Battle of the Crater is Newt Gingrich’s and William R. Forstchen’s fascinating historical novel about this infamous battle, in which the Union Ninth Corps attempted to end the siege of Petersburg, Virginia (Click here to listen to an excerpt from the audiobook courtesy of Macmillan Audio). To breach the seemingly impenetrable Confederate fortifications, Union sappers tunnelled under the Confederate front lines and rigged explosive charges. The book deftly describes how petty politics can derail the best-laid plans. I highly recommend this book for history enthusiasts, war buffs, and people who are interested in organizational theory. It should also be required reading for every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who is, or expects to be, stationed on the Korean Peninsula (more on this point later).
Style – 10.00
Battle of the Crater flows well, and is a very easy and entertaining read. The authors skillfully describe the technical aspects of tunnel-digging in a way that the general public can understand. The authors competently weave a complex tale that both covers the war’s horrors and deprivations for the soldiers, and the jockeying of generals and politicians for position and influence. The narrative leaves the readers anxiously turning the page just to find out what will happen next.
As such, I rate the authors’ style a 10.0 out of ten.
Structure – 10.00
The book starts with the Battle of Cold Harbor, in which the Union Army suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of the Confederacy. It then proceeds to the 28th United States Colored Troops (USCT) as they bury the first bodies in Arlington National Cemetary, formerly General Lee’s front yard. Next comes the plight of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, whose commander happened to be a mining engineer. The colonel devises a way to breach Confederate defenses by excavating a mine beneath their position. It then follows the story of these two units, plus several other protagonists, leading up to the infamous Battle of the Crater. Tragically, petty political jealousies and bickering conspire to ruin an otherwise clever plan that could have ended the Civil War almost a full year sooner.
The book flawlessly advances the plot through the eyes of the various protagonists, and deftly builds the tension. Overall, the book receives a rating of 10.0 out of ten for structure.
Substance – 10.00
The authors appear to have thoroughly researched the historical Battle of the Crater. The novel thoroughly covers the plan from its conception to its failure, and then the aftermath of the debacle. The book also chronicles the saga of the 28th USCT, and how its soldiers desired to prove to their white comrades and fellow Americans that they are just as committed to fighting for their country.
The book also expertly weaves real historic events amidst the struggles of its main protagonists. It further makes a sincere effort to understand the poor decision-making of some of the generals involved, namely Generals Meade and Burnside.
Because the book painstakingly seems to get the history right, and successfully conveys what it is like to be a soldier in a tactical environment, I rate the book’s substance an 10.0.
Sentiment – 10.00
As a former military officer with a special interest in military history, this book really resonated with me. It also artfully purveyed the petty bickering, biases, and political maneuvering endemic in many organizations, and how those interpersonal conflicts can stifle creativity and effectiveness. As such, I give the book’s sentiment a 10.00.
Significance – 8.00
Because Battle of the Crater is a work of fiction, it may not prove as significant as non-fiction would. That said, one thing that does make this book significant in an unexpected way, is the continued relevance of many of the military tactics the authors describe. For instance, the Union’s tunneling under the Confederate position is similar to North Korean tunnel complexes discovered by the Republic of Korea (ROK) and American military forces snaking under the DMZ to locations in South Korea. The Union stratagem to destroy the Confederate position from below, therefore, reminded me that the North Koreans could very well use similar tactics against U.S. and ROK forces on the Korean Peninsula. As such, I rate the book 8.0 out of ten in terms of its significance, even though it is only a novel.
Overall Rating – 9.40
The book’s overall rating is 9.40 out of ten, after assigning the appropriate weights to each item. If you have any interest in historical fiction, military history, or political maneuvering gone awry, this book is a must read.
Note: The publisher provider the reviewer with an advance copy of the book. The reviewer was under no obligation to provide a favorable review, and would have published the exact same review had he acquired the book in some other manner.