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Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg

by Earl J. Hess, University of South Carolina Press, 2010, $44.95

THE JULY 1864 BATTLE OF the Crater marked the Army of the Potomac’s first large-scale commitment of African-American troops in combat. But curiously, like much of the critical Petersburg Campaign of 1864-65, it failed for generations to receive the attention it merits from historians. The 2003 film Cold Mountain inspired a significant increase in interest in the engagement, and a number of authors have since provided book-length accounts of the battle.

Fortunately, one of those is Earl J. Hess. It is difficult to know whether to be more impressed with the quality or the quantity of the scholarship that Hess has produced recently on topics ranging from the Union soldier, to the effect of the rifled musket on the conduct of the war, to Pickett’s Charge. Regardless, when a scholar of Hess’ ability turns his attention to a subject, it demands notice.

And Hess once again delivers, providing a clearly written, authoritative account of the Third Petersburg Offensive, including the Deep Bottom operations that preceded the Crater battle on July 30. He adeptly details the sequence of events in which the Federals succeeded in building and detonating a mine, only to fail in following up on that success. He also effectively explains the command relations and decisions that shaped events, as well as the experiences of the men who fought the brutal battle. The final sections of the book, where Hess discusses the battle’s aftermath and the evolution of the battlefield over the years, are especially well done.

Into the Crater—a spin-off from Hess’ remarkable field fortifications trilogy—is of the same high quality as his earlier works. Hopefully, the book’s steep cover price will not keep it from being placed where it belongs: at the top of many buffs’ reading lists.


Originally published in the March 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.