Yesterday on my way to Richmond I stopped at Borders to pick up some coffee and kill some time. As I browsed the shelves I noticed a new book on the battle of the Crater by Alan Axelrod titled The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission. I am pretty good about staying on top of new studies of the Crater, but somehow this one flew completely under my radar screen. Now I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t say that I was just a little disappointed to see a fresh book-length study of the battle. Would it utilize the same sources and/or touch on similar interpretive strands? In short, would it steal my thunder?
The first thing I did was go back to the bibliography and endnotes and within a few seconds my fears were relieved. The bibliography is very short, but what is even more troubling are the sources cited. They include my chapter on the Crater which recently appeared in the Sheehan-Dean volume on Civil War soldiers (released just this past December) as well as Jacob Burkhardt’s North and South article which appeared in the last issue – meaning April/May 2007. Are we to assume that this book went to press some time in May? Was it peer reviewed at all by the publisher Carroll & Graff? The notes indicate that Axelrod relied on a small number of sources to build his narrative; they include the O.R., the book on the battle by Cavanaugh and Marvel (subtitled The Horrid Pit) as well as a few pamphlets that are readily available. These sources as well as a few others are cited continuously throughout. While my article is cited in the bibliography it isn’t referred to once in the endnotes. Even more alarming is the complete absence of archival material. What is cited at least once is Axelrod’s previous book, The Idiot’s Guide to the Civil War. As if that wasn’t enough James McPherson provided an endorsement for the book on the back cover.
I did spend some time perusing through the book and have to say that it does provide an effective and somewhat detailed tactical overview of the battle and the decisions involved in the planning and execution of the battle. Axelrod also looks into the Joint Committee hearing that followed the disaster. Unfortunately, we don’t get anything approaching serious analysis of the salient factors that make this battle such an important interpretive opportunity.