By Ralph Peters
Forge Books, 2016, 432 pages, $27.99
Best-selling author Ralph Peters remains at the top of his form as a master of expertly crafted historical fiction with this fourth installment in his multiple W.Y. Boyd Award-winning Civil War historical novel series. The Damned of Petersburg joins Cain at Gettysburg (2012), Hell or Richmond (2013) and Valley of the Shadow (2015) in bringing to vivid life the clash of Union and Confederate armies in the war’s Eastern Theater from July 1863 through 1864. A gifted writer and superb storyteller armed with extensive research on the battles and the men who fought them, Peters also draws on his decades of military service to masterfully recreate the experiences of Grant’s and Lee’s soldiers during the first six months of the Siege of Petersburg.
Notably, Peters immerses readers in the horrific July 30, 1864, Battle of the Crater that, through inept Union leadership, degenerated into a bloody fiasco Ulysses Grant called “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” Peters’ powerful description of the living hell inside the massive crater created by the Union mine’s explosion brings readers right into the slaughter pit to join the packed mass of trapped soldiers desperately fighting for their lives:
What [Union Brig. Gen. William Francis Bartlett] saw before him was mayhem, a small apocalypse. The noise was infernal, the heat monstrous, the very air bloodstained, and the pit so packed with striving men that he could not even have crawled off, had he wished. A shock-faced sergeant blundered by, trailing gray intestines. Men screamed, a thing unusual. Flesh separated and flew. Hard men who would have killed for a swig of water sloshed through blood….Unwitting men stabbed their own kind, while others were packed too close to bring weapons to bear, fighting instead with fists, claws, and teeth. Men vomited over each other, fainted, were trampled….No gallant ends this day, no answered prayers.
Yet, the Battle of the Crater was only one day in a siege that lasted over nine months, and, as Peters reveals, “the evolving siege produced a succession of grinding encounters…with intervals between major bloodlettings filled with cavalry actions, local raids, picket-line forays, and endless, deadly sharpshooting.” Indeed, ultimate Union victory required the constant wearing down and depletion of Lee’s ranks—whittled away through battle casualties and disease as well as by desertions prompted by rising casualty lists, ever-shrinking resources and the increasingly difficult to resist lure of simply “going home” to succor and protect families.
Peters’ brilliant narrative evokes what soldiers on both sides saw, felt, smelled and, ultimately, endured in combat as well as daily camp life. Every single word seems carefully chosen to envelop readers in the experience and make them feel part of the action. Importantly, Peters lets readers feel what is was like to live, labor and fight under the appalling, exhausting conditions both sides endured: suffocating, man-killing heat that summer that proved as deadly to soldiers as rifle and cannon fire; pelting rain as fall approached that soaked their lice-infested wool uniforms, drenched ammunition into uselessness and created mud so thick and deep it literally sucked the shoes off marching troops; and the widespread misery of physical afflictions such as diarrhea, dysentery, malaria and, for many officers and soldiers, old wounds that sapped whatever strength the already exhausted soldiers still retained.
As meticulous in capturing Civil War soldiers’ dialogue, thoughts and emotions as he is in recreating the experience of battle, parts of Peters’ narrative might startle the modern sensibilities of some of today’s readers. But, as the author explains: “This novel attempts to capture the emotions, logic, hopes, and fears of all parties engaged…and to do so as fairly as possible. Above all, I sought to avoid that great sin of historical novelists: judging the past by present values, inserting our own sensibilities, and yanking their words from the mouths of the dead to insert our sanitized and approved vocabulary. Our history deserves honesty and our citizens need it.”
The Damned of Petersburg is much more than a book. It is a virtual time machine transporting readers back to 1864 Virginia, placing them in the ranks alongside the soldiers in blue and gray enduring the horrors of that brutally fought campaign