My Review of Newt Gingrich’s Crater Novel Published in The Atlantic

The Atlantic, December 5, 2011

Last week I mentioned that I went ahead and picked up a copy of Newt Gingrich’s new Civil War novel, The Battle of the Crater, at the insistence of my friend, Yoni Applebaum.  He suggested that I write a review and submit it to The Atlantic, which I went ahead and did.  Today the review is live on their website and I couldn’t be more pleased.  Thanks to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for reviewing it and especially for agreeing to publish it.  We are talking about cross-posting excerpts from specific posts on their site and I’ve been encouraged to go ahead and think about possible topics for future publication.

Welcome to those of you who have clicked through from The Atlantic.  If you are interested in commentary on the Civil War and historical memory you have come to the right place.  I’ve been blogging for six years now.  The subjects covered sit at the intersection of Civil War historiography, education, and public history.  I encourage you to take some time to browse the site.  You can join the Civil War Memory facebook page, which is a great way to keep track of the latest posts as well as other stories that relate to this blog’s theme.  Finally, click here for more information about my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Thanks so much for stopping by.

That Was My Head That Just Exploded

Lee and Jackson by Mort Kunstler

Scene set at Blandford Church Hill, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 1:45pm – July 30, 1864 in The Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen

“Finish it,” Lee said, looking at [William] Mahone.  “For heaven’s sake, they are cornered.  Bag the lot, and finish it.  If we wait until dark they will escape.  For that matter, I am stunned they have not yet brought up reserves to strengthen their line and perhaps threaten another section to draw us off.  I want it finished now, before they can launch another attack and stretch us too thin to hold.”
“Yes sir.”
“And General…”
“Sir?”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
“Yes, sir.”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his solider. “I want the full honor of war observed.  Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight.  We are Christian soldiers, sir.  Do you understand me?  Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle.  If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir”?
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.” [pp. 281-82]

Of course, there is no evidence that such a conversation ever took place and there is no evidence to suggest that Lee did not know or disapprove of the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle.  This is nothing less than a gross distortion of the battle even for a work of historical fiction.  Why this scene is necessary for their narrative will be the subject of my review.

A Crater Narrative That Does Not Offend

The Crater by Tom Lovell

I am almost finished reading Newt Gingrich’s co-authored historical fiction on the Crater and I have to admit that it’s not half bad.  The attack has commenced and not going well.  The book is almost entirely about the 28th United States Colored Troops with Major Garland White as one of its principal characters.   There are a few scenes set in Confederate earthworks and a very short section set in Lee’s headquarters following the explosion, but the rest of it focuses on the black soldiers with the help of a fictional character by the name of James Reilly, who works as a sketch artist.

Even without having finished the book, what is clear is that Gingrich and Forstchen do everything they can not to offend, which is quite an achievement given the nature of the subject.  Let me just give you one example.  All of you have read that the Fourth Division went into the battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  That reference appears twice in the battle sequence, but take a look at how it is framed by the authors:

There was no quarter.  The pent-up rage, the insanity of a world that had driven them to this moment, was unleashed, both sides screaming “No quarter, no prisoners! as they shot , cut, and slashed at each other. [p. 259]

Both sides were screaming foul oaths of hatred and rage.  Centuries of slavery and the cruelty and fear it engendered, combined with three years of bitter war with no end in sight, unleashed a pent-up fury on this day as both sides screamed: No quarter, no prisoners!” [p. 266]

They certainly were, but we also know based on the historical record that the black troops screamed, “Remember Fort Pillow.”  That, of course, is conveniently left out as is pretty much any reference to the racial hatred that animated Confederate troops during the battle.  There is a context for understanding cries of “No quarter” that animated the black men in blue that is crucial to this history.  They knew what was at stake if captured.  The same holds true for Confederates who faced the attack of the black troops as well as those who heard about it.  Their rage took a specific form that had its roots in white supremacy and fears associated with slave rebellions that extended back into the antebellum period.  Unfortunately, it looks like this theme will continue to be ignored in what remains of the book.  More later.

Newt Gingrich’s Crater

Update: After hearing from one of my readers I decided to pick up a copy of the book and write a detailed review for a major publication. Stay tuned.

One of my readers was kind enough to forward a review of Newt Gingrich’s new co-authored book, The Battle of the Crater: A Novel.  I am not a fan of Mother Jones, but the review is actually quite interesting and clearly reflects that politicization of one of the most racially significant battles of the Civil War.  No, I have not read the book and I don’t have any intention of doing so.  Consider the following:

The novel is intended in part to honor the black regiments that saw action at the Crater and help correct the narrative that says they cost the North the battle. (In fact, they nearly won it.) But in correcting one narrative, it whitewashes another, because none of the rebels we meet in Crater carry with them much animus to black soldiers. The only Confederate we see in any level of depth is a former journalist who, as a matter of principle, never owned any slaves. Our rebel points out, accurately, that not all black POWs were murdered—but that’s sort of splitting hairs when you consider that battlefield accounts describe white Confederates bashing in the skulls of surrendering and wounded black soldiers “like eggshells.”

I guess this is just what one would expect when the goal is to attract the African American community while at the same time not alienating white constituents, who are not likely to be interested in reading about how Confederates responded to the presence of an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  It’s not as if the authors didn’t have access to archival records; in fact, I came across the “eggshell” reference more than once in the course of my own research.

The significance of the battle for Confederates (both slave and non-slaveowners alike) has everything to do with its racial aspect.  Even a cursory glance at the archival record demonstrates that they did not make any effort to conceal what they did and why.  They wanted their loved ones back home to understand just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat.  It’s not just Confederate attitudes that appear to be ignored, but by Union soldiers as well.  Their response to the participation of the 4th Division was mixed as opposed to the consensus achieved by Confederates, but you can find plenty of blame and racial invective hurled in their direction.  [Of course, I go into great detail about all of this in my forthcoming book on the Crater.]

How far will Newt and Forstchen go to tailor a story to meet the demands of a presidential campaign?

Instead, the authors veer in the other direction. Gingrich and Forstchen even craft an imaginary scene in which General Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Southern honor, instructs his subordinates to make clear that black soldiers at Petersburg are to be treated like any other opponent. But there’s no historical evidence that Lee gave any instruction of the sort. Nor did Lee intervene in the immediate aftermath, when his army pushed to return black POWs to their former masters.

Even in the world of historical fiction this takes things way off the deep end.  There is no exaggeration in the passage quoted above.  At no point did Lee intervene in the immediate wake of the battle when it is likely that the largest number of black soldiers were massacred nor did he attempt to prevent the return of prisoners to former masters.  Why?  Because in the wake of emancipation and a protracted defense of a civilian population in Petersburg the July 30 battle reaffirmed nightmarish images of defeat at the hands of armed black men.

I guess none of this helps much in Newt’s presidential bid.

Remembering the Battle of the Crater Now Available for Pre-Order

Available from University Press of Kentucky, 06/12

Earlier this week I learned that my forthcoming book on the Crater is now available at Amazon.  Get it while it’s almost hot!

Description:

The Battle of the Crater is known as one of the Civil War’s bloodiest struggles—a Union loss with combined casualties of 5,000, many of whom were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Union Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The battle was a violent clash of forces as Confederate soldiers fought for the first time against African American soldiers. After the Union lost the battle, these black soldiers were captured and subject both to extensive abuse and the threat of being returned to slavery in the South. Yet, despite their heroism and sacrifice, these men are often overlooked in public memory of the war.

In Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War is Murder, Kevin M. Levin addresses the shared recollection of a battle that epitomizes the way Americans have chosen to remember, or in many cases forget, the presence of the USCT. The volume analyzes how the racial component of the war’s history was portrayed at various points during the 140 years following its conclusion, illuminating the social changes and challenges experienced by the nation as a whole. Remembering The Battle of the Crater gives the members of the USCT a newfound voice in history.

Reviews:

“Levin offers something new and valuable in this book. His approach of unpacking the complex telling and forgetting of the events surrounding one battle allows him a focus and specificity that even many very good treatments of historical memory often lack. Remembering the Battle of the Crater stands to make a real and lasting contribution to the field of Civil War memory studies.”–

Anne Marshall, author of Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State