Book Review – Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

After having been so horribly disappointed with The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, I needed to read a piece of historic fiction that I knew would be good and Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals did not disappoint. A tribute and prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels chronicling the three day Battle of Gettysburg, Gods and Generals focuses on some of those same generals in the few years preceding Gettysburg.

Starting in November 1858 and ending on the eve of Gettysburg, Shaara’s novel switches perspective between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson who would lead the Confederacy and Winfield Scott Hancock and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who would rise to help lead the Federal army. Shaara’s novel focuses a great deal on the behind the scenes planning on both sides of the battlefield and less on the events of the battles (with the exception of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in the latter half of the novel).

The beginning of the novel is slow-moving and methodical. It felt like Shaara had a difficult time deciding just how and where to focus. He could have shown the first battle of Manassas from Jackson’s perspective (it is, after all, the battle where he earned the nickname “Stonewall”). But instead he mentioned it through Lee who was stuck in Richmond, sifting through the red tape of organizing and supplying the Confederate army while Joe Johnston still held official command. The battle of Shiloh is casually mentioned. Antietam is briefly shown but mostly from Chamberlain’s vantage point with his unit of reserves who only saw the drifting smoke of battle but were behind a hill and didn’t see any action. There is little mention of anything that was happening away from the Virginia front.

At times, this approach felt like a missed opportunity on Shaara’s part (especially after the skill he demonstrated with Hancock’s maneuver at Williamsburg early on; his ability to clearly and effectively narrate the more difficult tactical movements is exhilarating and the continued use of diagrams and maps that were used in The Killer Angels remains a useful supplement). It seems to fit since missed opportunities are what Shaara focuses on for most of the novel, particularly the many retreats of the Union army and the frustrations this caused to less hesitant commanders like Hankcock. I knew that the Union had changed their lead commander several times, but I did not realize or remember that it had happened so many times. Shaara doesn’t leave Lee and the Confederacy out of the line of fire when it comes to chances slipping through powerful fingers.

Knowing that Gettysburg is coming, the focus of the end of the novel is Jackson’s role in Lee’s army and his demise in the days following the battle at Chancellorsville. Shaara is at his best as he captures the tensions of battle and the chess-like precision of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and there are moments when I could faintly hear the voice of David Muccullough narrating. I mainly wish that he had chosen to turn these talents to either of the battles at Manassas because it is the only battlefield I have visited (in fact, that was where I purchased my copy of Gods and Generals). Having walked those historic hills enhanced my appreciation of what took place there and of Shaara’s nuanced novel.

There is only one choice that Shaara made that causes me to pause. Aside from a brief glimpse of an unhappy Chamberlain in the third chapter, he is largely absent from the first half of the book. In fact, I think that the only reason Chamberlain is in the novel at all is because of the role he plays at Gettysburg and, consequently, in The Killer Angels. His only occasional perspective does offer a glimpse at an inexperienced officer, someone who was given a high rank in the military due to necessity and prestige rather than experience. However, with all the time spent away from the famous battlefields and near the battlefields but not actually watching the fighting on those battlefields, much of the time spent with Chamberlain feels like missed opportunities.

Now I’m going to let my inner history nerd show and start planning a trip to Gettysburg while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary (again) and skimming through The Killer Angels (for the third time) before diving into the last novel in the unofficial Shaara Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure.

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