Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen provide a gritty and fascinating novelization of an infamous conflict in the Civil War in "The Battle of the Crater." Here's an excerpt.
Arlington Virginia: The Estate of General Robert E. Lee
June 6, 1864
“Here they come, parson.”
Sergeant Major Garland White, 28th United States Colored Troops, turned from his labors and looked to where Jeremiah Smith, a private from company A, was pointing north to the road leading down from the “Iron Bridge” across the Potomac.
It had been raining most of the night, a slow steady drenching downpour out of the east. It had done little to drop the temperature and now added to the misery of the men of the 28th who had been out toiling by lantern light since midnight. The Potomac was concealed beneath coiling fog and mists rising up from the river, shrouding the capital city on the opposite shore.
The first of a long line of ambulances, emerging out of the mists, was drawn by two mules, ghost like in the morning light, followed by another and another, mud splashing up from the hooves of the mules and the wheels of the wagons.
“Back to it, Jeremiah. I want it dug straight.”
“Ain’t no difference, parson, we be filling it back up shortly.”
He put a fatherly hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder, guiding him back to the hole, seven feet by three and supposedly six feet deep.
“It’s not parson, its sergeant now,” Garland said. “Do as you are ordered; back down there you go.”
Jeremiah looked at him sullenly, as Garland released his hold on Jeremiah and reached down to lend a hand to Private Thompson, who had finished his half hour stint in the hole.
“Come on Willie, take a quick break, there’s hot coffee under the tarp,” and he helped the private, covered head to foot in warm clinging mud, out of the ground and pointed to where the regimental cooks had ten gallon vats of the brew waiting.
“Thank ya, reverend . . . I mean sergeant sir.”
“I’m a sergeant, not a sir, save that for . . .” He almost said, ‘your boss man,’ but caught it. “The officers.”
Taking Willie’s shovel, he handed it to Jeremiah and helped him slip down into the hole.
“Hurry it up, men,” Garland announced, stepping back, his voice carrying to the rest of the regiment. “They’re almost here, and I want this done right and proper now.”
“Sergeant, damn it, it’s like trying to shovel out the Wabash River.”
Garland turned, struggling to control his anger as he gazed down at Corporal Turner in the next hole over. He bent over at the waist, fixing the corporal with an icy gaze.
“Corporal Turner,” he hissed, voice pitched low, remembering it was not proper to reprimand another noncommissioned officer in front of the men, or the officers for that matter. “I will not tolerate profanity in my presence. Next, I will not tolerate profanity on this ground which is consecrated and . . .”
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“Damn it, I will not tolerate beefing from someone who is supposed to lead. If you don’t like that, corporal, you can climb out of there right now, take off those two stripes, and I’ll find someone else to wear them.”
He gazed down at the mud drenched corporal.
“Do I make myself clear, corporal, or is it private?”
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“You can stay down there and keep digging until I tell you different.”
Turner said nothing, though the next shovel full up, more water than muddy earth, landed within inches of Garland’s feet.
Garland turned away and noticed that Lieutenant Grant was looking his way. The lieutenant gave a nod of approval and turned away, going back under the tarpaulin where the officers of the regiment had gathered, while the men labored.
Grant had wanted to actually ‘dig in’ with the rest of the men of his company, but as the detail started their labors in the pouring rain, he had heard Colonel Russell, commander of their regiment, restraining him, saying that this was an enlisted man’s job and besides, he had to keep his uniform relatively unspoiled for the brief ceremony which would commence in a few minutes. Grant was a good man, a three-year veteran of the war, who at heart still acted as if he was a sergeant. He led by example and Garland deeply respected him for that, even though he was not much more than a lad of twenty.
He left Turner’s hole, and continued down the long line – a long line of seventy-one graves.
Seventy-one graves for seventy-one men – men who had died the previous day in the dozen military hospitals that ringed the city of Washington. Seventy-one graves for men wounded in the grueling campaign which had started exactly one month ago today, on May 6th. Seventy-one graves for men transported back across rutted roads and aboard hospital ships from the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna, and according to the newspaper reports, a new battlefield just six miles short of Richmond at a place called Cold Harbor. Graves for men who had survived all that, only to die in Washington and now be buried here.
Excerpted from THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen (published by Thomas Dunne Books). Copyright Ó 2011 by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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