A Civil War Trilogy: Resurrecting heroes, rescuing reputations
Posted on Jun 29 2014 | IANS
By Vikas Datta : So many people accomplish heroic deeds but only a handful persist in public consciousness for any appreciable level of time before getting forgotten. Happily, some get rescued from obscurity by inspired authors. Among these lucky ones is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The tale of his steadfast and dauntless courage one July day in the bloody quagmire that was the American Civil War was revived - over a century after the events - for the modern world in a trilogy of riveting historical fiction - that also serves as a son's tribute to his father.
The American Civil War is not unfamiliar even outside the US due to some splendid literary works - Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage", Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain", and of course, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" (the last two also successful Hollywood films). Then there are films like "Dances with Wolves", "The Horse Soldiers", "The Gangs of New York" and most recently "Lincoln".
A pioneering work, however, in providing a window to the actions and motivations of the commanders on both sides is the historical novel "The Killer Angels" (1974) by Michael Shaara. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, deals with the crucial battle of Gettysburg (July 1-4, 1863) through the perspective of opposing commanders - Chamberlain and cavalry general John Buford (Union), and commander in chief Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Confederacy).
The battle came when Lee's army invaded Pennsylvania in an attempt to take the war into Union territory but was repulsed after three days of bloody fighting which led to the maximum casualties in any engagement of the conflict.
Among Gettysburg's heroes was Chamberlain, who had left behind a promising academic career to volunteer for the army, but chose to serve under a professional soldier initially rather than take command untested. He had quite an uneventful war initially - until this battle.
On its second day, Chamberlain's 20th Maine Regiment was defending Little Round Top hill, a crucial position on the left end of the whole Union defensive line. His men beat off repeated attacks but the determined enemy pressed on. Eventually with bullets running out and casualties mounting, he led a wild bayonet charge downhill that dispersed them for good. Chamberlain himself had a narrow escape when an enemy had his head in the sights of his pistol but the weapon jammed.
Suffering from malaria and dysentery, Chamberlain, after a long convalescence, returned to action in April 1864. In June, he was severely wounded but held his ground - holding himself erect by thrusting his sword into the earth. The wound was considered mortal - and a local paper even reported his death - but he recovered and returned to the war in November.
In March 1865 - days before the war's end, Chamberlain, leading an attack, was wounded again - in the chest and arm - and it nearly led to amputation but he hung on, cheering on his men till they were successful.
But his best was still to come.
Picked to oversee the Confederate forces' formal surrender, Chamberlain won the hearts of his former adversaries when he ordered his men to stand to attention and "carry arms" as a show of respect as their dispirited ranks trooped past. The gesture, unpopular among many on the Union side, was reciprocated by the rebel commander.
He had an eventful post-war career - four times governor of Maine and president of his alma mater and lived on till 1914 though his wartime wounds proved fatal at last.
Apart from Chamberlain, the book also seeks to rescue the reputation of Longstreet, long tarnished for the Gettysburg debacle by those who would protect Lee's reputation. Based on the memoirs of Longstreet, who has been acknowledged as the finest corps commander on either side in the war, and other accounts, it seems it was Lee's miscalculations and decisions - despite Longstreet's contrary advice - that was responsible for the debacle.
Shaara's stand-alone book about the Gettysburg battle was provided a prequel and sequel by his son Jeff Shaara, thus creating a comprehensive story of the whole war through the lens of its most significant commanders.
"God and Generals" (1996) begins in 1858 amidst the slowly slide to war and deals with the emotions into army comrades who dread the day they will be on opposing sides in a conflict and ends as both sides march towards Gettysburg and "The Last Full Measure" (1998) takes on from the aftermath of the battle to the end of the war.
"Gettysburg", based on "The Killer Angels", also became a successful film but the "God and Generals" movie version did not do that well, leading to plans to do so for the third book to be scrapped. A pity - it would been a treat to see it on the big screen too!
(29.06.2014 - Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)