- - Thursday, June 30, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE DAMNED OF PETERSBURG

By Ralph Peters

Thomas Doherty, $27.99, 432 pages

 

How ironic that Lt. Col, Ralph Peters is concluding his epic Civil War series just as the prospects for a new one have never been greater. How tragic that ignorance of our greatest conflict has never been more profound, American history watered down while our campuses mandate self-criticism sessions to bemoan “white privilege.”

Contemplating the sorry state of our defenses from his perch as a Fox News military analyst, Col. Peters might well have concluded that contemporary Americans have forgotten that history is prologue. Yet he stubbornly persists in writing these compelling novels that graphically depict our greatest battles, waged on the very same soil we routinely convert into suburban shopping malls.

His latest release, “The Damned of Petersburg,” continues the current series: “Cain at Gettysburg,” “Hell or Richmond” and “Valley of the Shadow.” When Robert E. Lee’s army escaped after their defeat at Gettysburg, President Lincoln placed Ulysses S. Grant in command of all Union forces for a single overriding purpose: To prosecute a relentless war of attrition that finally brought the South to its knees. The battles around Petersburg in the late summer and fall of 1864 raised the curtain on this last act of our greatest American tragedy.

Both armies engaged in a bloody, sideways dance around Richmond’s outer defenses, the Union’s customary advantages in logistics and manpower constantly offset by bold countermoves improvised by Lee and his generals. After elaborate preparations, Union Army engineers built a large mine under the center of the Rebel defenses, intending to blast their way through those fortifications. What actually happened became known to history as The Crater, a perfect killing ground as Union brigades rushed into the pit rather than enveloping it on both sides.

“Flesh separated and flew. Hard men who would have killed for a swig of water sloshed though blood. More Rebs dropped over the walls before crashing into the backs of their fellow Johnnies. Unwitting men stabbed their own kind, while others were packed too close fighting instead with fists, claws and teeth.”

Yet Union Army Brig. Gen. William F. Bartlett witnessed something even worse: “His own men had turned on the Colored Troops mingled with them, shooting, stabbing and beating them to death” as martial discipline gave way to “pointless savagery.” If such scenes disturb you or if you find yourself troubled by politically incorrect prose, then this brutally honest account may be a difficult read.

Ralph Peters uses n-word freely together with its other obscene cousins, vividly conveying the intense language customarily used in a war fought inescapably about race. But he also introduces the reader to Lt. Col. Samuel Armstrong, son of missionaries and now commanding the 9th U.S. Colored Troops. “He taught (his men) to shoot and he’d taught them to read” in order to make them into “the finest regiment in the army.”

Their test came one torrid August afternoon while defending the Union line from a Confederate assault that was unpredicted and vicious, Rebel sharpshooters and artillery targeting black soldiers and their white officers with equal ferocity. As nearby Union units collapsed and ran, the Rebel assault focused on the 9th, “the end regiment, right flank of the brigade and the division.” Armstrong commanded his men to “refuse the line” and withdraw by intervals, a maneuver only the best-trained units could attempt without breaking. Not only were their enemies hard upon them, they were also “Thirsty for Negro blood. Unwilling to let them escape.” Despite those odds, Armstrong and the Ninth repeatedly repulsed their attackers, retreating in perfect order.

“As his soldiers approached the safety of the bristling Tenth Corps lines, he made the regiment reform and march the last 10 yards properly, colors high. And a miracle happened. White men in blue uniforms cheered the (Colored Troops).”

While Ralph Peters has an eye that any professional historian would envy, he is both a soldier and a fine novelist, constantly injecting life into his characters. One Union general has a command presence so striking that he seems, “like a rich man going into a bank.” In dialogues with their staffs, upper-class Southern Generals Robert E. Lee and Wade Hampton sound like the patricians they really were. But before the lines of Petersburg, Confederate Sergeant Johnny Sale ruminates, “Didn’t even think about living or dying anymore The Lord was his shepherd, that was enough. And he was one mean sheep.”

Either at the beach or from the comfort of a mountain hammock, a Ralph Peters novel makes a splendid companion. I only wish that more college professors would assign his books as mandatory reading. Perhaps with this provocative question: “Has Col. Peters written a work of history — or of prophecy?”

• Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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