The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History
by John F. Schmutz, McFarland Publishers
The Union plan to tunnel beneath Confederate lines outside Peters- burg and set off a large cache of explosives was an imaginative scheme that Major Charles F. Adams of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry best summed up as “a perfect success, except that it didn’t succeed.” The huge explosion that day in July 1864 did have a devastating effect and might well have brought the Civil War to an earlier end had Union forces simply followed it up with equal competence. But they did not, and the result was the loss of 504 dead, 1,881 wounded and 1,413 taken prisoner— and a war that would drag on for another nine months.
In his new book, John F. Schmutz presents a comprehensive treatment of the events leading up to and encompassing this battle within the Siege of Petersburg. The details, presented from both sides, include some unremittingly grim realities about the consequences of so large and intense an engagement fought in such a contained area.
Of greatest interest to Civil War scholars will be Schmutz’s conclusions about who was responsible for the fiasco. It’s been convenient to lay the blame on the perennial poster boy for martial incompetence, IX Corps commander Ambrose Burnside. Schmutz, however, finds plenty of fault among Burnside’s subordinates, and still has enough change left over to include the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. For anyone who sees the Crater as the decisive battle that could and should have been, this book will provide the long-awaited answer to prayers.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.