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.