“If you go to Gettysburg and take the time, maybe take a tour, maybe just drive around, read some of the monuments, read some of the plaques, you will come away changed.” – Jeff Sharra
Now that the government shutdown is over and the National Parks are open again, history buffs are rejoicing. And at Gettysburg, it’s just in time for the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Check out a guest post I wrote for The History Girl about my visit to the Gettysburg battlefields last year.
I am a pretty big history nerd and the Civil War happens to be one of my areas of interest. Three years ago, I had the opportunity to walk the battlefields at Manassas on our way through Virginia on vacation and last summer I was finally able to hike around Little Round Top and other areas I’ve read so much about. Whether it be in novels, history books, or the surviving first hand accounts, walking the fields that have been preserved, seeing the bullet holes that remain in the bricks of the buildings, it makes what you read tangible.
I read and re-read several Civil War-centric novels and other texts to immerse myself in where I was going in the weeks bookending the three days I spent in Gettysburg. Here’s a quick run down that I would highly recommend.
The Killer Angels by Michael Sharra
This is the novelization that inspired Ken Burns’ famous Civil War documentary (which I also highly recommend). I’ve read it three times now and while it focuses on only a few of the figures involved and a handful of skirmishes that occurred during the three days the battle lasted, he captures tragedy and humanity of both sides beautifully.
Gods and Generals by Jeff Sharra
Written in a style very similar to his father’s, Jeff Sharra set out to capture the rest of the Civil War and its figures. Gods and Generals recounts the first years of the war leading right up to the Gettysburg campaign of his father’s The Killer Angels. Along with Jeff Sharra’s The Last Full Measure (which is patiently waiting on my bookshelf for its turn), the three create an unofficial Civil War trilogy that do a fantastic job of walking the line between fact and fiction.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
A novel that shows the terrors of war and that neither side has the monopoly on “right” or “wrong,” Cold Mountain follows a Confederate soldier who decides he’s had enough and heads home. Frazier balances Inman’s journey with the struggles faced by those left at home, as endured by the woman he left behind, Ada. The sentimentality of the tale does nothing to undermine the humanity it exposes.
North and South Trilogy by John Jakes
I had read the first book, North and South, ages ago but didn’t have the rest of the trilogy at the time. Before re-reading it, I bought the others. I got through the first and most of Love and War before grad school reading got in the way. I did manage to finish Love and War, but Heaven and Hell, the final novel in the trilogy is on that shelf beside The Last Full Measure. I will get to them; it’s just a matter of time. What has always amazed me about John Jakes’ works is the level of detail he includes and the seamless way that he weaves his fictional families into the fabric of history, placing them comfortably side-by-side with famous figures.
The Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign by Shelby Foote
One of the historians interviewed in Ken Burns’ documentary, Shelby Foote was a favorite of my high school history teacher (another Civil War buff). He passed that love of history on to so many of us that a petition was started in my class to ask Shelby Foote to speak at our school. Unfortunately, Foote died that year with the petition unfinished. His laid back presentation in Burns’ film and the charm of his Southern drawl echo through the pages of The Stars in Their Courses, published separately and dealing just with the Battle of Gettysburg, it is taken from his larger Civil War trilogy. The narrative is remarkably engaging and along with The Killer Angels, helps visitors orient themselves in the landscape of the battlefield as well as within the timeline of the battle.
While those are the books I read during my Civil War obsessed summer last year, I would also recommend the following:
Ann Rinaldi was one of my favorite writers while I was in middle school. She wrote several historical fiction books for teens and young adults that were set during the Civil War including Mine Eyes Have Seen (the story of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry rebellion told through the eyes of one of his daughters), In My Father’s House (the tale of the McLean family who watched the war start on their lawn in Manassas, moved, and then saw it end in their parlor at Appomattox), and An Acquaintance with Darkness (an account of the hunt for Lincoln’s assassin and the conspirators). Her novels are great for girls with a love of history.
In addition to Shelby Foote, when I took a class on the Civil War in high school, we also read selections from historian Stephen B. Oates’ The Approaching Fury and The Whirlwind of War. The former is focused on the building factors and events that lead to the shots fired at Sumter while the latter moves through the war and its lasting impact on the battered nation. There were also chapters from James M. McPherson but I don’t remember those much beyond his name.
And lastly, though it’s a work of fiction and has been disregarded because of the way it romanticizes the south and slavery, I did start but didn’t yet get around to finishing Gone with the Wind. How can I not though? It’s classic and the evolution of how the Civil War has been represented in literature is something that genuinely fascinates me. For instance, what differences are there between Mitchell’s original text and the unofficial sequel Scarlett or the much more recent revision in The Wind Done Gone. There are also several other novels and texts that I bought in Gettysburg that are sitting on that To Read shelf. I just need more time. And more long car rides like the one down through Pennsylvania to Gettysburg and back.