Gettysburg 150: The Book That Made Me a Civil War Geek

I’ve never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I’m a pacifist with the fact that I’m a major American Civil War geek.

Though I’m a major geek, I’m not a Major — that is, I don’t participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I’ve been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I’m not able to do either.

I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father’s proud literary footsteps.

This movie follows the structure of the book very closely, and like the book is awesomely good. You can tell how good the movie is by the seriousness of the actors, primarily Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger as James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain, Sam Elliot as John Buford and Stephen Lang as George Pickett. (You know a work of cinema is great when it inspires its own cast to pinnacles of method acting — The Godfather had this quality, and so did The Sopranos, and Topsy-Turvy by Mike Leigh). Gettysburg aims for a greater degree of historical realism than most war fictions (as did Michael Shaara’s novel), and is beautifully photographed on the actual battlefield in the southern central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, which sits tucked under the northernmost curve of the Blue Ridge mountains.

I’ll be visiting this town on a big and hopefully raucous family vacation all next week. This week is a big deal in Gettysburg: the battle took place on July 1, 2 and 3 in 1863, so the 150th anniversary of the massive battle will take place next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ll be posting dispatches from the field … assuming a messenger can get through.

Both the movie and the book explore the psychological turbulence that drove the various commanders during the amazing three-day battle of Gettysburg, which claimed fifty-one thousand casualties. Four stories interweave. First, we have flinty Union Cavalry officer John Buford noticing and thoughtfully occupying the hills northwest and southeast of the town of Gettysburg before the battle begins, realizing that these hills are the best high ground any army could hope for, and determining to grab it. Buford is forced to lead a delaying action against the entire Confederate Army on the northwest hills on the morning of July 1 as the battle begins.

Next, we have Confederate General James Longstreet, Lee’s most trusted subordinate since the death of Stonewall Jackson. Longstreet is cursed with pessimistic realism; as all the other generals in the Rebel army obsequiously predict victory at every turn, and even the wise Robert E. Lee seems to increasingly lose himself in the golden glow of optimism, Longstreet senses that the Confederate offense at Gettysburg is guaranteed to be a disaster, because the Union is too well dug in and is fighting at peak form. He tries to persuade Lee to defer the risk of a frontal assault and adopt a defensive strategy on July 2, and again on July 3, when his prediction of utter disaster comes true.

The book also presents the heroic college professor from Maine, Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who is told to hold his line at all costs and manages to do so, leading a spontaneous bayonet charge at Little Round Top on July 2 after his regiment runs out of ammunition. I’ve always suspected, from the richness of Michael Shaara’s depiction of this bookish soldier, that the novelist must have seen himself in Joshua Chamberlain. The fourth story is the doomed past friendship of Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead and Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Once best friends, now facing each other on the climactic battlefield, the two old soldiers think of each other constantly, and Armistead reaches the stone wall that is the destination of dreadful Pickett’s Charge and just misses the chance to see his great frenemy again before he dies at the wall.

The Killer Angels is as straight-up thrilling as all of the best historical fiction, but it’s also a literary work with classical and spiritual overtones. When James Longstreet philosophizes about the necessity of a defensive stance in warfare, he echoes the great Russian general Mikhail Kutozov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. When Armistead races across a battlefield, fretting over the possibility that he might kill his old best friend Hancock, we can think of Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Since reading The Killer Angels once and seeing Gettysburg about eight times (who’s counting?), I’ve also read numerous other books about this battle, and about the other battles between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. The institution of human slavery was at stake; so was the feasibility of the United States of America itself. I’m still not sure exactly what was won and what was lost in the American Civil War, and whether or not better decisions could have been made. Maybe I’ll find some answers as I live-blog the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg all week next week.

3 Responses

  1. I love that book too. But I
    I love that book too. But I did not know about the movie. I will be checking it out this weekend.

    By the way, have you read the book Confederates in the Attic yet? This week may be the time to pick it up!

  2. Hi Tara — I haven’t read
    Hi Tara — I haven’t read that one yet, but I guess I better get busy. People keep recommending it.

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