The Crater


The Crater



The Crater recreates, with panoramic scope, a substantial setback in the Army of the Potomac's efforts to end the American Civil War decisively. On July 30th, 1864, during the siege of Petersburg, Union troops clandestinely dug a 500-foot tunnel under Confederate lines and detonated enough gunpowder to leave a 100-foot gap in their defenses. Yet the subsequent Union assault failed; the few soldiers who trickled into the crater (many African-American) were mercilessly shelled to death in what one witness called "a cauldron of Hell." The siege continued, and the war dragged on for another eight and a half months. Emphasizing the points of view of what seems like all the men who took part in the ill-fated endeavor, Slotkin paints a vast, detailed portrait not only of the "Battle of the Crater," but the whole spectrum of mid-19th-century American society. Freed slaves, Jewish jay hawkers, "Molly Maguires" (Irish Pennsylvanian coal miners), northern industrialists, and generals and commanders on both sides all jostle for attention in this painstakingly elaborate literary reenactment, although the use of flashbacks and the prodigious inclusion of military communiques slows the novel's pace somewhat. Most Civil War novels concern themselves ultimately with the reconciliation of the American republic; The Crater focuses on the bleaker issues of race and class which defined the remainder of the 19th century. From its meticulous depiction of Irish-Yankee antagonism during the tunnel's construction to the needless sacrifice (and subsequent scapegoating) of black troops in battle, the novel portrays the War between the States not as the end of the sectional crisis, but as the beginning of a socially divisive industrial order. --John M. Anderson



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The Crater