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STONEWALL JACKSON: THE MAN, THE SOLDIER, THE LEGEND
By James I. Robertson Jr.
Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99
On May 11, 1863, General Robert E. Lee issued General Orders No. 61, officially announcing to the world the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson. Lee was emotionally paralyzed from the loss, confessing to his son Custis Lee with desperation, "I do not know how to replace him." As subsequent campaigns painfully indicated, Lee indeed failed to fill the enormous void the tactical genius Jackson left behind, and the Civil War's final 23 bloody months unfolded as American history illustrates, arguably shaped more by Jackson's absence than by his presence. Stonewall Jackson's death in the midst of the May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville - accidentally shot by his own men and later fatally stricken with pneumonia - has always sparked more fascination with its effects on the Civil War than with the life Jackson lived before the conflict. Admirers from around the world and over the past 135 years have understandably deified him and his spectacular achievements, but as with all recollections and analysis of a fascinating individual, the true character can be blurred and marred by emotions or ulterior motives, by political objectives or personal agendas. James I. Robertson Jr.'s mammoth masterpiece, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, is the bulwark against this tarnished, flawed legacy - easily the finest portrait ever created of the mighty Confederate general.
It's so easy to lose the true colors of Thomas Jackson in the brilliance of history's celebration of his achievements. Unfortunately, for an aspiring student of the general, Jackson failed to leave very much behind in the way of military papers. The general was uncommunicative and secretive in his campaigns, reporting only to his superiors with sparse frequency. He preferred to focus his letters to his wife on either his undying love for her or his earnest appreciation of what the Almighty Lord had enabled him to accomplish on the battlefield. Consequently, the majority of what history does know about him comes from witnesses to his life - primary participants and observers - whose accounts for the most part can be taken at little more than face value. These accounts set an inaccurate foundation for future historians to build upon, to be used over and over again and unfortunately add scholarly legitimacy to.
But Robertson has endeavored to set the record straight on every issue in Thomas Jackson's life, from his battlefield decisions and his character traits to legends borne from the life of a man many simply never understood. He's drawn the line in the sands of history, fed up with unsubstantiated claims and empty anecdotes. He's utilized an astounding amount of material, from never-before published military dispatches and obscure letters to a recently discovered carte de visite and countless diaries. Robertson has discarded all but the bare essentials of his work, carefully evaluated what he found and elegantly reconstructed the sharpest image ever produced of Stonewall Jackson. Myths are shattered and swept away, anecdotes mentioned, mercilessly criticized and discarded. Fresh, intriguing interpretations are offered with tantalizing common sense. Robertson defends Jackson as often as he condemns him, never turning away from an opportunity to present the most even-handed portrait of an ordinary soldier which warfare enabled to become a great commander.
Robertson begins his initial portrait of Jackson with dark, gentle strokes, the prose easily eliciting both the reader's laughter and tears. Thomas Jackson's early years were marked by tremendous loss, loneliness and paralyzing sorrow. Fatal illness and financial problems shattered his immediate family soon after he was born in 1824, with various other hardships sweeping away all but his sister Laura in subsequent years. Thomas Jackson was astute enough to realize the academic limitations of rural West Virginia, and he saw an education from West Point as the cornerstone to a better life. Sheer luck afforded him an appointment and a last place on the list of eligible entries. No doubt the most ill prepared of any of his classmates, Robertson tells us, here is where the roots of what Jackson learned as a child began to benefit his life: personal responsibility, sheer hard work, unwavering solid determination. Over the next four years, Jackson would gradually improve his standing among the class of over 200 cadets, and graduate 17th out of 204, first in conduct. The Mexican War followed, and Jackson, as an artillery officer, unfurled his true martial colors in the most contested engagements. Promotions and commendations steadily nurtured his young career. Robertson points out that Jackson experienced a much deeper transformation than a baptism by fire in Mexico - Jackson discovered of the comforts of religion. Catholicism intrigued him at first, but he sought a simpler method of worship. However, as Robertson asserts, "the seeds of an active faith were now sown." When the Mexican War ended, Jackson left Mexico with a proficiency in Spanish and a deep love for country, its history and its people. Tours of duty in New York and Florida followed. A sharp disagreement with his commander in Florida's Fort Meade culminated in Jackson's resignation from the U.S. Army. Jackson accepted a professorship at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, where, as Stephen Sears once wrote, "he did poorly teaching everything except obedience."
Robertson's greatest accomplishment in this work is how well he can humanize Thomas Jackson, someone history has depicted as so fantastic as to be mythical, seemingly beyond common comparison. The strongest example of Robertson's success is his illustration of Jackson's life in Lexington. Jackson fell in love with Elinor Junkin, who married him and died after giving birth to their stillborn son. The ways Jackson expressed his love for her, the happiness he felt when she'd enter a room, the enveloping joy Jackson experienced with Elinor, was a turning point in his life, and Robertson recollects it so tenderly, so respectfully, so gently. The death of not only their son but of his wife shattered Jackson, who wished for himself an end to his own life in the midst of his understandable depression. Robertson includes a lengthy poem Jackson wrote to his wife's memory that is heartwrenching in its earnest simplicity.
The transformation in our perception of Thomas Jackson is the key to Robertson's endeavor. This "is not a biography of a great general," he writes, "it is the life of an extraordinary man who became a great general..." One who reads what Robertson has created can no longer view Jackson as the Stonewall, but as a man who suffers as we do from a shattered heart, a man who relishes a woman's love, and a man who must learn to accept God's will through trust in His wisdom.
Religion is what would salvage Jackson's soul and mind, Robertson writes. An even deeper immersion in Presbyterianism convinced Jackson to trust in God without fear or doubt. Such a belief would be key to his success in the years to come.
Jackson would eventually learn to love again, this time with Mary Anna Morrison. As America began to polarize into Union and Confederacy, they married in 1857.
Jackson was one of the first few Confederate commanders who pushed for a full scale immediate invasion of the North, a strike so deep into the heart of the Union that any doubts of Confederate military superiority would be smashed. In the meantime, fame and a nom de guerre awaited him on the Manassas battlefield.
Jackson's tactical philosophy was simple: strike hard, strike quickly, strike repeatedly. Pursue the enemy when he retreats, and let no one escape. With God on our side, who can stand against us? Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.
Robertson places us alongside Jackson as the Civil War erupts. We join Jackson at the Battle of Bull Run as the Confederate forces falter and watch him "standing like a stone wall." We watch Jackson's endlessly fascinating Shenandoah Valley campaign unfold, with its exhausting marches of "foot cavalry," the utter incompetence of Union generals in their efforts to destroy the outnumbered Confederates, and Jackson's indomitable resolve to win at all costs. Robertson's personification of Stonewall Jackson at this stage is dazzling. The transformation from taciturn VMI professor to fire-eyed warrior is presented as such a natural process in Jackson that he actually becomes a man to be truly feared in any age. Jackson was a key player for General Robert E. Lee in the next major battles - the Peninsular Campaign, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville - all but one major Confederate victories, the last being Lee's gorgeous tactical masterpiece. Robertson's detailing of clashes with arrogant subordinates, of vivid little anecdotes, and of the battles themselves are truly entertaining and are a wealth of excellent, reliable micro- military history.
It was not enough that Stonewall Jackson was bold and a willing risk-taker in combat. It was not enough that Jackson and Lee formed a matchless team. It was Jackson's fanatical belief in his religion that fired his military brilliance, his actions and motives, his very character as a battlefield commander. It was key to understanding the man behind the sparkling stars of a lieutenant general. But, as Robertson points out, such a commitment to involve religious beliefs in command decisions would backfire for Jackson more than once. His secrecy and refusal to explain himself to his subordinates would lead them to angrily accuse him of insanity or incompetence, comically calling him "that crazy old Presbyterian fool" or "that enthusiastic fanatic."
What Robertson has created here is a masterpiece of biographical literature. It is clearly written, always very readable and entertaining, and certainly the standard to which every subsequent biography of Stonewall Jackson will be compared. It perfectly embodies the marvel that Jackson has: as a man, as a soldier, and as a legend. Jackson will never seem the same to the reader at the end of this enormous work. Perhaps he'll seem more of a good friend and teacher than just an empty name in a history book. And perhaps that's the way it should be.
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PERSONAL MEMOIRS OF U.S. GRANT
Author: Ulysses S. Grant, edited by Brooks D. Simpson
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99
"Grant's whole character was a mystery even to himself," wrote Major General William T. Sherman of his friend and commanding officer in the American Civil War: Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant. A mystery indeed. Only President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate General Robert Edward Lee challenge Grant's aura as the most fascinating, the most inspiring, yet the most deeply enigmatic architect of the Civil War. But Grant has something Lincoln and Lee do not -- an autobiography. Lincoln was assassinated at the end of the war and Lee died of a stroke five years later. But Grant lived on to become president of the United States, an international celebrity and a surprisingly excellent historical writer. In Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (a new edition edited by Brooks D. Simpson), Grant illustrates the essence of his historical significance -- his role in the Civil War -- with a simplistic, elegant style unmatched in American biographical history, and shares with the reader a tantalizing self-assessment of his conflict-ridden life.
Mark Twain, an old friend of Grant's, learned of Grant's book deal with Robert Johnson, co-editor of Grant's military memoirs project, and was incensed by the underappreciation Johnson placed on the memoirs' potential. Twain appointed himself as Grant's publisher in part to protect his friend from making a financial mistake.
But finances had become the least of Grant's worries. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, and Grant realized his window of opportunity and his life were quickly coming to an end. The memoirs were finished on July 14, 1885, 11 months after they were begun, and Grant died nine days later.
Still considered among the greatest military biographies ever and easily an American classic, the Personal Memoirs of US Grant made about $430,000 for the Grant family.
So what did Grant leave to history? According to Simpson, "People still remembered Grant as a war hero and were willing to overlook the sometimes unfortunate years of the presidency. It was as a soldier he won the hearts of America and as a soldier he remains a great historical figure."
Ulysses Grant was a plain, quiet man who took situations and problems as they came. And his life was mostly one of failure and boredom. He fought in two wars, served two terms as president, toured the world and, at the end of his life, Grant realized the time had come to deal with the past -- the past that mattered to American history.
He fought the Civil War on the ideals the situation called for: relentlessness, constantly taking the initiative, focusing on success regardless of the price. He knew his enemies, knew what they were capable of and knew what they were fighting for. Grant respected the Confederate soldier, but said the cause he fought for was "one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."
Grant feared failure more than death. He admitted not wanting to go to West Point only because he thought he lacked the abilities to remain at the academy. He feared turning away from his first Civil War engagement in Missouri simply out of not having the "courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on."
But he seemed to place value on having such a humane emotion, remembered that his enemy was just as human as he was, and just as fearful of him. That was the underlying theme to every one of Grant's endeavors, from the ramparts of Chapultepec to the battlefields of Virginia and the Oval Office. Conditioned and hardened with constant failure, Grant had nothing to lose in his pursuits, and usually everything to gain. Grant began the memoirs in New York City, but was later moved to a health resort in Mount McGregor after a hemorrhage.
"The prose reflected the man," Simpson writes. "The quiet wit, the small smile and wink, the simple confidence in self -- all come through in Grant's words. ... He reminds us that true courage lies not in being oblivious to one's fears but in overcoming them." A month before he died, Grant wrote of his work, "These volumes are dedicated to the American soldier and sailor." Many would agree that American courage and excellence will always be dedicated to him.
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DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Morrow and Company, Inc.
Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99
Everyone remembers his eyes glazing over in grade school when the Civil War was mentioned in history class. I was no different. Ignorance was bliss when it was of something I couldn't have cared less about (thank God all that changed). "The Civil War? Let's see ... lots of people died foolishly shooting at each other at nearly point-blank range. Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Appomattox ... um ... Lee, Lincoln, Booth, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, US Grant ... uh ... oh, yeah! That movie Glory, right? Black soldiers. Um ... what else?"
Historical ignorance -- Civil War ignorance -- is exactly what Kenneth C. Davis attacks creatively with Don't Know Much About the Civil War. This is the newest addition to his Don't Know Much About ... series of books, which are designed to make important subjects easy to understand without insulting the reader's intelligence.
Seriously concerned with the general public's quantity and quality of knowledge of America's bloodiest war, Davis begins with an obvious preface: the Civil War has not truly ended. The military engagements may have ended at Appomattox and Palmito Ranch, but the fighting continues to this very day. Citing incidents in government and in everyday life only as far back as 1994 -- Disney's failure to build an amusement park near a major battlefield, Richmond's disputes over a statue of black tennis celebrity Arthur Ashe erected next to Robert E. Lee, constant congressional and judicial arguments over the power of the states -- Davis reminds the reader of the deep racial and sectional divisions that still exist in this country, a sociological affliction the Civil War dealt with but never came close to resolving.
Not that he has all the answers, but Davis feels the best way to understand and appreciate the monumental influence the American Civil War has on today's America is to study it correctly, not through the romantic images of Gone With The Wind or crippling ridiculous myths cradled by historical apathy.
This fine book is basically a crash course in Civil War history, beginning with slave owners founding this country, through the political fire storms and national instability as the country grew to the brutal civil war and vicious Reconstruction. Davis begins each chapter with common (and some ludicrous in their ignorance) questions, and endeavors not only to answer them, but to carefully weave them into his tour of the subject. He introduces us to the problems created by the tolerated slave trade, the ambiguities in the Constitution and the creation of new states. Encapsulating the eras into timeliness after a detailed overview of the situations, Davis covers a lot of important ground.
Davis doesn't lurch forward or dwell too long on specific events, rather, he's selected the most important problems that led to war, and circling around those, he analyzes them simply and efficiently before moving forward. He introduces us to the main characters of the Civil War story with interesting mini-biographies peppered with anecdotes and little-known facts.
And Davis shows us the fun in reading about the thrilling events in the Civil War -- the dramatic relationships between generals, the bizarre coincidences, the fascinating characters, the families torn apart, the fools and the geniuses, the humor and the tragedy, the triumphs and the failures.
He quotes generals and privates, housewives and politicians, journalists and poets, sprinkling them through the narrative that adds dazzling color and rich emotion to the events.
Davis also dispels myths and asserts disputed claims, no doubt drawing on both recent information and neglected historical fact. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball, though he was the first to fire a Union shot at Fort Sumter. Jefferson Davis was not wearing a woman's dress when caught by Union soldiers, though the amused White House officials perpetuated the claims to further humiliate Davis.
As he closes the book, Kenneth Davis returns to the characters that propelled or were propelled by the war, concisely summing up their postwar lives.
He also presents an appendix of the era's most important documents, from the Declaration of Independence and the Dred Scott decision to the Gettysburg Address and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and includes an excellent annotated bibliography of the Civil War's finest academic works.
Kenneth C. Davis's Don't Know Much About The Civil War is a great book for someone who doesn't want to get too involved with the Civil War subculture, but who appreciates the underlying allure of this exciting tragedy. Davis's purpose is to have his readers come away captured by strongest attractant of this war: it was all a true story, and definitely, the greatest American story.
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LEE: THE SOLDIER
Editor: Gary W. Gallagher
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99
Stepping into history's firefight over Gen. Robert E. Lee's military ability is an action not be taken lightly. For more than 125 years, well-stoked passions over historical admiration and crucifixion of Lee have riddled his legacy to the point where someone uneducated in the vast debate would have no idea where to start the study.
Until now. In Lee: The Soldier, a wonderful bouquet of 21 fascinating essays, Gary W. Gallagher provides a firm foundation for any brave soul willing to duck the firefights and view Robert E. Lee with a fresh, objective perspective.
As editor, Gallagher assembles for the Lee novice an impressive range of thorough analyses and sharp opinions, with articles from Lee's own generals, his co-workers at Washington College, foreign and domestic military officers and contemporary historians.
Gallagher has divided the compilation into four sections. The engaging prologue consists of William Allen, Edward Clifford Gordon and William Preston Johnston recalling their intimate conversations with Lee. As president of Washington College in the late 1860s, Lee speaks candidly to his former officers about his Civil War campaigns. He describes the intricate details of the most decisive battles, comments on the effectiveness of those under his command and rebuffs the inaccurate remembrances of others.
Lee is gradually revealed to be a man still obsessed with his actions, deeply regretting his mistakes and notably depressed over the results. He laments the lack of an authoritative history of his Army of Northern Virginia and the future of a ravaged South in the new American order. It is from within these flawed but fascinating firsthand accounts that the reader is introduced to their complicated and conflicted subject.
Part Two is a broad assessment of Lee as a soldier and a commander. Gallagher gently begins the descent from unequivocal support to vicious condemnation, beginning with Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, one of Lee's most important subordinates. To his own men, Lee appeared to have a larger-then-life aura, the paragon of martial excellence. Early's mini-biography of Lee's life is classic piece of Lost Cause literature and the finest testament to this odd but understandable adoration.
But foreigners, though thoroughly impressed with the general, tended to regard Lee in a cooler adulatory light. British journalist Francis Lawley, after spending several months with Lee and his senior staff, favorably assessed Lee's abilities but judged them inferior to those of Frederick the Great and Napoleon. And Viscount Wolseley admired Lee's unreproachable character upon meeting him in 1862 but also recognized his flaws.
Opinion of Lee degenerates with military historian George Bruce's sharp criticisms, analyzing Lee with a Northern contempt akin to scorn for a guerrilla leader. Eminent Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman's elegant prose eases the edge of his critique, but he's careful not to succumb to Lee's historical halo in his evaluation of Lee's strategic perceptions. Thomas Connelly and Albert Castel bring on the first real analytic firefight. Connelly mercilessly abuses Lee's military credibility and his complete ignorance of and apathy to Southern problems in the Western Theater. Castel hits back, citing holes in Connelly's analysis and conclusions, accusing him of "flimsy data and dubious analysis" and comically comparing his assault on Lee with Burnside's hapless assault at Fredericksburg.
The heart of Lee's detractors lies within Alan T. Nolan's famously critical Lee Considered, a book from which Gallagher has included the largest chapter in this compilation. The book asserts that Lee's audacity and ferocity in battle "bled [the Army of Northern Virginia] to death." Gallagher and William C. Davis make less abrasive contributions to this chapter.
Part Three analyzes Lee's performance in specific battles. Ten essays veer back and forth over his tenure in combat command, touching on Antietam, Gettysburg, the Seven Days, the Wilderness and his final defeat at Appomattox.
Carol Reardon warns historians not to allow McClellan's famous ineptitude during the Peninsula Campaign to eclipse Lee's less-than-stellar performance. D. Scott Hartwig bemoans the unfulfilled potential of Lee's first invasion of the North that culminated in the Antietam standoff. Robert K. Krick celebrates Lee's genius at Chancellorsville. James Longstreet, Lee's second-in-command after Chancellorsville, admits that Lee's genius worked against him at Gettysburg. Longstreet's most bitter enemy, the aforementioned Jubal Early, responds to Longstreet's allegations with the coldest diction in the book.
Seeking a middle ground between the two polarities, E. Porter Alexander, Longstreet's artillery chief, offers a dispassionate view that all were to blame at that battle but that all should be commended for their unparalleled gallantry. Freeman, Nolan and Gallagher return, in uniform agreement that Lee could have acted more effectively and closer to character at Gettysburg. Lee had overdone himself at Gettysburg, acting brashly and impulsively at the wrong times, though he is not alone in their indictments. And Noah Andre Trudeau closes out the discussion by illustrating an intriguing destabilization that Lee's fury on the battlefield had on himself and on his army.
Part Four is excellent simply because of its invaluable collection of works. T. Michael Parrish, an LBJ Library archivist and a noted Civil War historian, has compiled an impressively thorough annotated bibliography, setting the bricks for the second, third and fourth steps a Lee novice may take once captivated by the aura of the man.
Lee: The Soldier is the ideal encapsulation of the maelstrom of arguments, compliments, worship and deprecation that swirl over Lee's place in American history. It is within this hurricane of opinion that the true character of Robert E. Lee lies: the ultimate truth for a historian to discover. Gallagher's excellent book is the first step in that odyssey.
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GODS AND GENERALS
Author: Jeff Shaara
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99
Historical fiction novelists have it tough. Not only do they have to keep the facts of their historical foundation straight, they have to weave their colorful imaginations over and under those facts in such a way that they don't bring the whole structure of credibility crashing down.
Thankfully, Jeff Shaara accomplishes that task surprisingly well, considering Gods and Generals is his first work of historical fiction. In this excellent new novel, Shaara maps out the lives of four Civil War commanders --Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Joshua Chamberlain, Winfield Scott Hancock and Robert E. Lee-- from their scattered, mind-numbingly boring assignments in 1858 America right up until the commencement of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.
With the exception of Jackson (arguably), all of these gentlemen are key figures in the outcome of that three-day Pennsylvania engagement, generally considered to be the Civil War's turning point. So if they were so crucial in the shaping of a critical point in American history, why does Shaara not even mention Gettysburg or their participation in it?
Shaara doesn't have to. His father, Michael Shaara, already took care of that more than 20 years ago with The Killer Angels, the magnificent masterpiece that focused exclusively on the 1863 battle and the individuals commanding the 122,000 soldiers there. Gods and Generals has been written as a prequel to the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner, and Michael Shaara's son has written a work that rightly earns its place alongside his own. As he weaves the four biographies together, Jeff Shaara arranges before us not only those four individuals, but entire new generations of future soldiers coming of age: individuals born into the American realization of a slowly polarizing country, growing up watching Southern institutions attacked by abolitionist wildfires and "capitalist" greed, their society painfully evolving outward and upward.
Most of these martial generations, layer by layer, year by year, somehow work their ways to and through the West Point Military Academy, interact with their Northern and Southern brothers, make friendships they thought would last forever, receive their baptisms by fire side by side in the Mexican War and then find themselves trying to kill each other 15 years later.
Shaara characterizes the four complex men in bold, loving strokes, careful not to deify them nor to completely justify them. Thomas Jackson is portrayed as a fiercely devout mathematics and artillery professor at the Virginia Military Institute, hopelessly searching for the "ultimate truth" to his life.
Jackson is a man torn between the reality of a dead child and a depressed wife, and the fluctuating strengths of his bitter belief that God has directed his life toward a predestined fate. Jackson can only wait for such a fate, and he dutifully follows his heart into the Civil War, convinced God's Great Answers, and final peace of mind, await him on the other side.
Joshua Chamberlain is a brilliant young college professor, at home in the snow-covered hills and thick forests of Maine, teaching four subjects and speaking five languages, overjoyed with the warmth of a close-knit family, but depressed with the limits his ambition has finally discovered. Chamberlain seeks more from life, a greater enlightenment from his existence, and finds nothing but monotony ... until the Civil War begins. Pursuing a belief that war will be the ultimate test of his character, he sheds his academic and domestic shrouds for the silver oak leaves of a lieutenant colonel and the secondary command of the 20th Maine Regiment. With a determination to master military matters as deftly as he has done with everything else, Chamberlain leads his men into the awkward, vast massacres of the Civil War battlefields.
Winfield Scott Hancock is an Army captain in charge of the Department of Southern California. He has been stationed in the growing dusty village of Los Angeles, with only himself under his command, and ordered to keep Mexican troublemakers from the small Army depot down the street. Hancock's wife, Mira, is his only source of strength as he helplessly watches his beloved country and his cherished army collapse and turn against themselves. He longs for the moment when he will be ordered east to fight the United States' new enemies, but cringes at the moment when he will have to accept his best friends as those enemies.
And Robert Lee, a lieutenant colonel commanding the 2nd Federal Regiment of Cavalry in Texas, is a man illustrated with the deepest turmoils. He is a devoted father who agonizes over his absence from his family, but finds relief only in spending more time with his bored troops. He's loyal to his home soil of Virginia, but can only conceive of himself as one of the last loyal American officers among a swirl of fervent secessionists. He's a man torn between the multi-faceted morality of friendship and blind devotion to one's duty. But when finally confronted with the choice between duty and family, he chooses the latter.
His refusal to command the US Army at the Civil War's onset destroys the very life he had spent 30 years constructing in an attempt to repair his family's smirched reputation. Lee returns to Virginia and reluctantly assumes command of a Confederate state militia, very sure the coming war will not be as short as the politicians promise.
As we walk alongside these men, Shaara peppers their lives with a rich, delightful menagerie of Civil War history's most notable individuals: John Brown, George H. Thomas, Sam Houston, James Buchanan, Winfield Scott, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, Joseph Johnston, Joseph Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, D.H. Hill and Hunter McGuire. Some are friends, some are enemies, but all are darkly entertaining and bizarre in Shaara's characterization. I had one concern about this book, and that was how Jeff Shaara would write it. His father wrote The Killer Angels with a flowing, colorful, sensual exuberance, in a way in which you could feel the cold morning rain, the relentless July heat, the exhausting rigor of endless combat, the depression of failure and the joy of victory. Shaara, as I feared, seems to try to copy his father's diction, and while I admit it was a noble effort, it was also a slight disappointment. He falls short of his father's unparalleled talent.
But that's fine. Jeff Shaara's Gods and Generals is an excellent novel of the war's most interesting and important figures. People who loved The Killer Angels will revel in this prequel. And those who have yet to take their history classes should worry. Professors may assign both books in the coming semesters.
And so we leave Chamberlain, Hancock and Lee in 1863 as they reorganize their men after nearly two years of combat, one side discouraged and the other solidly self-assured, and move north with their men toward the quiet little town of Gettysburg, Pa. But, as Jeff Shaara finally reminds us with a warm remembrance, "that is another story..."
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