Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

The prequel to "The Killer Angels"

In this novel, Jeff Shaara entered the world of famous authors in a debut work that is a tour de force of literature that also deftly sets the stage for his father Michael’s timeless classic The Killer Angels, which featured a cross-section of historical participants at the battle of Gettysburg as the lead characters, two of whom –Robert E. Lee and Joshua L. Chamberlain- return in Gods, in which they are joined by Union general Winfield Scott Hancock and the legendary Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Also making appearances in the novel are historical personalities like Jefferson Davis, Winfield Scott, John Brown, James Longstreet, Albert Sidney Johnston, George McClellan, and Ambrose Burnside, as well as separate chapters featuring generals William Barksdale, Oliver Otis Howard, and Jeb Stuart at crucial points in the tale such as the battle of Chancellorsville in the case of Howard and Stuart.

The novel covers from November of 1858 to June 29th, 1863, covering a sweeping panorama of events that include John Brown's raid, secession of the southern states, First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the death of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, interspersed with quieter, introspective, day-to-day life moments.

Shaara's vivid battle scenes include keen studies of courage under fire such as that which Joshua Chamberlain displays as he endures the horrors of assaulting the fateful Sunken Road before Mayre's Heights at Fredericksburg, then huddling on the field afterward hiding behind dead bodies calling out for his brother to see if he is safe, at last receiving a reply of "Lawrence!" from Tom on another end of the bloody field.

Dominant among the four main characters is Jackson. Ably depicted by Shaara as not only a fiery, determined general but also a kind, loving, pious, honorable man devoted to his wife, Anna. When I read Jeff's moving depiction of his death from pneumonia after surviving losing his right arm to friendly fire at Chancellorsville, dying after saying the immortal words "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.", I could not help but be deeply moved. Southern or not, Jackson is still an American and a man whose life was cut tragically short. Even though his death, in an ironic twist of fate, helped ensure America would be reunited with his superb generalship no longer available to the Confederacy.

Since this is Jeff’s first “take” on the Civil War, there are a few minor glitches. For example, the Irish Brigade is depicted as having all their green flags with them at Fredericksburg; actually, only one regiment had one at that point in time prior to the arrival of new banners for each regiment to replace worn out ones. Jeff also depicts General George McClellan as being relived while at a reception in with his officers in a house; in real-life “Little Mac” was alone in his tent penning a letter to his wife Ellen when he got the word he was out of a job as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Finally, Jeff goofs by having Robert E. Lee say “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” While watching the legendary Confederate gunner John Pelham firing two cannons at the Union troops massed on the right flank at Fredericksburg; as correctly depicted in the movie version, Lee said those words as a result of the butchery before the very same stone wall on the left flank that Win Hancock’s division and the 20th Maine suffer so badly before as they fail to cross it smashed to earth by hails of lead and cannon shot.

All that kind of nit-picky jazz aside, though, it is still a marvelous read.

If you have seen the excellent (and unfairly maligned) movie version of Gods And Generals, don't forget to read the novel too!