Alan Axelrod’s Crater

The following review of Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, The Civil War’s Cruelest Mission is slated to appear in the Journal of Southern History.  Writing for the JSH does not leave much room to explore specific points in any detail, but in this case everything that needs to be said is included.  Anyone familiar with Noah A. Trudeau’s volume on the Petersburg Campaign will notice immediately Axelrod’s use of extensive quotes from the Committee’s Report on the Conduct of the War.  Axelrod also utilizes extensive quotes from various reports that make for a very choppy read.  I find this to be incredibly distracting.  It is the job of the historian to interpret for the reader and while I sympathize with the idea of allowing historic figures to “speak for themselves” I personally find it difficult to keep track of the author’s analytical points.  In the case of the Joint Committee Reports the inclusion of extensive passages can be misleading given the fact that the individuals in question are pointing the finger and covering their asses.  In this case analysis is essential.

The final year of the war in Virginia has received a great deal of attention from historians over the past few years. This can be explained, in part, by the move away from the Lost Cause assumption of the inevitability of Confederate defeat following the Gettysburg campaign; more importantly, however, historians are asking more analytical questions about the evolution from “limited” to “hard war” as well as addressing interpretive themes stemming from the “New Military History.”  The Petersburg Campaign and the battle of the Crater in particular offer an ideal case study with which to examine the relationship between the battlefield, home front, and politics along with important questions surrounding the introduction of United States Colored Troops to the battlefield.  Unfortunately, the battle of the Crater – best known for the failed attempt on the part of the Union Ninth Corps to break the growing siege of Petersburg by tunneling and detonating 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a massive attack – has received only scant attention by historians.  The publication of The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” (Lynchburg, VA, 1989)) by Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel remains the only book-length study of any merit, although its focus is limited almost entirely to the battlefield.   Although a timely release, Alan Axelrod’s similarly titled book adds very little to our understanding of the battle or how it fits into the broader campaign.

While Axelrod clearly intended to write for the general reader, even on that level this book falls short.  Analysis of the battle rarely moves beyond the basic outline of the planning and execution of the mine as well as accounts of the horrific fighting that took place on July 30, 1864.  Archival materials on the Crater abound, but unfortunately, Axelrod bypasses these sources altogether along with much of the secondary sources that are readily accessible to historians.  Instead Axelrod relies overwhelmingly on the Official Records as well as the reports from the Committee on the Conduct of the War; the result is a top-down picture that never penetrates to the level of the common soldier and his experiences both in the earthworks and in battle. The absence of research materials in this study makes it impossible to say much of anything about how this battle was experienced by the men on both sides as well as the residents of Petersburg who were directly affected by the fighting. The most significant oversight in this regard is Axelrod’s failure to acknowledge the importance of the presence of black Union soldiers, which Confederates clearly acknowledged as nothing less than a slave uprising and a threat to the South’s white racial hierarchy.   Analysis of the racial aspect of this battle can tell us much about the changing racial boundaries in both the North and South brought about as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Similarly, Axelrod offers very little analysis in terms of how this battle fits into the Petersburg Campaign or the evolution of the war through the end of 1864.

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4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2008 @ 6:07

    Richard, — Thanks for writing. If I was writing this review for a popular magazine I would have said something along the lines that it is worth reading as the most general history. Axelrod does lay out the plan for battle and does give the reader a sense of what happened during the roughly 6 hours of fighting. The jacket description is indeed a bit over the top.

  • Richard Giles Feb 23, 2008 @ 22:56

    I have recently finished reading “The Horrid Pit”, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am only a general reader, interested in history. I remember a history lesson from my childhood in England during the nineteen forties. The mine was discussed during the lesson, and my interest was aroused. The book gave me a good insight as to the why the disaster occured after the explosion. I am very pleased to have purchased the book, and it sits proudly on my bookshelf. The only thing that gets up my “hooter” is the inside cover preview. It states that the explosion was the most powerful military detonation before Hiroshima. I strongly disagree with that statement. I suggest that the mines exploded on 7th. June, 1917 at the start of the battle of Messines Ridge were far larger. If I remember correctly, the largest had forty-one tons of amatol in it. The crater is visible to this day and well worth a visit. As a matter of interest, not all of the mines exploded. I believe there were nineteen set. Two failed to explode. There whereabouts unknown after the battle. One was touched off by lightning in 1952 or thereabouts. One is still unaccounted. Beware when touring Battlefields.
    Richard Giles, Christchurch, New Zealand.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2008 @ 6:15

    Paul, — I do indeed. I’ve used Cavanaugh and Marvel’s book extensively for background material on the battle. Mike was very helpful at the beginning of my own project in pointing out potential sources, including his own extensive collection which he donated to the Pottsville County Historical Society in Pennsylvania. As I pointed out in the review Axelrod uses no archival material and very limited published sources. He constantly references _The Horrid Pit_, so much so that at times you have the feeling he was just paraphrasing from the book. Interestingly, Axelrod references one of my own publications in the bibliography, but never cites it in the narrative.

    Still, their book is also limited. Given its publication date it is not surprising to find the range of questions asked to be narrow. They don’t address a whole spectrum of questions regarding soldier morale, politics, and the significance/meaning of the presence of black Union soldiers. It is, however, and excellent tactical study. Hope that answers your question.

  • Paul Taylor Feb 22, 2008 @ 22:44


    Do you know how this book compares to Cavanaugh and Marvel’s book on the Crater? Even the titles are similar!


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