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War is the unfolding of miscalculations… Barbara Tuchman

Burnside was another political hack who played toady to Lincoln enough to be shoehorned into a command where nobody wanted him. Lee was, by training at West Point, a civil engineer and an expert at fortification. Lee, having learned his lesson at Gettysburg, prepared the Southern Capital at Richmond to survive by building entrenched positions for miles around Petersburg and Grant, having learned his lesson at Cold Harbor, sent Burnside south to confront him.

Seeking to curry favor with Lincoln yet again Burnside built a division of black troops to be first in the order of battle in attacking the Confederate position after he unleashed his version of shock and awe by mining the Confederate lines. The second guessing and rear echelon politics came into force. As Grant would testify:

General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.

As it was the white troops were completely untrained and the black troops who followed them were almost as completely lacking in leadership. The net result was that even enjoying a numerical superiority of 9,000 to 6,000 the union suffered 4,000 casualties to the South’s 1,500. The only small mercy was that Burnside never again held a combat command and although he would go on to be a Reconstruction senator from Rhode Island he passes into a well deserved oblivion with only his sideburns enduring Cheshire like in the dim recesses of memory.

Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, full-length studio portrait, standing, facing slightly left, wearing military uniform

Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, full-length studio portrait, standing, facing slightly left, wearing military uniform

No quarter : the Battle of the Crater, 1864 New York : Random House, c 2009 Richard Slotkin Petersburg Crater, Battle of, Va., 1864 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xvi, 411 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [381]-391) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Portrait of Maj. Gen. Edward Ferrero, officer of the Federal Army in charge of the division of United States Colored Troops [not considered regular army] who were to lead the attack but didn't.

Portrait of Maj. Gen. Edward Ferrero, officer of the Federal Army in charge of the division of United States Colored Troops [not considered regular army] who were to lead the attack but didn’t.

Slotkin recounts one of the Civil War’s most pivotal events: the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. At first glance, the Union’s plan seemed brilliant: A regiment of miners would burrow beneath a Confederate fort, pack the tunnel with explosives, and blow a hole in the enemy lines. Then a specially trained division of black infantry would spearhead a powerful assault to exploit the breach created by the explosion. Thus, in one decisive action, the Union would marshal its mastery of technology and resources, as well as demonstrate the superior morale generated by the Army of the Potomac’s embrace of emancipation. At stake was the chance to drive General Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia away from the defense of the Confederate capital of Richmond – and end the war.

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Inscribed on an attached piece of cream paper: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way’ along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their opportunity and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety.

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The result was something far different. The attack was hamstrung by incompetent leadership and political infighting in the union command. The massive explosion ripped open an immense crater, which became a death trap for troops that tried to pass through it. Thousands of soldiers on both sides lost their lives in savage trench warfare that prefigured the brutal combat of World War I. With cries on both sides of “No quarter!” In a final horror, the battle ended with the massacre of black troops by the Confederate troops in a desperate defense – and by their white comrades in arms, intensified by racial hatred, and exhausted from bleeding for a bankrupt political movement. The attack ended in bloody failure, the war would be prolonged for another year and the blacks had lost what little residue of sympathy they had in the north – a fact that would have consequences far beyond the battlefield.

Bushrod Rust Johnson, 1817-1880

Bushrod Rust Johnson, 1817-1880

With depictions of battle and character portraits of soldiers and statesmen, No Quarter re-creates in human scale the event mind-boggling in its cost of life. In using the Battle of the Crater as a lens through which to focus the political and social ramifications of the Civil War – particularly the racial tensions on both sides of the struggle – Slotkin brings to readers a fresh perspective on perhaps the most consequential period in American history.

Gen. John Pegram, full-length portrait, standing, facing left

Gen. John Pegram, full-length portrait, standing, facing left

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