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Tuesday, May 01, 2012


History comes alive once again in Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortchen’s Battle of the Crater, a return to their Civil War interests in a novel that delves into an under-recognized episode in ego, shame, and politics resulting in the deaths of a great many brave men.  The authors’ feelings about the men who died there—many needlessly—were so strong that they established a foundation to create a memorial to them and to their sacrifice.

It is late in the Civil War, June, 1864, and around Petersburg, Virginia, the Union Army is mired in trenches and hounded by sharpshooters.  Lincoln is running for re-election against an anti-war faction, and he fears that losing will lead the United States into a death spiral, fracturing the nation and continuing slavery.

The disheartened Union Army’s morale is at an all-time low when a small group of Pennsylvanian soldiers, former coal miners, suggest tunneling under the Confederate-held fort and dynamiting it, destroying the Confederate stronghold and opening the road to Richmond. 

Few of the soldiers are eager to be part of this dangerous exploit, but one determined group of men is eager to continue the battle toward freedom and re-unification.  These men are with the United States Colored Troops, the USTCs, primarily free Black men who traveled from their safety around the country to fill the enlistment quotas of other states and to prove that they are Americans.  Only General Burnside, out of military favor at the time, has faith in them and wants to bring these troops into action rather than have them languish in menial duties behind the lines. 

The narrator of this story is an exhausted war-weary artist/journalist and personal friend and private spy for President Lincoln.  He embraces the plan as Burnside explains it.  He has also become a friend of Sergeant Major Garland White of the 28th USCT Regiment who will have a major role both as soldier and minister in preparing the troops for battle.

As the story unfolds, we get a close view of the conflicts of interest probably ever-present in most human beings and probably always present in times of war and in politics when one’s place in history is also the consequence—good or bad.  How does one look at the big picture and consider each individual move toward a desirable conclusion?  How does one get past the results of a bad decision and prove oneself capable again?  Can prejudices of a lifetime relax enough to see the truth when so much is at stake?  Can egos be sidelines long enough to see objectively?  These are not questions just for that time and battle; these are questions for all times.

Years of research went into The Battle of the Crater.  It is Gingrich’s and Fortchen’s first novel without the tweak in history (the change of one detail that leads to a different conclusion), and it is not only an exciting page turner but also a plea to recognize an episode long forgotten.

If you are looking for a great story, well-written, and set in an historical context, this is the book for you.  BTW, its length makes it a good book for travel.  It is available for both the KINDLE and the NOOK.  Enjoy it.

P.S.  This novel was published in Nov., 2011 by reputable St. Martins Press.  That was just about the time Gingrich was ironically being labeled a racist by his critics.  FORGET POLITICS AND READ this and their other historical novels.  You will not regret it.  Use Third Age Traveler’s search box, type in gingrich, and look at four other book reviews. 
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