Sunday, July 05, 2009

Forthcoming---Richard Slotkin's No Quarter Well Reviewed

No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, Richard Slotkin, Random House Publishing, 432 pp., $28.00. July 30, 2009.

James M. McPherson: Having written an earlier novel and now a deeply researched historical narrative of the Battle of the Crater, Richard Slotkin knows more about this vicious and tragic fight than anyone. Particularly impressive is his ability to place tactical details in the larger military, political and racial context of the Civil War. The analysis of the role of black soldiers in the battle is the best such account anywhere.

Geoffrey Ward: In this harrowing, clear-eyed account of the battle U.S. Grant himself called ‘the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war,’ Richard Slotkin vividly evokes the brutal reality of Civil War combat–and recaptures the crucial role played by race in creating the Battle of the Crater’s special fury.

Publishers Weekly: Three decades after publishing a novel on the Battle of the Crater, Wesleyan professor emeritus Slotkin offers a historical analysis of an event meant as a turning point in the Civil War but remembered instead as one of its greatest failures. Most accounts focus on the slaughter of hundreds of black Union troops; Slotkin takes a broader perspective. The Crater was intended to draw on the Union's strengths, like the mastery of industrial technology, and the physical energies liberated by black emancipation. A regiment of coal miners dug a 500-foot tunnel under a Confederate strong point and packed it with four tons of blasting powder. A division of African-Americans was to exploit the blast to open the way to the Confederate capital, Richmond. The Civil War might have ended by Christmas. Instead, Slotkin describes a fiasco. Jealousy, intransigence, incompetence, and even cowardice among Union generals resulted in a combination massacre and race riot, as white Union and Confederate troops turned on the blacks. Slotkin depicts all this and the army and Congress's subsequent whitewashes with the verve and force that place him among the most distinguished historians of the role of violence in the American experience.

William C. Davis: Perhaps the finest Civil War novel of the past generation (yes, better than The Killer Angels) was Richard Slotkin's The Crater. It combined compelling narrative (which The Killer Angels had) with deep and scholarly research into the subject (which The Killer Angels did not). It may have been a fictional story, but the background context was very accurate indeed. How fortunate it is, then, that Slotkin, who is primarily an historian of the American frontier experience, has decided to follow up the novel with No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, which must surely be the best researched and most comprehensive history of the actual event that was backdrop to his novel. On July 30, 1864, forced into a siege around Petersburg, Virginia, in his effort to bring General Robert E. Lee to bay, General U. S. Grant determined upon a daring expedient to try to break the stalemate. The idea of digging a tunnel from one line of defensive works, beneath the intervening no-man’s land to the underside of an opponent’s works, and then setting off an explosion to blow a hole in those defenses, was not a new one. Grant himself had tried it at Vicksburg the year before, and the concept had been around almost as long as gunpowder itself. But there were a host of special circumstances around this tunnel, and the “crater” created by the resultant explosion. Slotkin goes well beyond just the rote military actions to look deep behind the act, examining the attitudes of Americans toward each other in 1864, the political situation faced by Lincoln in the North with an election coming up and a war that seemed endless, and the emergent factor of race in military events. Grant would, for military, political and social reasons, order that a substantial body of black soldiers participate in the assault into the hole in the Confederate works once the explosion created a breach. But he reckoned without what happened next. And what happened next is still controversial. Bungling by inept and simply lazy Union commanders was met by daring and resourceful Confederate defenders. And in an eerie reprise of the slaughter of the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment at Battery Wagner in 1863, down in that huge hole, thousands of black and white Union soldiers found themselves virtually “fish in a barrel” for the shooting. The aftermath, with recriminations and congressional investigations, is almost as dramatic as the July 30 fight itself. Slotkin’s research on the subject is deep and comprehensive, and his judgments mature. The writing is, as always, first class. And his concluding sentence must be one of the most telling and poignant in Civil War literature. It should only be read after reading the rest of the book first.

Text Source:

Author Bio: Richard Slotkin is widely regarded as one of the preeminent cultural critics of our times. A two-time finalist for the National Book Award, he is the author of Lost Battalions, a New York Times Notable Book, and an award-winning trilogy: Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation–as well as three historical novels: The Crater: A Novel, The Return of Henry Starr, and Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln. He is the Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University and lives in Middletown, Connecticut. (Text from Random House site)

CWL: Richard Slotkin's The Crater, is one of the best Civil War novels written in the 20th century. (Yes that is a very bold statement but it is true and the list of such novels is very, very short). Slotkin, an historian who has produced outstanding academic work, has written three novels, on others being Abe and The Return of Henry Starr. Now about twenty years after his novel The Crater he offers No Quarter: The Crater, 1864. CWL appreciates both history written for historians and fiction written for a wide range of readers; my undergraduate degrees are in English and history, the masters degree is in U.S. history. I do not tolerate trite or feeble storytelling. CWL hopes to read No Quarter before the end of the year and The Crater again before retirement.

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