Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Report--The Killer Angels

I have memories of the Gettysburg battlefield. Somewhere, I'm sure, I've got pictures because I remember wondering how best to compose a shot of the tall trees where Lincoln stood to deliver the Address. I remember the huge diorama of the battle, thousands of tiny troops pitched off against each other on a field perfectly matched to what we'd just been riding through outside, the setting for those awful days, early July, 1863. 

The Civil War battlefields I've visited look greatly alike, most of them developed and opened in the era of towering granite monuments. Here fell the boys of Iowa's 5th, or whatever; here, Wisconsin's Third; there, a heroic column of Virginians. Most I've visited look like broad cemeteries of particularly massive stones.

History is in the landscape, of course, but if you want to know the story you've got to read more than the inscriptions on monuments. Even a walk around that huge ancient Battle of Gettysburg diorama won't bring it all home.  A visit to the battlefield, no matter how well meant or perfectly planned, will get you only so far--you simply have to read.

Michael Sharra's The Killer Angels tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg so movingly that it will forever be the map by which I read the battle and its outcomes--and book is fiction. I love history, always have, always will; but Sharra's immensely compelling novel outfits the story in human flesh in a way that history books cannot. That's what fiction does.

For most of my life I considered Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1894) the best novel of the Civil War, largely because someone somewhere along the line--some teacher, I'm sure--told me it was. I hadn't read any others. Still, what Crane achieves in that novel is a testimony to the power of fiction because what he called his "psychological portrayal of fear" was undertaken and accomplished even though Crane himself was not a veteran and hadn't set foot on a Civil War battlefield. He did what fiction writers--he imagined the story, then outfitted it in human  flesh.

I wouldn't doubt that true historians would tell me my view is jaundiced somehow, but I will probably never think about Gettysburg again outside of the template fashioned by the central conflicts of this withering novel. The Killer Angels relies heavily on the journals of Confederate General James Longstreet and is, to a great extent, his story.

The conflict Sharra puts at the heart of things (there were hundreds of thousands of stories at Gettysburg, millions) is the story of two men, Longstreet and Robert E. Lee. Lee treasured Longstreet, who some historians call the greatest Field Commander on either side of the battle lines; and Longstreet worshiped Lee, as many do yet today. 

Their disagreement about tactics at Gettysburg is the dynamic that shapes action in The Killer Angels, as it did on the battlefield, a conflict between two brave and wise men, "killer angels," both determined to do the right thing. Yet, the decisions of these two great men determined how 157,000 would fight at Gettysburg, and how 51,000 of them would die.  

Longstreet thought Pickett's charge was suicidal. Lee considered that charge the only possible way the South could win. Lee was boss, Pickett charged, thousands died, and the Rebel armies withdrew. Lee was undoubtedly right: had Pickett broke through, the Union Army could have been routed. But he didn't, as Longstreet had guessed, and the Rebs--what was left of them--went home. That's the story Sharra tells.

Two men were utterly conflicted while making huge life-and-death decisions, not just about troops but the entire outcome of a war both understood hung in the balance. With that immense responsibility, both remained sworn to moral high ground. In Sharra's hands, they both are angels. Robert E. Lee wasn't pro-slavery; he led the Confederate armies, Shaara says, because the South was his homeland and its people were his people. Longstreet served Lee at Gettysburg, followed orders not because he thought "the old man" was right about the battle but because Lee was his superior and a man of unquestioned honor. The novel captures the dimensions of their profound tactical disagreement amid their commitment to righteousness.

The Killer Angels bounced around for quite some time before picking up a publisher because, well, some would claim that one doesn't really do history the way Shaara does. The Killer Angels is a novel, after all, a fiction, and not a history. But when in 1975 it finally found a publisher and a readership, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Last month, we stumbled on a tiny federal cemetery in Hot Springs, South Dakota, perfectly alabaster grave markers sweeping artfully over a hill, all of it honorably managed and perfectly manicured, the grave markers of war veterans, many of them from the Civil War, who came to the Veterans' Hospital at Hot Springs to spend their last days. 

The United States of America has lost just about 1,250,000 of its own in wars. Think of it: roughly half of those were killed in the War Between the States. The Hot Springs graveyard holds but a fraction. For a federal cemetery it's a tiny place.

I sat there by myself early one morning last month, amid the perfect rows. It's off the beaten path, hidden away on the outskirts of town; but if you're alone in the silence, it's as impressive a monument as you'll find on any battlefield.

Michael Shaara's highly celebrated Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, tells the story of several men in leadership at Gettysburg, all of whom were, in fact, exactly what he calls them. It's a great read and a great book.

1 comment:

Paul Fessler said...

You're spot on, Jim. The Killer Angels is the best historical novel of the Civil War...period. Of course, I'm writing as a historian but I also think it works so well precisely because it is so well written. The book remains on the US Army Chief of Staff's professional reading list (along with many other professional military reading lists) precisely because it does a great job capturing the motives and leadership styles of the men involved in the battle of Gettysburg. Of course, it is still fiction--but fiction researched meticulously---like the Flashman series or the Aubrey-Maturin nautical series (you should read those, if you haven't). Read the book over seeing the movie Gettysburg based upon it.

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