In The Killer Angels, author Michael Shaara wrote what many consider to be the greatest novel of the Civil War ever written. When you consider that this company includes both Gone With The Wind and The Red Badge Of Courage, you realize you’re talking about some pretty heady company.
After Shaara died, his son Jeff picked up the mantle and began writing books in the same format and style as his father. Jeff Shaara doesn’t get a lot of points for originality since his style is virtually indistinguishable from that of his father, but he does score with his novels nonetheless.
Gods And Generals is Jeff Shaara’s prequel to his father’s The Killer Angels. The latter book focused entirely on three days in July 1863…the three bloodiest days in American history, at a tiny town in Pennsylvania that has become synonymous with all that is horrific in, and all that is honorable about, war: Gettysburg.
Gods And Generals starts just as the Civil War is about to begin. Fort Sumter has not been shelled, but war is in the air and seems inevitable. The book ends as the Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, begins his march north towards Pennsylvania and the turning point of the war. In between are battles at Harper’s Ferry, two battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Antietam and, acting as the centerpiece of the book, the horrible carnage of Fredericksburg and the confusion and incompetence that turned Chancellorsville into a humiliating Union defeat.
The battles are described with an historian’s eye for accuracy, and a storyteller’s eye for narrative. The problem with this book, and almost any book that attempts to describe the mass confusion generated by hundreds of thousands of men hurtling themselves at each other, is that there is so much going on at any given time the narrative can become confusing. The Killer Angels was remarkably coherent, which may explain its reputation. Stephen Pressfield’s Gates Of Fire was also an amazingly detailed, yet easy-to-follow, view of the battle of Thermopylae. Ditto Stephen Harrigan’s brilliant novel of the titular battle in The Gates Of The Alamo. In Gods And Generals, the overall narrative is sometimes lost in the thirst for accuracy and the seeming need to cover all bases.
It’s difficult to criticize the book, however, because in general it is so well done. Shaara may be copying his father’s style, but he does so flawlessly. If the descriptions of troop movements are a little confusing, there are maps to help out. If it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between many of the supporting characters, you can take solace in how well the main characters are drawn. I don’t know if there’s a finer portrayal of George Washington in fiction than in Jeff Shaara’s The Glorious Cause. In Gods And Generals, he applies the same fine brush to paint convincing portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson especially, but also Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Hancock on the Union side.
With Lee and Jackson, we feel the astonishment as one inept Union general after another blows one opportunity after another. What should have been a decisive Union victory at Chancellorsville, one that may even have ended the war two years and hundreds of thousands of lives earlier, instead becomes a panicked retreat from a vastly outnumbered Confederate force. What could have been a Union victory at Fredericksburg instead is handed to Lee’s forces on a silver platter: Lee’s forces sweep in and occupy the high ground while the Union forces are prevented by their leadership from crossing a shallow river because they don’t yet have pontoon bridges in place. Poor leadership on the Union side was so rife; it’s no surprise that Lee and Jackson genuinely believed that God was on the side of the South. One can only wonder what history would be like if Lincoln had not brought in Ulysses Grant to take over the Union forces.
There is talk early in the book about the why of the Civil War. As a college professor, Joshua Chamberlain pontificates about slavery as he makes his decision to enlist in the Army. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are both opposed to slavery, but view the encroaching war as an attack on the sovereignty of Virginia. For them, the issue is not slavery, but the right of individual states to make their own laws. These arguments largely disappear once the battles begin. I suppose that there is honesty in that. Contrary to what you’ll find in B-movies galore, my guess is that the average soldier rarely spends too much time debating the geopolitical events that landed him in a trench at Fredericksburg, or the Somme, or Bastogne, or Baghdad. But as a reader of a historical novel, it would have been good for Shaara to have the horrific battles of the Civil War placed in some context. Slavery was unquestionably the catalyst for the war and the main evil that the war was fought to address, but it was not the only issue. Without the exploration of these other issues, Lee’s and Jackson’s decision to take arms up in support of an institution they both abhorred seems odd.
As the war begins, many characters struggle with the idea of what to do. Many of the Southern military leaders were in the U.S. Army when hostilities erupted, and had to make a choice whether to stay loyal to the country, or their home state. Nowadays that seems like an odd thing about which to be conflicted, but at the time people considered themselves first off as citizens of their state, and secondly as citizens of the United States. In many ways, the Civil War was the bloody culmination of the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Federalists won the debate in 1787, but Anti-Federalism was a way of life for many Americans outside of the immediate orbit of Washington, D.C., especially down South. The snake in the cotton fields of the South, of course, was slavery. While it was understandable that slavery was not outlawed by the Constitution when it was first crafted in 1787, the price of this compromise would be long and brutal.
A little more…not too much, lest it become tendentious…of the why of the war would have placed these combatants in the middle of a cause where they were fighting for what they believed was right, rather than subjecting them to the hail of musket fire and the end of the bayonet blade for reasons that many modern readers might find murky.