William Forstchen and Newt Gingrich Massacre the Crater… Again

Today’s Washington Post features an essay on the Crater by Forstchen and Gingrich, which focuses on the men of the Fourth Division. You may remember that two co-authored a work of historical fiction on the battle back in 2011. Shortly after its publication I was invited by the Atlantic to review the book. Needless to say, the book has numerous problems even as a work of fiction, not the least of which is its failure to deal honestly with the well documented accounts of the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers. The authors also imagine a conversation between Robert E. Lee and William and Mahone in which the former orders that no captured black soldiers be harmed. There is no evidence of such a meeting taking place and even a fictional account has numerous problems.

This most recent co-authored article suffers from the same problem. While the authors emphasize the contributions of the black soldiers they once again avoid this salient aspect of the battle.

What ensued on July 30, 1864, at the Battle of the Crater was one of the most mismanaged tragedies of the war. The assault waves that did go in, leaderless and without orders, sought safety in the massive crater left by the explosion rather than pushing forward, thus giving Lee precious time to organize a defense and seal the breach. The brave men of the colored division watched with helpless rage and frustration as the chance to win an overwhelming victory was tossed away. In a final suicidal bid, they were ordered in anyway. Never in American military history have men gone forward into an attack that was so preordained to bloody failure. Yet they did go forward, and more than half were killed, wounded or captured in that last useless gesture.

What ensued that day was much more and you can’t begin to come to terms with the significance of this battle without acknowledging it.

As I suggest in my review it seems to me that the authors want credit for acknowledging a progressive racial past without alienating those who for whatever reason don’t want to be reminded of the darkest aspects of our civil war. Well, without it you haven’t climbed far at all out of the realm of fiction.

5 comments… add one
  • Steve Apr 25, 2014 @ 20:08

    if the Yankees in the crater had been white they would have suffered just as many casualties. The thought of blowing up the Southerners with an underground mine full of explosives is as repugnant as anything else. If Lincoln had not sent the troops here there would have been no war

    • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2014 @ 2:12

      Fascinating analysis, Steve.

    • Jerry McKenzie Apr 28, 2014 @ 8:32

      Mining is an ancient siege technique practiced by the Chinese and Greeks. The gunpowder part was added later on as technology gave us better ways of killing one another and evolved into other weapons. Where do you think the term “mine” comes from? The IEDs now used around the world are really just the technological progression of ancient mines. Also, the Yankees in the Crater wouldn’t have been murdered after their capture/surrender.

  • Ken Noe Apr 24, 2014 @ 13:24

    Remember, you’re talking about a guy whose only serious work as a historian involved defending the “benevolent” Belgians in the Congo.

  • Pat Young Apr 24, 2014 @ 12:15


    For blacks to be recognized as human, whites have to be remembered as humane. That’s the deal.

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