War Game

Yesterday I came across yet another forthcoming book about the Civil War: one on the 1864 Battle of the Crater. Though not one of the war's most decisive battles, it is certainly one of the most memorable, the crater in question being caused after the Union army spent weeks tunneling under the Confederate position and then blew up explosives in an effort to catch the Rebels off-guard. That part of the strategy succeeded, but the Union followup was botched, and the final victory sought by the Federals had to wait (until the following year, in fact).

Whether Book World will assign the book for review is undecided as of this writing, and I am of two minds about it. As noted, the action could hardly be more electrifying, but we review a lot of Civil War books, most recently one on the siege of Vicksburg by Winston Groom of "Forrest Gump" fame. Yet readers seem to like the subject -- and publisher do, too, as evinced by the robust number of titles continuing to roll out. Paradoxically, there is something almost comforting about Civil War battles now. Virtually all of us have come around to see the war as a necessary, if horrendous, stage in our national development; and over time the big battles have taken on the aura of set-pieces on a game-board.

While the war was still going on, Robert E. Lee said, "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it." The Battle of the Crater cost hundreds of men their lives, and because the generals in charge screwed up again, those lives were wasted. But the tunneling and the planting of explosives were brilliant maneuvers, and it's hard not to rubberneck as the earth heaves open and the crater yawns. If we do assign the book, I hope that all of us -- reviewer, editors, readers -- temper our enjoyment by recalling Lee's caution to remember how terrible war can be.
-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  April 28, 2009; 9:30 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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