A fine novel about the Battle of Gettysburg

Michael Shaara's historical novel and Pulitzer Prize winner "The Killer Angels" has been around for 30 years with more than 2.5 million copies in print. That says something about the quality of the tense, dense recreation of the climatic Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War.

In this writer's childhood there were still veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic around, aged but still boasting their blue uniforms and gold insignia. They were the tattered remainder of that grand army that fought another brave army from the South to a bloody victory.

That battle was the climax of the war, with Southern Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet facing the Army of the Potomac, headed by Maj. Gen. George Meade, newly appointed to his task, and Cols. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford for the Union.

This is a very intimate book, concentrating on the troops, including the incredible college professor Col. Chamberlin, whose small band of Union troops held off a flanking attack that led to the South's downfall. He was a Medal of Honor recipient, was promoted to major general and was selected by Ulysses Grant to receive the surrender at Appomattox, where he "startles the world by calling his troops to attention to salute the defeated South."

Longstreet is credited with attempting to dissuade Robert E. Lee from ordering the final disastrous charge at the Union center; Lee is portrayed as an enfeebled man not fully able to command.

Much of the book is composed of conversations between characters both high and low - from the spy who brings to the Union side the news that Confederate Cavalry Gen. JEB Stuart is off in the wilderness somewhere, not making his intelligence reports that Lee and Longstreet sorely needed - to Union soldiers hunkering down to escape from the Confederate cannons.

It was a different kind of war in those days, where masses of troops formed lines and marched into the guns of the foe. In the South's final charge at Gettysburg, the guns wipe out Lee's troops in bloody batches. The courage of troops on both sides is almost unimaginable.

There were heroes on both sides of this epic battle, where thousands died. Reading this story is a lesson in the meaning of true patriotism, where deeds matter more than hollow proclamations of nationalism. One may ask if today's Americans are capable of such heroic deeds. I suspect Iraq answers that question, as again national leaders may fail their troops, but the troops do not fail them.

- Sam Bauman


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