MHQ Reviews: Cain at Gettysburg

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Cain at Gettysburg
By Ralph Peters. 432 pp. Forge, 2012. $25.99.

Reviewed by Noah Andre Trudeau

I confess to being a fan of Civil War fiction involving real battles. Over the years I’ve come to recognize three types. One alters some aspect of the engagement that changes the outcome, then plays with the consequences. Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1993) is an extreme example of this. Another type uses a battle or battles as backdrop to the personal odyssey of its main characters, as in Harold Coyle’s Look Away (1995) and its sequel, Until the End (1997), about brothers fighting on opposites sides of the Civil War.

Then there is military fiction that takes its history straight and employs the novelist’s prerogatives to boldly go where historians fear to tread by opening up the story in ways only hinted at in the historical record. These novels typically hew pretty carefully to the accepted flow of events but feature extended dialogue from real-life major figures and bring the reader into their thoughts. Common soldiers are present too, most often represented by composites. Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels stands supreme in this category, but Peters’s Cain at Gettysburg is a major new entry.

In his construct the spotlight is on Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and George Gordon Meade, with an array of subordinates and foreign observers making cameos. The composite Johnny Rebs are Tarheels in the 26th North Carolina, while the Billy Yanks are German-Americans from the 26th Wisconsin, a mirroring that Peters assures us was pure serendipity. (The Cain in the title is not a character, by the way, but a biblical reference.) The author’s note indicates that he drew from a solid roster of secondary history books on the battle.

Peters is also aware of the grand shadow cast by Shaara’s Killer Angels but argues that the novel stemmed from a time when “our military suffered low regard and citizens had to be reminded that towering heroes wore our country’s uniform.” Today’s battle novelists, he continues, “must demonstrate war’s horror and appeal, while depicting the complex humanity of those who shoulder rifles or lead armies.” This justifies his approach, though it doesn’t spare readers the visceral and scatological elements and unwashed bodies that Shaara kept mostly behind a scrim.

There’s no arguing history here since the novelist can pick or choose at will from the differing accounts, no matter their accepted veracity. I am disappointed that Peters opted to embrace the hoary legend of Confederate major general Henry Heth seeking shoes for his men to explain the battle’s beginning, and perpetuates the idea that Lee was “betrayed by his bowels” to excuse some of his command blunders. And I really wonder if everybody above the rank of captain knew the true origins of A. P. Hill’s periodic incapacitations. After all, the rest of us had to wait for James I. Robertson’s 1987 biography to learn about the effects of the sexually transmitted disease Hill caught as a young man to explain the times he relinquished corps command, especially when Lee very much needed his leadership.

But Ralph Peters is a master of his craft. His battle scenes unfold with lively counterpoint that mingles individual stories and destinies with appropriate touches of irony, tragedy, violence, and horror. He proudly carries a torch for George Meade, who, he believes, deserves more recognition for the Union victory at Gettysburg. I can second that.

If you like your dialogue earthy, your combat patterned after the opening of Saving Private Ryan, and a battle’s glory subsumed in a welter of sweat, blood, and untidy death, then Peters more than delivers the goods.

Noah Andre Trudeau is author of Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage and six other Civil War histories.

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One Response

  1. kenneth james

    reading final chapters of Pickett’s Charge right now. Don’t know how it will end. Hunt’s welcome doesn’t sound too friendly. Missed the well deserved tribute to Buford’s decisive courage for first day’s actions. Great read otherwise. Served with 125th Brigade at Nat. Park as Artillery Driver. Remember the Heat and the way the rolling powder smoke from single 6 gun battery hugged the swales and filled every dip in ground in front of “stone wall” I imagine the sounds and sights of the125th awakened the spirit of this Hallowed ground. A life time experience shared by only a few thousand in those pre internet days. The resources aren’t available to do those demo’s today or the units accurate enough to perform them. Guns aren’t the problem, lots of them but they will stand static and limberpoles propped bare of their motive power and majesty. The jingle of trace chains and bang of sponge bucket swinging at the trot. That echo is gone from this sight of Artillery’s awakened power. This is the place the lessons of Malvern Hill came home for good. Peters get’s this right with Hunt and Porter Alexander. Both robbed in their day of the significance of their actions. The credit they were due. What courage to load a pair of coffee cans of cannister with thousand yelling grey throats not 20 paces away, then 10, then on you to exact their just retribution for murder recieved.

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