Learn About the Crater for $75

McFarland Publishers is set to release John F. Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History in May.  At that price it better be a complete history of the battle plus the rest of human history.  I’ve never heard of Schmutz before.  Apparently he is a corporate attorney and Civil War enthusiast who lives in San Antonio.  Good for him.  My guess is he saw Cold Mountain and decided to write a book about the battle.  A quick look at the table of contents suggest that this is a straight-forward military history that probably will not go much further than Cavanaugh and Marvel’s 1989 study (H.E. Howard Series) or the recent publication of The Horrid Pit by Alan Axelrod, which I reviewed for the Journal of Southern History.  In other words, we are likely to see little or no analysis of the role race played in this battle.

My advice, wait for the publication of Richard Slotkin’s No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, which is slated for release this summer from Random House.  I’ve been looking forward to the publication of this book for some time.  Also, keep your eye out for a future Crater study by Earl Hess.

p.s. Please don’t ask me about my Crater and historical memory manuscript.  It’s coming along.

16 comments… add one

  • Chris Evans Feb 22, 2009

    I agree. Slotkin’s book should be quite good. I enjoyed his novel on the Crater that came out the ’70s. I find it interesting that he is returning to the subject in non-fiction form. Anything by Earl Hess is worth having and reading and something by him on the Crater would be excellent. I really think Mcfarland must truly be insane for charging $75 for a book like that. Especially in these economic times. I have not bought books from them and I never will unless there is a drastic downward shift in price.
    Thanks for the post,
    Chris

  • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

    Simply put, $75 for a book by a Civil War enthusiast is perverse.

  • Seventy five “Washingtons” for 335 pages…. I’ll throw rocks at that all day.

    However I’d take a “wait and see” approach to the content. Nothing short of the sub-title (“The Complete History”) indicates the work will attempt to cover much more than the military aspects of the battle. The chapter breakdown indicates about 75 pages reserved for the operational setting (perhaps too much for a focused study, IMO).

    The chapter breakdown indicates about 150 or so pages (about half) dedicated to the discussion of the battle. And sandwiched in between is roughly 50 pages discussing the plans, change of plans, and preliminary operations.

    Now what I’d look for, should the publisher send a copy my way (because I ain’t buying it for $75), is a discussion with a high level of clarity with regard to the decision switching from Ferrero’s Division within the last mentioned set of pages (the sandwiched ones).

    That said, the Crater is an interesting episode from the war, and with many different facets to it. While any account of the battle must take into account the racial preferences that played out in the planning and preparation stages, there are many other aspects of the battle which have received lesser light. Any “complete history” should also address the failure of leadership from Burnside down to Ledlie; Grant’s relative indifference to the plan initially; the predictions on the Confederate side as to intention and scope; and perhaps most importantly the failure at the operational level of the Union leadership to grasp the tactical situation as it evolved, while the Confederates seemed to have a complete handle on the situation.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      Craig,

      I agree with everything said in re: to the failure of command. I only emphasized the racial aspect since it has been so clearly ignored and/or distorted.

  • Timothy Orr Feb 23, 2009

    For those interested, a few weeks ago, I received a free, advanced copy of Schmutz’s book and I’ve already finished it. For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer my take on it. As a military history, it is quite good. Schmutz scours just about every known source on the Battle of the Crater and he makes excellent use of what he finds. He pretty much knows (or claims to know) where every single soldier once stood during that chaotic battle. He has a number of exceptional (and lurid) quotes that will hold the attention of any Civil War buff; and many of these quotes—in all my reading on the subject—I’ve never seen before. His interpretation is somewhat sympathetic to Ambrose Burnside and very antipathetic to George Meade. This unusual interpretation surprised me at bit, but I think he made a case to validate his opinion. The real problem with this book is its publisher. I hate to cast aspersions, but McFarland Press does a horrendous job of editing its manuscripts and, in my opinion, a great many straightforward spelling errors and grammatical problems never get removed. Unfortunately, this is the case with Schmutz’s book. If you demand perfection in your historical writing, don’t buy it. This sad deficiency seems to be the general trend whenever it comes to any of McFarland’s Civil War series. They are only readable if the author is a decent writer. If not, the book usually sinks to the lowest depths of indecipherable absurdity. Luckily, Schmutz’s writing is acceptable, just imperfect. At times, his details tend to inundate the reader and, I think, to a small extent, they detract from his story. For those expecting something akin the delicious prose of Gordon Rhea’s Overland Campaign series, you might look elsewhere. Also, the maps are in Schmutz’s book are horrible. McFarland desperately needs to hire some sort of historical cartographer for its Civil War series. Quite honestly, my six-year-old cousin could have drawn better maps of the battlefield. Since the Battle of the Crater sits on an NPS site that has lost some of its physical integrity (by which I mean the now absent web of trench lines and encroachment by the city of Petersburg), for the determined battlefield tramper, good maps are essential. I thought the omission of reasonable maps detracted from the overall flow of the book too. (My! My! What an egregious oversight!) Still, when all is said and done, I’m not sure this book can be bested. I cannot imagine anyone else has collected as much evidence or data as Schmutz has, so his work might stand out as the leading Battle of the Crater narrative for some time. Well, that’s my humble 450 words. Sorry if it sounded too much like a book review.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      Hey Timothy,

      Nice to hear from you and thanks for the assessment. I had a feeling from the toc that it would be a traditional military history. There is nothing wrong with that since it is still what most enthusiasts are looking for.

  • Timothy Orr Feb 23, 2009

    You’re totally right. McFarland has always struck me as an enthusiast press. Yes, there is nothing wrong with traditional military history–and Schmutz’s book definitely helps out–but I think the field needs more military history books that contextualize battles, as opposed to those that simply feed the public’s hungry maw for “guns and trumpets.” For now, we’ll wait patiently for Slotkin’s and your own books. (Sorry, I know you said not to mention your manuscript.) There’s always more to write about the Battle of the Crater. In no way has it been analyzed to its fullest potential. It is interesting that two competing books on the subject should come out during the same year, no? I wonder what caused that? . . . And I agree, $75 is too much for that kind of book. I would not have read it if it had not been free.

  • Robert Taubman Feb 23, 2009

    I wouldn’t pay $75.00 for any new history book.

  • Kevin,

    I’m scratching my head here trying to figure out what you might be alluding to that was missed by other scholars. Seems to me even the most pedestrian accounts of the battle cover the decision not to use USCT in the initial assault, as well as the brutal handling of the surrendering USCT soldiers at the crater. Can you elaborate a bit more on the racial aspects that may have been ignored with regard to the crater?

    Craig.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      Of course, the participation of black soldiers as well as their treatment at the hands of angry Confederates has been dealt with, but only in a cursory manner. Most traditional military histories (sounds like Schmutz is offering another) reference the USCT role w/o providing analysis of how their fellow white soldiers as well as Confederates viewed their participation in a post-emancipation context. Rather than say more here let me direct you to the following post: http://cwmemory.com/2007/04/09/corroboration-in-historical-studies-chandra-manning-and-the-battle-of-the-crater/

  • Kevin, I’ll just respectfully disagree you then. I feel the discussion of the racial issues with regard to the Crater have been discussed by enough people of letters that the subject is a well plowed field. I think nobody disputes that Confederate soldiers viewed the USCT as the embodiment of a threat to their society. And that the presence of the USCT on the battlefield emboldened the defenders is a long established fact. And we’ve seen plenty of work explaining the attitudes of white Union troops to the USCT. (Was it not Glatterhaar who covered this in the early 1990s?)

    On the other hand, the discussion of the racial issues might well have precluded a scholarly discussion battle itself from a strictly military standpoint. I guess if I made the case that General Pegram’s defense in depth was an fine example of tactical principles applied to reality in the field, I’d have to wash me mouth with soap. :-)

    Craig.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      Craig,

      Thanks for the follow-up. I pretty much agree with your comment. My point is that historians have yet to fully apply this analysis to the Crater specifically. Yes, Glatthaar does touch on white attitudes in Forged in Battle and he briefly touches on the other side in his more recent book. Others have noted this in passing such as Manning, who I cited in the post. I am pretty familiar with the literature on the Crater so if you can point me to a book-length treatment I would be very appreciative. One aspect of the battle that is usually passed over is the treatment of captured black and white soldiers and their march through Petersburg bound for prison camps. The men were racially mixed, which was intended as both an insult to the white officers as well as a reminder to the citizens of Petersburg of just what was at stake in the war by the summer of 1864.

  • Chris Feb 24, 2009

    “My guess is he saw Cold Mountain and decided to write a book about the battle.”

    Kevin why make this assumption? I too have a copy of the book, and it is thus far a very impressive study. The author did not approach the subject as you, that is obvious. Your comment seems just a tad bit condescending.

    However, I do agree, McFarland hopelessly dooms most author’s sales with overpriced books. Though I surprisingly did well my first quarter even with their hefty $45 charge for my simpleton and humble study.

    Cheers!
    Chris

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2009

      I agree that the comment is unfair. I was waiting for someone to call me on it. It just seems to me that the battle has received much more attention since the movie. Of course I could have made that point w/o being condescending. As for your own book I value Andrew Wagenhoffer’s reviews and he gave it high praise. You should be proud of your accomplishment.

  • Rebecca Feb 24, 2009

    So, how’s the manuscript? ;)

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2009

      Be nice. That must have been Pepper being naughty because Rebecca would never do such a thing.

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