The Battle of the Crater during the Civil War Battle for Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864 involved digging a mine under the Confederate lines of defense then putting explosives in the mine and setting it off. While the mine was being dug, African American soldiers of General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps were training to lead the attack on the Confederate defenders when the mine was blown, causing death and mayhem in the Confederate lines. Unfortunately, the original plans were changed due to racism and other issues. White troops who had not been trained to lead the attack were moved to go first and the African Americans were to follow. The attack devolved into a dismal failure.
Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had pushed General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia to Richmond and Petersburg, where his army dug trenches and arranged other defenses against Grant and Meade. The armies reached a stalemate, unable to move the other from their positions. Men in trenches and other positions took shots at each other, heads down to avoid being shot by snipers - pre-figuring the horrible trench warfare of World War I.
The Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, saw many soldiers blown up, killed, and wounded. The title of this book by Richard Slotkin, No Quarter, refers to what soldiers on both sides shouted as they attacked. The Confederacy had declared that black soldiers would not be honored as prisoners of war but as rebellious slaves who could be legally shot or captured and sold into slavery. The black soldiers of the Union knew this, having heard of the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, and did not expect any quarter from the rebels. They would not give any quarter in return. Many black soldiers were shot during the battle, and many wounded black soldiers were killed. Sadly, Union white soldiers also joined in killing blacks, who they blamed for the mess they were in and upon whom they took out their anger. Many white Union soldiers and officers were unsympathetic toward blacks; they saw them as inferior and a threat to jobs back home.
The racial conflict within the Union Army was but one reason the Battle of the Crater failed for the North. Much of the blame could be laid at the feet of the commanders at various levels of the army whose pride and cowardice led to animosity and non-communication.
Richard Slotkin has written nonfiction and historical fiction and is the Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University. While No Quarter flows well, it is not an easy read, full of copious historical details that explain why things happened as they did in this battle. Maps and a bibliography are included in this volume which is highly recommended to Civil War enthusiasts and those interested in African American history and racism.