What the Battle of the Crater Means Today

Company E, 4th USCT

When our Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence that it was a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they enshrined those words as an eternal principle for which the war for liberty would be fought.

A decade later, our Constitution aspired to create a system of self-government which respected both the equality and liberty of all. When the delegates could not agree on the question of slavery, the document fell short of that principle for too many Americans—especially African Americans.

Seventy-six years after the Constitution was written, in the middle of a Civil War to resolve at last its worst failure, Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and returned to the promise of the Declaration, recasting the struggle to save the Union and cementing the cause of our nation. America he said, was “dedicated to the proposition” of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal.”

One of many heroic groups of African American volunteers fought and gave their lives to prove that they were, indeed, created equal, nine months after Lincoln spoke those words.

A year ago, just after Bill Forstchen and I published our second novel about the American Revolution, Valley Forge, a suggestion came to us that we write a “traditional” historical novel about the Civil War. It had been five years since we last wrote on the Civil War, in our “what-if” alternative histories about the Battle of Gettysburg. With the 150th anniversary of that terrible conflict approaching, we embraced the idea.

The topic for the book was obvious from our first day of discussion. Bill’s doctoral dissertation was the first of its kind, an in-depth study and social history of a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment, the 28th recruited out of Indiana in 1863. Today, few Americans realize the critical role African American troops played for the Union Army in the last two years of the war. Many people are familiar with the story of the Massachusetts’s 54th, the heroic regiment at the center of the movie Glory, but in fact at least one in five soldiers wearing Union blue by the end of the conflict was African American. That number was far in excess of the proportion of the population they represented. 

As casualties increased in such terrible battles as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg, the Union’s ability to recruit white soldiers diminished rapidly. The war was the most horrific in American history; many battles had casualties in the tens of thousands. Today, such numbers are almost unimaginable, but it is easy to see why few were volunteering for these blood lettings.

For the brave African Americans who volunteered in droves, however, the cause was clear. They fought to save the Union and to end slavery at last, freeing family, friends, and many others still held in bondage.

Bill and I both agreed that we needed to tell their story. Bill had studied one regiment in detail for over two years, and had come to call it “his regiment.” We each feel that the words of the Declaration of Independence define us on a personal level, as we believe they should always define our nation. The forgotten chapter on which we agreed to write is one of the most tragic stories of their defense that our history has to offer.

The Battle of the Crater was the largest heavy combat action of the Civil War involving USCTs. It was a battle marked by intrigue, politics, and infighting among the high command. But more importantly, the story we wished to tell with our book, The Battle of the Crater, is one of heroism and even idealism on the part of men who for a brief moment believed their gallant action might end the war that day—nine months and many thousands of lives before history finally determined.

It is a story of high stakes political wrangling, with lives on the line. It is a story of high drama, of high hopes and dreams. It is a story of what is best about America, even when we fail to live up to those dreams.

For all these reasons, we see The Battle of the Crater as a book that rings true today, relevant to all those who want to understand more deeply the price others before us have paid for freedom. We write history novels like this one in part because we believe this is a message we grasp even better through telling the human stories of these brave men. It is a book, we hope, that can bring all citizens together, regardless of race or region, in support for those who fought there on that terrible day of July 30, 1864 and gave the last full measure of devotion.