Interview: John Schmutz, “The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History”

1 11 2012

I did a brief preview of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History for America’s Civil War back when it first came out in 2009. At the time the format of my column paired books together, and I gave Schmutz’s book the edge over Richard Slotkin’s No Quarter. But I did take the book to task, as I did most McFarland publications, for its just-plain-silly price. The Battle of the Crater will soon be released in paperback and at a more reasonable $35. Since many folks may have been turned off by the price tag three years ago, I thought it would be fair to Mr. Schmutz to give everyone a little refresher on the book, and to that end John agreed to answer a few questions.

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BR: What can you tell the readers about John Schmutz?

JS: I am a native of Oneida, New York, and currently live with my wife of many years in San Antonio, Texas.  We have three adult children currently located in various parts of the U.S.  I hold a B.S. from Canisius College, and law degrees from both The University of Notre Dame and George Washington University.  Following a tour in the U.S. Army as a lawyer, I enjoyed a rewarding career as a corporate attorney, initially in private practice, and then as general counsel and a member of senior management for several public companies.  Given a long-standing ambition to one day find the time to write on the Civil War, I seized an opportunity to reduce my legal workload and became a founding principal in a business venture which ultimately allowed me the time and flexibility to do so.

While I had published a number of legal theses throughout my career, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History was my first full-length book.  It enjoyed considerable success when it was first published, and was highly regarded by reviewers generally.  The Civil War Times indicated that “[f]or anyone who sees the Crater as the decisive battle that could and should have been, this book will provide the long-awaited answer to prayers.”  Civil War News wrote that “Schmutz has set the standard for a study of this period of Civil War history.”  Civil War Books and Authors remarked that there “exists no great shortage of books and articles written about the … Battle of the Crater, but it’s safe to say none are remotely comparable to John F. Schmutz’s recently published study.”  Unfortunately, the publisher’s pricing ($75.00), placed a considerable damper upon retail sales, and was the one universal criticism of the work.  Thus, I was most happy to learn that sales of the book were nonetheless strong enough that a soft cover edition was just published at a much reduced price.

In addition to immersing myself in Civil War history and writing, I enjoy genealogical research, and reading generally.  I still do pro bono legal work for charitable organizations, as well as serving on several boards.  I am an avid golfer and sports fan and have a fascination for international travel, which my wife and I continue to indulge in whenever we can.

BR: What set you along the path to researching the Civil War?

JS: I have always enjoyed a deep-seated interest in all aspects of the Civil War.  I attribute this particular trait to my father and grandfather, both of whom were Civil War enthusiasts.  Some of my earliest childhood memories are of trekking around the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg, as well as listening to Richard Bales’ recordings of The Union and The Confederacy.  I remember at the age of seven taking my accumulated savings, about $.50, to an estate auction where I learned of a Civil War rifle that was on the auction block.  Needless to say, I did not complete that purchase.  However, my interest in the Civil War grew exponentially.  Early in my formative years, I was fascinated by Bruce Catton’s easily readable works, and later by Shelby Foote’s magnum opus, The Civil War, A Narrative.

When I became a parent, family trips with the kids would most often included at least one stop at a Civil War battlefield, regardless of the ultimate destination.  While I was serving on active duty in the Army in Washington, DC, I was part of a group which routinely walked the battlefields of Virginia, and hunted for relics (legally).  Some of my prized possessions remain those finds.

Throughout my career, I remained an avid reader of Civil War history, and dreamed of the day when I might find the time to research and write for myself.  In this regard, I was inspired early on by the example of a senior partner in the first law firm for which I worked, Alan Nolan, who published The Iron Brigade while he was still immersed in the practice of law.  This encouraged me that having chosen the law as a career did not preclude becoming a Civil War author.

BR: Why The Crater?

JS: Everyone who delves into the history of the Civil War has, on some level, heard of the siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater. My interest in this particular event as the subject for a book was based initially upon two factors.  First, the elements which went into making the narrative of this battle were both intriguing and utterly fascinating.  Secondly, through my genealogy research, I discovered that I had two ancestors who were involved in the action – one was a member of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, which ultimately became the first unit to enter the breach and, as a consequence, suffered horribly.  The other was with the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, which was in a reserve position during the fight, but still felt the effects considerably.

The promise of the action’s carefully devised battle plan was that the action would not only allow the Union to lift its siege on Petersburg, but hopefully would result in a favorable resolution of that dreadful war, which had by then had entered its fourth year, claiming close to 500,000 lives and countless wounded.  By that time, the conflict was sorely testing the very foundations of the republic, with many Northerners questioning the merits of its further prosecution.

Despite a total lack of support from the high command of the Army of the Potomac, and with a bevy of detractors, a mine of over 510 feet in length was constructed without utilizing any visible ventilation system which would have alerted the enemy to the project.  With very few exceptions, officers with any engineering experience had contended that completion of a mine of such length was impossible.  Upon its completion, everything was in place for the assault subsequent to the mine’s detonation to result in a huge military success.  The majority of the Confederate forces had been drawn away from the Petersburg lines by a massive diversionary movement on Richmond.  Fresh troops had been identified and trained to take the lead in assaulting the breach and rolling up any remaining Confederate opposition on both flanks of the breach.  The Federals enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority, and additionally, had two more corps to envelop the flanks of the breach once the assault started, further ensuring victory.  Given these extremely favorable conditions, all elements seemed in place to guarantee a solid, rather unmistakable Union victory.  Regardless, the battle ended in disaster for the Federals, with the magnitude of the defeat being decisive, almost too bitter to swallow.  As one of the Union officers engaged in the fight later proclaimed, it “was agreed that the thing was a perfect success, except that it did not succeed.”  Ulysses Grant, in command of all Federal forces, commented that this was “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.”  Instead of a decisive victory, the Union suffered a humiliating defeat and the bitter war waged on for almost another nine more months, claiming another 100,000 plus lives and countless more wounded and maimed.

The Battle of the Crater is one of the lesser known or understood, yet most intriguing battles of the Civil War.  It is set amongst the brutal and unendurable trench warfare at Petersburg, Virginia, which served as a remarkable foreshadowing of the situation faced by the adversaries in France fifty years later.  The battle itself, and the machinations leading up to it, present a plot worthy of the most creative piece of fiction – so much so that one might find  it incredulous if it was not entirely factual.  The plot has all the elements necessary for the weaving of a great novel – political considerations trumping sound tactical judgments, the commander of the critical lead element drunk and hiding in a bomb shelter as his troops passed into harm’s way, a titanic clash of egos and petty jealousy at the high command, and an unusually colorful cast of characters.  Add to this mix the employment of unique military tactics and movements, war atrocities, the destruction of the military career of one of the war’s most famous generals, the blundering of an officer considered the war’s worst general, and then throw in a Congressional investigation, and one has all the makings of remarkable novel, though perhaps one that strains credulity.  However, these elements are all documented facts.  Given all these considerations, my feeling is that I could not have chosen a better topic for a book.

BR: In a nutshell, who in your mind was ultimately responsible for the failure of the Federal operation that day?

JS: As I detailed in the book, Burnside was quickly set up to take the overall fall for the failure, and indeed, he fell quite short in his leadership that day.  However, blame can also be assigned to many throughout the Union command that day.  While there were a number of brave and competent regimental and brigade commanders who led their men into battle as best they could, there were few commanders above the brigade level who could be considered competent on that particular day, with the possible exception of Brigadier General John Turner.  Conversely, some were guilty of gross malfeasance, such as Brigadiers James H. Ledlie and Edward Fererro.  However, considerable blame should also be assessed to George Meade and his total disconnect with the actions that day, as well as his attempt thereafter to stack the deck against his subordinate, Ambrose Burnside.  Ultimately, Ulysses Grant has to bear a portion of the fault for not becoming even tangentially involved when he knew that the newly revised battle plan and its leadership clearly indicated that the situation was ripe for disaster.

BR: What does your book contribute to the literature on The Battle of the Crater?

JS: At the time I undertook my work on The Battle of the Crater, this intriguing subject had been dealt with only twice to any extent.  The first work, entitled The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” June 25-August 6, 1864, by Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel is part of the Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series.  It is a remarkable study of this most intriguing battle.  Then in 2002, John Cannan wrote The Crater: Burnside’s Assault on the Confederate Trenches, July 30, 1864, which was published in a paperback format as part of the Battleground America Guides, which contained additional reflections on the battle.  While both of these works are scholarly endeavors, they are both considerably brief in their presentation of the events leading up to the battle, and in the additional testimony of events by the participants themselves.  The Cavanaugh work consists of a mere ninety-four pages of text.  On the other hand, my book consists of 407 pages, with considerable explanation of the relative positions of the two armies based upon what had transpired in the two month’s leading up to the battle.  The mood of the country is carefully examined.  Additionally, considerable care was taken to bring in anecdotal material from the participants themselves, in order to give a perspective which is otherwise often missing from a discussion of the bare facts alone.  Combine this with graphics, maps and an easy to follow presentation, and this book provides the reader with a fascinating story that is sure to captivate him or her.

Following the publication of my book, there have been several other works on the subject.  However, in my humble opinion, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History remains the best study of the events leading up to the battle, the reasons for the Union’s  failure and the ultimate impact it had on the remaining course of the war.  That feeling is clearly borne out by a number of reviews.

BR: Can you describe the process of writing your book, and anything you turned up about The Battle of the Crater that particularly struck you?

JS: It took me a little over six years in research and writing to complete the book, with the majority of that time involving research and analysis.  In the process, I tried judiciously to maintain the role of an objective observer, letting the soldiers speak for themselves whenever possible, and sifting through conflicting evidence to reach what I felt were the true facts.  I had no preordained conclusion on the reasons for the Union’s failure to capitalize on what appeared to be a sound plan and the presence of overwhelming strength.   I did not encounter what I would consider to be “major” stumbling blocks in the research; however, there were considerable difficulties in locating the regimental histories for several key units.  In the case of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, the first unit into the breach, I finally located what appeared to be the only copy left in a small town library in Oregon.  I also encountered occasions where eyewitness accounts on a particular incident were diametrically opposed to each other.  In those instances, I had to undertake considerable background research to decide between these conflicting accounts, or, in some instances, to conclude that the truth was somewhere in the middle.

As I delved deeper into the background, I was quite surprised at the ineptitude of the Union command at that particular point in time.  It was, in my opinion, extremely dysfunctional at the time, and in the book I attempt to cite the many reasons therefor.  The backstabbing and distribution of blame following the battle made for an unsatisfactory conclusion for me, as did the court of inquiry orchestrated by Meade with Grant’s apparent blessing.  I finally felt that I had a satisfactory resolution when I wrote the chapter on the hearings and findings of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, which refocused fault to include the Union high command.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process, and the sources you consluted?

JS: Regarding sources, I am deeply indebted to a panoply of institutions and organizations.  Of particular note would be the Petersburg National Battlefield archives, the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina, the Virginia Historical Society, the University of Virginia Library, as well as the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library of that same school, the Museum of the Confederacy and the U. S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and a host of others.  I relied significantly on the Southern Historical Society Papers, the MOLLUS journals, and the Confederate Veteran Magazine for background materials in the development of my research.

Research has been rendered much easier with the proliferation of materials on the Internet.  One can locate a wealth of source material online and/or learn exactly where it may be obtained.  Many libraries were quite willing to copy files and furnish them at a modest cost once I identified the needed material from their respective online catalogues.  The Making of America website provides a wealth of information for research, including the entire Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, of which I made extensive use.  Unit histories were extremely important, and locating them sometimes proved difficult, as I have already mentioned, but this work was greatly aided by the Internet.

I began my generalized research with the battle itself as the topic, in order to get my arms around the subject matter.  Not having embraced the “notebook” method of note taking, I took my notes on loose-leaf paper, each limited to a single topic, with sources cited.  Once I fully grasped the subject matter, I began looking for unit histories to fill out accounts, and then broke the subject into specific categories for intensified research.  After about three years of this type of research, I commenced drafting certain chapters where I was confident that I had amassed all the material that was needed.  I did this to vary my workload and obtain a sense of accomplishment that there was, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel.  Otherwise, one could tend to bury oneself in the research, and easily become discouraged by the lack of an end in sight.

Once I sensed that I had a good grasp of the subject matter covered in the research, I began organizing potential chapters and pulling the whole thing together. I outlined each chapter with extensive subheadings, which might reach ten to fifteen pages in length.  Then, taking my notes, all of which had individual headings, I organized them by codes related to the subheadings of a particular chapter.  Then I began to write the narrative of each chapter using the organized notes. This process was tedious, and I went through a series of drafts on each chapter.  Once I pulled all the chapters together into a draft manuscript, I began the process of fine-tuning the manuscript into a free-flowing whole.  Again, this involved numerous drafts, and many months of intensified work.  Once I was satisfied with the content of the entire manuscript, I then began the process of pulling it all together in a readable narrative.  This process involved considerable cuts, which were often quite painful for an author who was immersed in his work.  Often, I would find in the process that more research was needed on a particular topic.

Finally, I reached the point where I felt that a complete manuscript had been obtained.  I then drafted a detailed book proposal to begin the process of identifying a publisher.

BR: What’s next for you?

JS: After writing a detailed account of a battle that lasted only a number of hours, I decided to change course and follow a particular unit through the entire Civil War.  Currently, I have a manuscript depicting the history of the Fifth Texas Infantry Regiment of Hood’s Texas Brigade at the publishers.  The book will follow this regiment of that fabled brigade from its organization in the summer of 1861 through the end at Appomattox and the long journey home following the war.  This intrepid regiment took part in just about every major engagement in the East, as well as Chickamauga.  The book is scheduled to be published in the late spring of 2013.

Good luck with that regimental history, John. And kudos for being the first author to use “panoply” in an interview here at Bull Runnings!


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1 11 2012
Harry Smeltzer Interviews Crater Author John Schmutz at Bull Runnings — The Siege of Petersburg Online

[...] Smeltzer has a lengthy and informative interview posted with John Schmutz, author of The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History.  Schmutz’ book is, in my opinion, [...]

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