Jeff Shaara’s Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America’s Hallowed Ground
by Jeff Shaara, Ballatine Books, 2006, 288 pages, $18.95.
This book is truly a labor of love. The author explains that in his beautifully written introduction, which is the key to understanding the book’s purpose. It begins with the story of an emotional visit he made as a young boy, with his father, to the site of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Jeff’s father, Michael, went on to write the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Killer Angels, about that same battle. Unfortunately, the elder Shaara, who died in 1988, never lived to see his book become the most popular Civil War novel since Gone With the Wind and see his work portrayed on the silver screen as the movie Gettysburg.
Jeff has advanced Michael’s work with books like his prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels. But Civil War Battlefields, Discovering America’s Hallowed Ground is much more than a tribute to his father; it is also a passionate call for battlefield preservation. Shaara backs up this devotion by pledging a percentage of the profits from his book to that cause.
Shaara’s obvious focus on battlefield preservation makes this an unusual battlefield guidebook. He has shrewdly chosen the battlefields and arranged the book in such a way as to maximize its impact on preservation efforts. Most works on battlefield preservation begin with and stress the most endangered sites. Shaara takes the opposite approach, choosing some of the best preserved battlefields. Like a good minister, he is not so much interested in preaching to the choir as he is in making new converts. The battlefields covered here include Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania, New Market, Cold Harbor and Appomattox. By choosing the most familiar sites, he has geared his book to first-time visitors rather than diehard Civil War enthusiasts. The 40 maps are clear and easy to understand, and 70 well-chosen photographs sure to create a lasting impression on most readers. The modern views depict some of the most familiar and beautiful sites on these battlefields, while the period photographs drive home the horrific impact these battles had on the participants. Gazing at Alexander Gardner’s photo of Bloody Lane or a group of Union soldiers posing atop Lookout Mountain puts an unforgettable human face on America’s bloodiest war.
The narrative is also designed to intrigue Civil War novices and draw them in. Any tourist can obtain a pamphlet at these battlefields’ visitor centers, and Shaara carefully avoids making this just another tactical book. Each chapter is divided into three sections: “What Happened Here,” “Why Is This Battle Important?” and “What You Should See.” The author uses these sections to explain why each of the sites is important to our heritage by introducing the reader to the human drama for which these battlefields are simply the stage. The final section will entice even the avid Civil War buff, with intriguing information on sites off the beaten path. The book includes, among many other interesting side trips, the gravesite of “Stonewall” Jackson’s arm at Chancellorsville, the “true” High Water Mark at Gettysburg, and a trip to Lexington, Va., in the New Market chapter.
Some readers may be disappointed with the fact that only one of the many beautiful battlefields in Tennessee is chosen and that there are no sites from the trans-Mississippi West. It is obvious, however, that Shaara’s point is not to be all-inclusive but to sell the reader on the importance of Civil War preservation. The book is probably not the best guide for the die-hard Civil War enthusiast who has visited many of these sites innumerable times. But it is the perfect gift for a knowledgeable buff to select for a neighbor, friend or relative before a first visit to a Civil War battlefield. Shaara’s skill as a writer and his obvious passion for his subject will do the rest.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.