trained to lead the post-explosion charge, but were replaced at the last minute with an inexperienced white regiment. The blast—the largest manmade explosion to that point—opened a crater, still visible today, more than 130-feet wide and 30-feet deep. Many Union troops marched into the crater instead of around it and were shot in massive numbers. Ultimately, Grant deemed the Battle of the Crater “a stupendous failure.” Some 3,800 Union troops were killed, wounded or captured, compared to fewer than 1,500 Confederates. Burnside was relieved of command, and the seemingly endless trench warfare continued as before. Slotkin skillfully portrays the myriad political and strategic elements in play throughout the preparation of the ill-fated siege, as well as the sometimes prickly personalities of the commanders in charge. He’s particularly adept at describing the unbridled chaos and brutality, hour by hour, of the battle itself.

In a market glutted with Civil War books, Slotkin delivers a fresh, well-told tale.

Pub Date: July 28, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6675-9

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2009

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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