Three books have been published on the battle of the Crater over the past two years and I have had the opportunity to review all of them. I reviewed Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit for the Journal of Southern History and my review of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater is forthcoming at H-Net. Before I left for Amsterdam I was contacted by Civil War Book Review to see if I might be interested in reviewing Richard Slotkin’s new study, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. On a personal note, all three books reference one or more of my own publications on the battle, which, of course, is nice to see.
Both Axelrod and Schmutz are heavy on tactical detail, but quite weak on interpretation, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Slotkin’s book since last summer. The title alone suggests that the issue of race is central in Slotkin’s analysis and a quick read of the preface confirms it:
Above all, the Battle of the Crater is worth a closer look because the flash of its explosion illuminates the centrality of race in the tangle of social and political conflicts that shaped American life as the Civil War approached its climax. Because of the racial elements, participants would remember this as the most intense and vicious combat of the war, and even the passage of time did not allay the bitterness it engendered. The animosities exposed on this battlefield were the same passions that would wreck postwar attempts to reconstruct the nation as a multiracial democracy.
I couldn’t agree more with Slotkin’s interpretation of the battle’s importance. Indeed, much of the focus of this blog and my own scholarship has been devoted to trying to better understand the importance of this battle within the broader narrative of race and memory in America. Any understanding of the battle’s significance must begin with the wide range of archival sources that show just how important the issue of race was to the men who fought in both Union and Confederate ranks.
It is with this in mind that I perused through Slotkin’s bibliography to find that he does not use any archival sources whatsoever. He does use a number of reliable published primary sources, but they pale in comparison to the content to be found in the letters, diaries and newspapers publishished in the wake of the battle. Make no mistake, I am only one chapter in and I am thoroughly looking forward to reading Slotkin’s analysis of the complex racial themes that must be untangled here, but I am disappointed with the range of sources utilized for such a project.