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Book Review: A Worth Tribute, Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara -- CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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A WORTHY TRIBUTE

Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara is the "prequel" to his late father's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels. Ronald Maxwell, director of the movie Gettysburg, which was based on Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, was the prime instigator of the younger Shaara's efforts toward his new novel. We may hope that Maxwell will want to produce a movie based on Gods and Generals.

Is Gods and Generals as good as The Killer Angels? I think not, but it is nonetheless quite enjoyable and stands as a worthy tribute by a son to his father. The son's book is fundamentally different from the father's. It covers the span of time from late in 1858, when the war had become all but inevitable, to June 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg. Battle details, while not entirely absent, are not a main focus of this work. One can not imagine the professional military graduate schools using this as required reading, as in fact they have done with The Killer Angels.

Gods and Generals is, however, fun to read. There is a certain flow and sprightliness to Jeff Shaara's prose. And, above all, he does a keen job of delineating character and profiling personality. The reader comes to feel as though he or she is actually in the company of the various individuals who serially occupy the spotlight: Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Each chapter concentrates on one of these four main protagonists, except the chapters in which they interact with one another and thus share the spotlight.

Three of the four were professional soldiers, graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and men who had significant combat experience before the Civil War. Chamberlain was the exception, for he was a scholar, a college professor, and had experienced nothing of a military nature, save for some time as a student at a military prep school. But Chamberlain studied hard, worked hard, and transformed himself into a worthy commander. Not just anyone could have done that. One wonders if any or all of the other three main characters could have done so. But, then, how can we imagine any of them–especially Robert E. Lee–not having inclined toward a military career in the first place?

Lee is delineated as a man of great patience, intelligence, insight, and, above all, forbearance and composure. He had insight into the psyches (and perhaps the souls) of friends and foes alike. He is ultimately a man of sorrows, for he cannot achieve final victory for the cause to which he dedicated himself. But he transcends defeat. There is something cosmic about Lee.

Jackson, who died tragically before the Battle of Gettysburg, perhaps depriving the South of the scale-tipper it lacked in the Civil War's Great Turning Point, is above all else a man who strove to do his duty to God. He was a brooding, mystical, sort of man–not exactly likable. But people admired him, respected his obvious ability as a soldier, and many of them came to love him for his glorious performances on the battlefields of the Civil War.

Hancock was the long-suffering professional soldier, whose capabilities were well apparent to his contemporaries, but who lacked the push and self-promotion (or political bootlicking) qualities that probably would have impelled him to higher ranks and prestige in the antebellum army. But his superiors during the Civil War, notably George B. McClellan, realized from the first that Hancock was a real soldier and they earmarked him for high responsibilities.

Chamberlain may well be the North's counterpart to any of the South's "natural military geniuses," such as perhaps Nathan Bedford Forrest or James J. Pettigrew. And, had Chamberlain not chosen to leave the army after the war to resume his distinguished academic career, he perhaps could well have been–like Alfred H. Terry (also a New Englander)–a truly self-made professional soldier.

Jeff Shaara has done a nice job in telling the stories of the four protagonists. The reader cannot help but feel a degree of familiarity with these compelling characters. Shaara has learned an impressive amount of facts about the men and events his novel covers. There are some evidences of but sophomoric mastery of the latest scholarly insights by Civil War specialists, but there are no glaring errors and rather few apparent infelicities. Overall, Gods and Generals is a fine piece of Civil War fiction.

Herman Hattaway

University of Missouri-Kansas CityOTHER BOOKS

* A History of the Confederate Navy by Raimondo Luraghi, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 552 pages, $39.95. Luraghi searched 50 archives in four countries in putting together what may be the first truly comprehensive history of Confederate efforts at sea.

* The Army's Navy Series by Charles Dana Gibson and E. Kay Gibson, Ensign Press, Camden Maine: Assault and Logistics: Union Army Coastal and River Operations, 1861-1866, 680 pages, $45; and Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels: Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army, 1861-1868, 416 pages, $43. Painstakingly detailed reference books for serious students of Civil War naval history.

* Orthopaedic Injuries of the Civil War by Julian E. Kuz and Bradley P. Bengston, Kennesaw Mountain Press, Kennesaw, Georgia, 76 pages, $9.95. A plastic surgeon and an orthopedic surgeon explore injuries and treatments in an illustrated book for readers without medical expertise (but with strong stomachs).

* Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 358 pages, $37.50. A coauthor of The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow chronicles the Confederacy's desperate attempt to stop William T. Sherman's devastating march through the Carolinas.

* Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston by Edward Manigault, edited by Warren Ripley, University of South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, 394 pages, $16.95. Major Manigault's diaries provide a detailed description of artillery training and day-by-day coverage of 13 months at the front with one of the Confederacy's few siege artillery units.

* In Search of Confederate Ancestors: The Guide by J.H. Segars, Southern Heritage Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 118 pages, $15. Segars, a historian and descendant of J.E.B. Stuart's Cavalry Corps troopers, tells where to look for Confederate records and how to find them.

* Admiral David Dixon Porter: The Civil War Years by Chester G. Hearn, Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, 400 pages, $35. Hearn, a noted naval historian, attempts to give Porter, the controversial, hard-fighting hero of New Orleans and Vicksburg, a place among the war's foremost naval commanders.

* Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy by Elizabeth Steger Trindal, Pelican, Gretna, Louisiana, 304 pages, $26.95. A biography of the boardinghouse proprietor who was hanged, perhaps unjustly, for conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

* The Confederate Order of Battle, Volume One: The Army of Northern Virginia by F. Ray Sibley, Jr., White Mane Publishing, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, 496 pages, $80. A meticulous listing of corps, divisions, brigades, regiments, batteries and separate units of the Army of Northern Virginia and its predecessors.

* Lucy's Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein's Brain: The Remarkable Stories behind the Great Objects and Artifacts of History, from Antiquity to the Modern Era by Harvey Rachlin, Henry Holt, New York, New York, 414 pages, $25. Among the 53 relics Rachlin examines–some serious, some bizarre–are six related to the Civil War, including Lincoln's death bed and General Dan Sickles's leg.

* Southern Pamphlets on Secession: November 1860 to April 1861, edited by Jon L. Wakelyn, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 448 pages, $45. The writings of 20 Southerners offer insight into the origins of an enduring, heated debate.

* What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War by Mike Wright, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 336 pages, $24.95. An award-winning television writer tries to rescue Civil War history from the clutches of droning, uninspired history teachers. CWT

Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara, Ballantine Books, New York, New York, 512 pages, $25.




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