Remembering Gettysburg

My Pulitzer quest continues.

Not to win one, though that dim hope surely lurks in every writer’s mind, but to read at least six Pulitzer Prize-winning novels this year. That’s merely one book every other month. Piece of cake. And yet I recently realized, with half the year
behind me, that the only Pulitzer novel I’d read so far in 2013 was “Middlesex”
by Jeffrey Eugenides.

With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approaching, my next
choice became obvious. I would read Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” which
won in 1975.

Good call. Not because it was easy. Or fun. Or wildly entertaining. Serious novels seldom are. But “The Killer Angels” gave me a perspective on the Civil War’s most pivotal battle that I lacked before reading it. The book is divided into four
parts: June 29, 1863, as Union and Confederate armies moved into southern
Pennsylvania, and the three days the battle actually took place—July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.  The chapters within each section are written from alternating viewpoints, primarily from the perspectives of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and Union commanders Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford.

The novel also includes 18 maps that show the positioning of the 160,000 troops as they engaged in battle.

As a rule, I tend to get bogged down when reading about battles. I confess there were a few portions of “The Killer Angels” that I skimmed because I grew bored with the details about troop movement. But for the most part, I found the novel both riveting and heartbreaking.

General Robert E. Lee, at age 57, was the most respected and beloved commander in either army. I knew that. What I didn’t know is that the officers and soldiers who served under him thought of him as “the old man.” I also didn’t realize that, in early 1863, he’d been stricken with the first assault of the heart disease that would eventually kill him. Which no doubt explains his exhaustion and lack of strategic judgment during the battle.

I got to know brooding Longstreet and capable Buford and heroic Chamberlain. As Shaara helped me view the three-day tragedy of Gettysburg through their eyes, I came to understand once again that war really is hell. Many of the officers who faced off on the battlefield were West Point classmates and friends. They understood well the issues that had split the nation apart. But fighting their own
countrymen was not a notion any of them relished. As one Union lieutenant put
it, “They’re Americans anyway, even if they are Rebs.” And Longstreet himself
said, “They’re never quite the enemy, those boys in blue.”

That, of course, is the tragedy of the American Civil War. Brother against brother. The ever-present odor of death. The never-ending litter of war. A war with 800,000 casualties. A three-day battle in a lovely field in Pennsylvania with 50,000 casualties of its own.

Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor before and after the war, was
fond—even as a teenager–of quoting Shakespeare. “What a piece of work is man…in action how like an angel” he once told his father. To which the older
man replied, “Well, if he’s an angel, he’s a murdering angel.”

I’m grateful to Michael Shaara for sharing that story and so many others in a novel that’s well worth reading again, or perhaps for the very first time, as we look back on those dark years.

(June 30, 2013)


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