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The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History

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Battle of the Crater

Battle of the Crater

I have happily received a review copy of John F. Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History. I can be counted among those whose interest in this remarkable 9 hour battle was piqued after watching the mesmerizing opening sequence of the film based on Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

Scenes of The Battle of the Crater in the trailer of Cold Mountain, a film by Anthony Minghella

It would be hard to find a similar military event in history that paralleled this one in terms of overwhelming potential for success run amok. Schmutz’s use of an opening quote about the July 30, 1864 battle by Ulysses S. Grant perhaps says it best…

The loss in the disaster of Saturday last foots up about 3,500, of whom 450 men were killed and 2,000 wounded. It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.

- Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to Major General
Henry W. Halleck, August 1, 1864.

According to Schmutz, his interest in the Battle of the Crater began with the discovery that he had “two direct ancestors in the battle, one with the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, which at the last minute, and without any preparation or forewarning, was chosen to lead the assault, with disastrous consequences.” (Preface) This seed germinated into one of the first studies to take a broad-brush approach to the battle, examining the events leading up to it, the country’s mood in its now third year of civil war, brutality committed against black troops, atrocities perpetrated by both sides, first-hand accounts, and the impact of the battle “on the body politic of both sides.”

Schmutz appropriately gives readers a sense for war in the trenches that were part of the Siege of Petersburg.

As both sides dug even deeper entrenchments and more infantry obstacles, the rolling farmland east and south of the city was soon churned into scenes resembling a moonscape. These tandem ramparts ran for twenty-six miles, crossed two major rivers, and traversed parts of four Virginia countries, from White Oak Swamp, east of Richmond, across Bermuda Hundred and south of the Jerusalem Plank Road below the city. No campaign of the war quite equaled the siege of Petersburg, which was the object of the longest military action ever waged against an American city. More battles were fought and more lives lost there than in the defense of any better-known Southern cities such as Richmond, Vicksburg or Atlanta. (p. 40)

Henry Pleasants

Henry Pleasants

The excellent chapter titled “The Earth Movers,” reveals how Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants and the men of the 48th Pennsylvania, many of them coal miners, accomplished what Meade’s engineers mockingly called impossible, the building of a lengthy tunnel without detection by the Confederates. Receiving literally no support from Meade or his men, Pleasants overcame every challenge with ingenuity and innovation. As an example, he used a combination of miner’s bellows and fire to create draft to circulate air through a shaft built into the tunnel wall. This bit of creative thinking, the details of which are a must read, became what Schmutz called Pleasants’ “greatest engineering feat.” (p. 61)

The Crater

The Crater as it appeared in 1865. The Union soldier seated at the end of the tunnel gives an idea of the size of the Crater. National Archives.

Of note, Schmutz provides an impressive set of references in his appendices, something I always value in a book of serious history. These include:

  • Organization of Opposing Forces on July 30, 1864 including Union and Confederate Corps, Division, and Brigade, and in some cases Company commanders and officers
  • Casualty counts by Corps, Division, Brigade and Unit
  • Medal of Honor Recipients and Confederate Roll of Honor Recipients by Corps including a brief statement about why they received the award
    Union Officers Killed or Mortally Wounded by Corps, Division, and Brigade
  • Full and extensive Chapter Notes
  • An impressive Bibliography which demonstrates the extent of primary sources used in Schumtz’s research

I greatly look forward to fully reading this book and fully expect that a Highly Recommend will be forthcoming.

Kevin Levin has recently provided a review of The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History on H-Net here.

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Review of History Shots – History of the Union Army, American Civil War 1861 – 1865

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Zoom of The History of the Union Army

History Shots Union Army

History Shots History of the Union Army

Larry Gormley of History Shots kindly agreed to let me review the series of “information graphics” he has created that focus on military history. This post begins a brief series that I’ll do on all three, two depicting information about the opposing armies in the American Civil War: History of the Union Army and History of the Confederate Army, and a third on U.S. Army Divisions in World War II.

Minard as Inspiration

Gormley credits Charles Joseph Minard’s “statistical graphic” of Napoleon’s March to Moscow (interestingly published for the first time in 1861) as inspiration for his American Civil War graphics. Arguably the most famous effort to depict a military campaign in this unique way, Minard’s iconic work was reintroduced to modern audiences by statistical information guru, Edward Tufte in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. [1]

Graphical poster of Napoleon's March available for order at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/posters

What Minard accomplished was the visual depiction of statistical data in a way that allows mere mortals to grasp it quickly.

“The aim of my carte figurative is less to express statistical results, better done by numbers, than to convey promptly to the eye the relation not given quickly by numbers requiring mental calculation.” [Charles Joseph Minard] [1]

John Corbett’s informative article, “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861,” points out that Minard incorporated six variables into him map.

“First, the line width continuously marked the size of the army. Second and third, the line itself showed the latitude and longitude of the army as it moved. Fourth, the lines themselves showed the direction that the army was traveling, both in advance and retreat. Fifth, the location of the army with respect to certain dates was marked. Finally, the temperature along the path of retreat was displayed. Few, if any, maps before or since have been able to coherently and so compellingly weave so many variables into a captivating whole.” [1]

Most startling in the work above is the comparative sizes of Napoleon’s army as it left France (tan colored stream at left of diagram) and then returned (black colored stream at left of diagram above) after having been decimated by the elements and lack of food. Michael Friendly’s Re-Visions of Minard also has a great deal of information on Minard including excellent graphics. The most powerful in my mind emphasizes the human element to Napoleon’s losses by replacing men with crosses. [2]

Revision of Minard's Map of Napoleon's March to Moscow

History of the Union Army, American Civil War 1861 – 1865

The statistics of the American Civil War, one of many histories that History Shots’ Larry Gormley and co-founder Bill Younker tackle, must have presented some interesting challenges. I think they handled them brilliantly and the results capture the spirit of what Minard attempted to accomplish in his 1861 work on Napoleon.

For this post, I want to take a look at the graphic titled: “History of the Union Army American Civil War, 1861 – 1865” which you can view on the History Shots website here. This will appeal to anyone trying to get their head around the key details of the war. The variables Gormley tackled graphically include:

  • key milestones
  • theaters of operation
  • the 31 Union armies and departments (the date of their birth, sources of recruits, expansion, contraction, merging, etc.)
  • the generals who commanded the armies and for what period of time
  • statistical details of the most important 95 battles
    • dates
    • commanding generals
    • number of casualties
    • the number of men “present for duty”
    • outcomes: win or draw

Each of the three major theaters of operation has its own swim lane and each army a unique color. The time element runs along an x-axis from left to right. The y-axis is largely size of army.  This allows for effective illustration of the relative size of each army, their swelling and contracting in size, where they combined efforts for specific campaigns and/or battles, and when men were transferred between theaters. Vertical lines represent major battles and are color-coded to reflect their outcomes: Union win (blue), Confederate win (red), or draw (blue and red).

Union Army Hot Shots

History Shots - History of the Union Army American Civil War 1861-1865

The History Shots website has an excellent feature that allows you to zoom in on any part of the diagram you want. I’ve taken the liberty of posting their full-on shot above and you can click on it to go to this graphic on their site. I zoomed in for illustrative purposes below on a section that shows the redeployment of soldiers from the Army of Southwest Missouri to Pope’s Army of the Mississippi and relative numbers of men moved.

Zoom of The History of the Union Army

But, in my mind, there is nothing that takes the place of having the map near at hand!

History of the Union Army would be an excellent tool to post in any classroom for students examining the American Civil War. Serious students of the Civil War will find it useful as an at-a-glance reference as well.

If research and production costs would permit, I would like to to see History Shots create versions of these information graphs in smaller hand-held format. I’d envision a collapsible folding version for each theater of operation. In fact, I would benefit from having graphical representations of each major battle. This would be different from traditional battle maps, of course, but a good companion reference to them. Choosing which variables to include and how to lay them out would be an interesting exercise. The following variables come to mind:

  • chronology (the timeline remains key)
  • opposing armies
  • major units and their flow in and out of the field
  • cavalry versus infantry
  • artillery counts
  • key commanders (including those below the general level)
  • deaths/casualties
  • key events during the battle (at Antietam, for example, the Sunken Road, the Lower Bridge, Snavely’s Ford)
  • etc.

I could see all of the above as not only great additions to Civil War History student packets but as invaluable to those touring American Civil War battlefields. I realize there are some excellent guidebooks available but this could be a powerful supplement to those.

I am, needless to say, a fan of History Shots and the work Mr. Gormley and team have created. Highly recommend.

Next up: A Review of History of the Confederate Army and some Q & A with Larry Gormley.

—-

Note: If statistical graphics grab you, I recommend highly scholar John Corbett’s informative article at the Center for Spatially Oriented Social Science “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861” for more on Minard and a second work on Hannibal’s Peninsular campaign in the Second Punic War. Michael Friendly’s Re-Visions of Minard also has a great deal of information on Minard including excellent graphics. Fascinating is the work that has come out of a contest where today’s scholars have taken Minard’s Napoleonic study and added to or revised it in meaningful ways. Today’s technology/computing power allows for some manipulation of the data (3D as an example) but Minard’s work stands as iconic.

[1] Corbett, John, “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861,”  http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/58  accessed online, 8/15/2009.
[2] Friendly, Michael,  “Re-Visions of Minard,” http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/re-minard.html, accessed online, 8/15/2009.

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