Civil War-Reconstruction

 

THE LAST AMERICAN EPIC
By David Madden

Young Jeff first saw Gettysburg when his father took the family on a visit to the battlefield in 1964. Six years later, Jeff, then eighteen, helped his somewhat frail father as he walked Gettysburg battlefield in the early 1970’s, researching a Civil War novel. Out of such little moments, our great literary and cinematic epic depiction of the American Civil War began. We may imagine Homer’s father taking him over the battlefield at Troy, actually or orally. A major difference is that both father and son are authors of the epic Civil War literary trilogy upon which the epic movie trilogy is based.
The author was Michael Shaara and the novel was The Killer Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1975. Writer-director Ronald Maxwell’s highly successful, now classic movie adaptation Gettysburg appeared in 1993, five years after Shaara’s death, and stimulated sales of the novel to over two million copies. Maxwell became a kind of father figure for Jeff, encouraging the young rare coin dealer to write a prequel to his father’s famous novel. Only three years after the movie Gettysburg appeared, Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals was published; he tells the story of the same generals over a five year period before their separate, parallel paths converged on Gettysburg. Ironically, it was an immediate bestseller and work on the film began only three years after publication.
Publication of Gods and Generals is a unique event in the history of American literature. Never before has the child of a prize-winning writer published a novel on the same subject, featuring the same characters. Furthermore, what we have here is a very interesting reversal: the son does not take up the story where the father left off; he goes back to 1858 to throw the lines of the narrative forward to the point where the father’s novel began.
This question arose immediately: Do the son’s boots fit the father’s footprints? If brute curiosity is a crude motive, I am glad to report that it is here well satisfied on a high plane. In every sense, even when compared with the father’s celebrated work, the son’s uncommon skill has produced a Civil War novel that stands out among all others. Therefore, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “Persons attempting to find exploitation in this literary event will be shot.”
In Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara does indeed deal with mythic figures–Lee and Jackson–but he also deals with lower ranking officers, such as Chamberlain, who were led by generals. With the national consciousness of the father, the son presents the war from both sides (the Shaaras are from New Jersey and lived in Florida). As in The Killer Angels, the chapters of Gods and Generals bear the names of the historical figures, two southern and two northern, on whom Jeff Shaara concentrates: Generals Lee and Jackson and Hancock and Colonel Chamberlain. Shaara alternates among characters, drawing the reader into the novel’s 58 chapters, first through Lee’s perspective. The focus falls less frequently on Chamberlain and Hancock than on Lee and Jackson. Now and then, other characters, northern and southern, are favored: Jeb Stuart, Oliver Howard, and William Barksdale. Each man marches on parallel lines with the others toward the explosive convergence at the obscure little crossroads town of Gettysburg. Most of the novel is devoted to the major battles in Virginia and Maryland that preceded the march into the North. A narrative this complex would be a risky venture for any first-time novelist.
Because the son’s novel stands on its own feet, not on the father’s shoulders, comparisons by no means prove odious. The son has a greater conceptual power than his father had. His narrative covers more time and space, with a pace that begins in a meditative mode and gradually achieves a marching cadence. There are more long stretches of sustained narrative and more variety in the dramatic scenes; they are more fully developed, and the dialogue is more natural. Jeff Shaara gives us access, as his father did, to the subjective experiences of his characters, but with greater brevity. And the sequences in which all those elements are represented is more skillfully controlled. God and Generals is more truly epic in scope than The Killer Angels.
“The Killer Angels opened an enormous door for me,” the son tells us in his acknowledgements, “allowed my apprehensions to be set aside, and brought forth the first words of this book. {My father’s] greatest wish, what drove him through a difficult career all his life, was the desire to leave something behind, a legacy to be remembered. Dad, you succeeded.”
Shaara has said that in writing Gods and Generals, he discovered his true vocation, and that in General Grant (hero of The Last Full Measure) he discovered his own special subject, one that put his new vocation as a writer to the test. “I loved writing about that man. I wanted to shatter the myths about him and tell his story fully and truthfully. I liked being able to bring out the differences between Lee and Grant. People are emotional about Lee, a beloved figure, an inspiring figure. But Grant is cool and aloof, so I wanted to bring him alive for the reader. Writing about him was a little like writing about Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals–exciting, discovering the man as I tried to recreate him as a real person, not just an awesome legend. Both men were hard to get close to in life.” Reading The Last Full Measure, I was struck with certain parallels: Just as Grant developed his talent in the Mississippi Campaign, the young novelist developed his talent while writing about Grant after that campaign; and both President Lincoln and Jeff Shaara found their man in Grant.
Of all the heroes in the trilogy, Shaara felt two men were most like his father as a man and as a writer pursuing his vocation. “As a man, my father was most like Joshua Chamberlain. I think my father felt an affinity with him. My father was idealistic (although he became a cynic in his later years), an intellectual, a scholarly kind of man, like Chamberlain.” Until his father wrote about him in The Killer Angels, the general public knew little about Chamberlain; he lifted Chamberlain from obscurity into almost mythic status in the American consciousness; he continues to play an important role in Jeff Shaara’s two novels in the trilogy. “And then the other side of my father that I was quite aware of as I wrote comes out in General Hancock. Hancock is very good at what he does. After Reynolds died, he was perhaps the greatest Union general in the field. Like Hancock, my father had no patience with incompetence, stupidly, inefficiency. You know that scene in the newspaper office when Hancock reaches across the desk and grabs the newspaperman by the throat? I felt my father guiding me as I wrote that scene.” And he felt that the only way he could “describe that murderous battle of the Wilderness was through someone who was there in the thick of the smoke and the fire. But describing Hancock wounded, suffering, I knew that scene was my farewell to my father.”
Like both father and son, Ulysses S. Grant is a great stylist, which is partly why Hemingway declared Grant’s autobiography to be one of the masterpieces of American literature. As he wrote from Grant’s point of view in The Last Full Measure, Grant’s style influenced Shaara’s own. “I tried to catch the simplicity and the flow of Grant’s style when writing inside Grant’s mind and I worked to change my style to be more appropriate to Lee when writing from his point of view.” Although his style is similar to his father’s, Jeff Shaara has forged his own distinctive style. “Lee nodded, wanted to say more, to break away from the thoughts of Jackson, but the image was still there, would not go. Lee turned back toward the march of the men, felt the wetness again.”
Jeff Shaara continues to use his father’s background and structuring devices. “I wanted all three novels to have the same basic features.” But in The Last Full Measure, I see a difference in his handling of the structure. As omniscient author, he goes into fewer minds than he and his father did in the first two novels– mostly from Lee’s to Grant’s to Chamberlain’s. He consciously worked at creating that difference. “I agonized over that. I worried that there might be an imbalance between Union and Confederate points of view, but I really couldn’t think of a Southern general of great enough stature or interest for me or the reader. Longstreet gets wounded and is no longer of use to Lee. Stuart gets killed. I go into their minds once only to show that everybody is fading out, leaving Lee alone. It’s subtler in General Gordon’s one chapter because he can see, as Lee cannot, the futility of opposing Grant. One by one, all the great generals go–Jackson is already dead–and Lee misses each of them. So of the Confederate generals, I decided to show Lee’s mind isolated. Lee who was the symbol of the whole war, of the whole confederacy, is out there by himself, facing Grant.”
Jeff Shaara handles that point of view structure much more effectively now. Although he devotes a few more chapters to Grant and Chamberlain than to Lee, it’s important to stress that he sustains a major achievement that distinguishes this father-son trilogy from most other Civil War novels: he gives the American public a balanced experience of the temperament, sensibility, character, and convictions of generals on both sides of the battle lines. Ideally, the Homeric Civil War Epic that Americans have longed for depicts both sides evenhandedly and compassionately, encompasses major battles led by major leaders, and appeals to all readers, North and South, young and old, men and women. The trilogy begun by the father and finished by the son is that epic.
Shaara intentionally juxtaposes Lee’s mind to Grant’s most often and most consistently to show contrasts between them and to make Chamberlain’s contrast with both Grant and Lee. “And Chamberlain is there also because I wanted to continue to tell his story. He’s such a wonderful and unique character. And I was continuing my father’s original focus on Chamberlain, taking him beyond Gettysburg.” Half-way through the novel, I realized that one great effect of giving the reader deeper insights into Grant is that Shaara provides, by the method of contrast, a much clearer sense of who Lee is, and Lee, in turn, illuminates Grant. The juxtaposition of Lee to Grant also enables us to feel the sting of irony, as when Grant at Cold Harbor thinks, “There is no one to blame but me,” and the reader recalls Lee thinking at Gettysburg, “It’s all my fault.”
The scenes between Mark Twain and Grant at the end of the novel are so appealing and moving one can imagine a play dramatizing their relationship. “When I learned that Twain commissioned Grant to write his autobiography I was ecstatic. Twain is such a public icon, he’s worked into Westerns, even science fiction movies as a character. The parallel between Twain and Grant talking together with Huck and Jim on a raft on the Mississippi River rings true to me.”
The question originally was, “Can Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals possibly be as good as his father’s The Killer Angels.” My answer was, “Better.” The haunting question since then has been, “Was Gods and Generals merely a high level act of filial mimicry?” My own answer is a resounding, “No,” and my evidence is The Last Full Measure. But some people who admired Gods and Generals worried that it might be just a fluke. “So,” Shaara has said, “did I.” Shaara proves once and for all that that, though influenced by his father, he has a voice and talent all his own. The two million readers who revere the father’s novel now have to contend with the praise of those who read the son’s first. I recommend turning to the son’s depiction of pre-Gettysburg events before reading the father’s rendering of the battle. Both experiences will prove memorable, and perhaps inseparable. Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure brought this unique and monumental father-son trilogy to a triumphant conclusion. On the threshold of the new Millennium, the Shaara father and son vision of its origins in blood and courage illuminated American’s future.
In the three novels, the focus is divided equally between North and South, but because of the nature of movies, Ron Maxwell’s plan had to be somewhat different: Gettysburg focuses on North and South equally, Gods and Generals focuses on Generals Lee and Jackson, and The Last Full Measure will focus on General Grant. Because the third movie in the trilogy is still in the planning stage and thus most people are unaware of the overall balanced perspective, a controversy has arisen over the seemingly sympathetic view of the Confederacy in the movie version of Gods and Generals. Equal focus on North and South was relatively easy in Gettysburg because the battle took place in a single small town in only tthree days. But because it takes place over several years and several battles, Gods and Generals had to focus upon a single hero, General Stonewall Jackson. Even with that focus, shifts to Chamberlain on the Union side slows the character based narrative pace. Not even excepting Grant and Sherman, the two generals in whom there has always been the greatest interest, not only in both the north and the south but around the world, are Lee and Jackson. Given the danger of shattering the focus, cinematically that is imperative enough for concentrating on them.
The unfortunate result is the unfair accusation that Gods and Generals is pro-Southern, and, in the minds of quite a fewer number of critics and viewers, therefore Neo-confederate, but not, one hopes, pro-slavery. As scriptwriter and director, Maxwell enables Chamberlain to attack slavery and even has Jackson wish freedom for his black cook. Movie goers who view the Confederacy as evil, might concede that it is in the nature of drama in all genres that the more colorful character steals the show and seems at moments to skew its meaning, the classic instance being John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which sets out to “justify the ways of God to man,” and in which the risen son of God cannot compete for our interest with the fallen angel, Lucifer. In Homer’s epic poem The Illiad, heroes on both sides are flawed.
Homer avoided the serious risk of immersing the reader in too many battles and too many characters by compressing the ten year war of many battles into a single battle and one clear cut hero on each side, as Ron Maxwell as able to do in Gettysburg. But the actual nature of the American Civil War—many officers and men in many battles on many different battlefields–and Jeff Shaara’s novelistic conception for Gods and Generals gave Maxwell a scriptwriter-director’s cinematic nightmare in which his choices were dictated and limited. The battles (minus Antietam on the cutting room floor) are among the most powerful ever filmed. And the focus on Jackson, enhanced by Lee’s hovering presence, gives the viewer one of the most moving death scenes in recent memory. If we do not quite have a blind Homer in the combined novels of father and son, in the films we have a Homeric vision that is uncannily clear. The novel trilogy and the movie trilogy are true examples of epics.
* * *
Given that this is the age of interdisciplinary studies, one may wonder why historians are perceived by some to have a lock on the Civil War. In the general public’s experience, however, it is not the historian who dominates the subject, but the novelist and the moviemaker. Most historians have a limited audience. James McPherson may be an exception, but in the popular imagination, Shelby Foote, novelist-turned-historian in the 1950′s, remains our greatest living historian. In the realm of popular culture, of mass communication, the study of the war has always been multidisciplinary if not interdisciplinary. More recently, it has also been multicultural and, has thus come under fire as being politically correct. The spectrum of interest now is educationally, politically, and culturally quite wide, varied, and extremely but understandably complicated.
Like the historian, the serious novelist begins with facts. But the historian must cleave to them, while the novelist draws upon the emotion-charged memories of individuals and of a culture at large, transforming private memories into public metaphors. The novelist goes further, into the private imagination, shaping and transmitting truths that transcend facts alone to stimulate public enlightenment. I don’t write historical novels; I write novels about the struggle of unique individuals in history with facts, memory, and imagination. I myself am not an academic historian; I am a novelist and a teacher of literature and creative writing in all genres.
What, in fact, caused the Civil War? One answer is that the cause is everything anybody at any time in the past and the present declares to be the cause, whether it be slavery, preservation of the union, economics, states rights, or all those and other causes interacting dynamically. Perception is everything. Our hearts and minds as Americans are affected, influenced, shaped by perceptions, which may or may not be based on facts less than on illusions, lies, distortions, bad memory, or some oscillating combination of those things. Facts have very seldom changed the popular mind in the past or in the present. Even though the Civil War was thoroughly documented by its participants, major novelists know–and show–that facts alone are far from enough. They write out of an awareness of the fact that both Northerners and Southerners, civilian and military, entered the war ignorant of each other, that individuals and groups fought the war in ignorance of vital facts, and that in the national consciousness, the war is what memory and imagination make of the facts we know, facts that are too few and undependable, except as stimulants to the creation of myths and metaphors that light our way through successive epochs of our history. The events of each decade in American history provide a fresh perspective on the
Civil War. Professional historians, amateur historians, and ordinary citizens revisit, rediscover, and redefine this central event of the American experience. Thus, we reflect on the past, experience the present, and enlighten the future by the fitful light of shifting interpretations. The decade of the Civil Rights Movement was a perfect time for a Centennial reassessment of the Civil War. In the 1980′s, several books, the movie Glory, and Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War, gave us a sharp sense of the role of African-Americans and of women in the war.
* * *
Each epoch in American history through the Civil War, from the voyages to Massachusetts and Jamestown, to the Revolution, to the war of 1812, to the Mexican-American war, has transpired on an epic scale. The epoch of the Civil War, with its Antebellum prelude and its Reconstruction postlude, was the last in American history to produce the elements of an epic.
In its simple form, the definition of an epic is: a long narrative poem of many related episodes depicted on a grand scale, rendered in an elevated style, about the adventures and deeds of warrior heroes, relating the history and expressing the aspirations of a nation or a people. A clear example is Homer’s the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, in which the Trojan Hector and the Greek Achilles are heroes in a conflict that defined the identity of both their countries.
If we are to use the term epic—and I am arguing passionately that we should and must–we need to achieve a much-needed fine-tuning of our understanding of the definition. One way is to do that is to compare it with other terms. “Epic, tragedy, and satire” are terms among many that have been so often used and misused, they have been robbed of their original aptness and vitality to the point where they now have a keener life as clichés than as truly useful terms. For example, television news often attempts to wring emotion out of the death of a drowned puppy by calling it a “tragedy” for the little boy who lost it, when “pathos” is the appropriate term. When it is also misapplied to the fate of the 2,300 victims of the World Trade Center slaughter, little room is left for Aristotle’s definition as illustrated in his prime example, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. “Satire” is more frequently applied than “sarcasm,” when the work being discussed is actually no more than mere sarcasm, which, in Greek, means “the tearing of flesh.” “Tragedy” and “satire” are used far more often than “pathos” and “sarcasm,” when the latter terms are far more to the point. The reason is that “satire” and “tragedy” are honorific terms; their use elevates the subject, lends it an aura of high level importance. The same is true of “epic,” as when a novel or movie is called an epic simply because it is long. “Epic” makes any novel or movie sound more important than it can possibly be. Because the term “epic” has been overused and misused, I notice that critics withhold the term when they praise novels and movies of great value, so that few critics have used it even when praising Civil War novels and the movies.
What the hell difference it makes is this: the use of the term “epic” to characterize the events and the poems, novels, and movies of the Civil War is, for Americans caught up in history, unusually apt. The importance of the accurate use of the term for the historic event and as a genuine honorific for novels and movies that deal with the war on a grand scale is that when we feel we are experiencing the magnificent exploits of heroes on a high level, our response to such works is magnified and elevated, and our sense of the war as being relevant to our lives today is deeper.
By contrast, “tragedy” and “satire” are far less appropriately applied to the Civil War. To call the war a national tragedy, or even to invoke the adjective “tragic,” is to abuse the term, as Claude G. Bowers did in the title of his Civil War history, The Tragic Era. We want very much to apply the term “tragic” to the assassination of President Lincoln but the key phrase in Aristotle’s definition–“the fall from a great height of a noble person because of a fatal flaw in his character”–does not apply. No “fatal flaw” killed any of the War’s heroes. Discussing a Civil War movie he greatly admires, Ron Maxwell rightly declined to indulge in the honorific term: “Ride With the Devil examines a tragic subject without being a tragedy.” Satires were written about Lincoln and other key figures and events in the war, but amid much “tearing of flesh,” no true satire has been written about any aspect of the war.
On the other hand, parallels were early and readily drawn between the war and Homer’s epic poem The Iliad; to this day, many parallels have been noted and they are revealing, but many remain not yet clearly drawn. In 1956, Otto Eisenschiml’s The American Iliad and in 1991 Charles P. Roland’s An American Iliad helped draw limited public attention to the basic parallel in their historical books.
But who is our Homeric poet of the war? In the very first weeks of the Civil War, poets started firing off poems, and although most misfire, the war has kept marching in millions of metric feet ever since. It is a scandal and a shame that so little great poetry has come out of the Civil War. America deserves an epic poem on the War by a poet of much greater genius than Stephen Vincent Benet, whose 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning John Brown’s Body has stood as a modest monolith. Now and then, an unpublished poet asks my advice about submitting an epic poem to a publisher and I cannot be encouraging. Although we often speak of our Civil War as an American Illiad , no major poet has been lured by that phrase into testing his or her talent to the limit. Not even, despite his piece-meal effort, the author of that maritime allegorical epic novel Moby-Dick; about the war, he gives us only a miscellany of poems, Battle Pieces. Not even clear- sighted Whitman, who served as a wound-dresser during that time when “America was turned into one vast hospital,” could give us the Homeric epic for which the war’s events clearly provided raw material; instead, he left us the poems in Drum Taps–some of the finest of the war–and the notes in Specimen Days, in which he stated that “the real war will never get into the books.” In 1962, critic Edmund Wilson echoed Whitman in Patriotic Gore and in 1973, literary historian Daniel Aaron took up that theme again in The Unwritten War.
Well, both were wrong about that, as we know by looking at the greatest achievements in memoirs, journals, histories, stories (Ambrose Bierce’s, to be exact), and the truly epic novels: the Shaara trilogy, Mary Johnston’s The Long Roll and its sequel Cease Firing, Evelyn Scott’s trilogy (The Wave is the best-known), both of which include antebellum and reconstruction eras, thus illustrating the most inclusive definition of the Civil War novel. To reach further ahead of Whitman’s time to film, a medium he might have loved, we see: Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Glory, Ken Burns’s documentary, and Gettysburg. And now Gods and Generals. And to come: The Last Full Measure. Because the epoch of the Civil War is intrinsically epic, the application of that term to almost any novel or movie of the War may come naturally to most Americans.
“Facts reveal battle strategies, political maneuvering, and casualty lists,” says Leah Wood Jewett, Director the United States Civil War Center, in a head note to her interview with Ron Maxwell in Civil War Book Review (www.cwc.lsu.edu). “But it is the fictional accounts produced over the past 130 years that convey the intimate, human moments that pierce our hearts and illuminate our imaginations. The novel—and in modern times, the film—speak to our souls in ways that no other medium can.” Ron Maxwell elaborates. “Poetic license is the art of what might have been. It is like a retrieved memory, an illumination.” And Jeff Shaara summarizes: “Naturally, the novelist, filmmaker, and historian can each bring a particular contribution to the same account. What works for the audience is, ultimately, all that matters.” In Homer’s time, the only choice, but a good one, was poetry. For a narrative of some length, prose works better for many people today. And for many more, movies work best.
Evidence that Jeff Shaara is as aware as the critics who praise his epic impulse and his achievement in the realm of epic prose is the fact that his other three novels deal with the other two major epics in American history, the revolution (Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause) and the Mexican American War (Gone for Soldiers). Before Maxwell challenged him, he had no thought of becoming a writer, but only a natural born writer could produce almost three thousand pages of expertly researched historical fiction in less than a decade. His next project is World I, and there is the logical expectation that he might plunge into 1812 or Korea. But the World Wars meet far fewer criteria for the American epic than the nation’s earlier wars on native soil.
Application of the classic definition of epic to key players and events in the Civil War may produce several patterns. For example, although the Trojan War was not a Civil War, the American Civil War provides an even deeper, more complex and relevant portrayal of the national consciousness than would a war with another country; a conflict among brothers produces a deeper more lasting psychic wound than one between foreigners. If we imagine one possible pattern of parallels–that General Lee is like Priam, King of Troy, and that Hector is like General Stonewall Jackson and that Agamemnon is like Lincoln and that Achilles is like Grant–we may see that the actions of heroic leaders and their heroic followers are more relevant expressions of the national character when the actors are brothers of the same national family. If emancipation of slaves instead of captive Helen is the prize of the victors, we may again see a greater relevance of the American epic to lasting serious issues in the national story.
The style of the Shaara trilogy is elevated, though it suffers by comparison with Homer’s, but Maxwell’s use of the poetics of cinema must be allowed to stand without comparison, except with that of other writer-directors of the few American epics we have. When we compare the impact of the epical Trojan war and Homer’s epic upon Greece as a nation and the Greeks as a people with that of the Civil War and Shaara-Maxwell’s epic we may with some justification conclude that the American War had a much deeper, clearer, more lastingly powerful, direct effect. The impact of the Shaara novels and the Maxwell movies as expressions of that war and its effects is too recent to inspire much more than a confident prediction. Which I will now make. Unless another novel and another movie come along to challenge them, these will stand as our Homeric epics—our finest means of understanding how our national identify has been shaped.
By understanding the Civil War as our last American epic, we can understand ourselves in the world today, both our dark problems and our bright prospects. Facts alone fail us. Imagination alone fails us. Emotion alone fails us. But emotion, imagination, and intellect, acting together upon the facts, make the facts stand up and speak.
SIDEBAR SOME POPULAR CULTURE FORCES THAT HAVE CREATED OR AROUSED AND SUSTAINED THE GENERAL PUBLIC’S INTEREST IN AND PERCEPTION OF THE CIVIL WAR
As a Civil War novelist and historian, my own vision of the war is myriadminded, interdisciplinary, multicultural, paradoxical, and free-wheeling.
A question frequently asked by bewildered Northerners and beguiled Southerners is: What is it that draws people in increasing numbers to re-investigate the Civil War era? I imagine that profound needs in the public psyche, of which most people are unaware, respond to the newest popular culture force—as to the first great force: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The public mind does not normally take into account the ways it has been prepared for the next force to take effect, but the ground had been plowed, seeds sown.
Release of the film version of God and Generals raises this question: What is the obvious distinction between the romantic notion of the Civil War era and the more assiduously academic, and “accurate” (problematic word in this context), representation of the war? Over time, there have been changes in how the Civil Warhas been and is being depicted. These forces are so powerful that they do not just appear and eventually fade; they endure, and, as an accumulated group at any point in time, functions simultaneously, so that Gods and Generals, a force itself, draws added strength from the energy, still vibrant, of earlier popular culture forces.
The following list does not include a single academic historian because my contention is that, generally speaking, Americans’ interest in the Civil War has been monumentally stimulated by popular culture events and works far more than by academic history books. Each item listed has re-stimulated interest in the war and in previous events and novels and movies about the war, as when Gettysburg resurrected The Killer Angels, reinvigorated the re-enactor movement, and inspired Jeff Shaara to write his novels. Without Ken Burns’ documentary, I doubt that a sufficient audience would have been prepared to respond to and make a great success of Gettysburg. Ken Burns, as a force, came on the scene when interest was relatively low; all Civil War works and events thereafter owe a great deal to the success of Burns’s masterpiece.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin [1852], as an internationally best-selling novel and very long-running play and silent and sound movie. When he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”
Reconstruction [1865-1876], the great effect of the war, over twice as long as the war itself and far more powerful in prolonging, especially in the South, its effects: violence, economic depression, racism, mistrust of government, etc., a legacy alive today. In 1999 or so, Shelby Foote, on a panel with me in New Orleans, said: “There are two sins for which America can never atone: slavery and reconstruction.”
Family histories, oral and written, monuments, family photographs and portraits, mostly in the South; and the ruins of mansions, etc.
Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), first major Civil War novel, focuses on a Louisiana family, by John William de Forest, a Union officer.
Battles and Leaders, 4 volumes, Century Co., 1887. Personal recollections and drawings. Here historians and the general public interested in the War meet.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs, published and promoted by Mark Twain, 1885. Hemingway called it a great work of American literature.
Creation of The National Park Service Battlefields, especially Gettysburg (1895) and Vicksburg, (1899).
The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Stephen Crane; a great force, even though it is about courage and war per se more than about the Civil War; the famous battle scenes are lifted almost verbatim from Forrest’s novel.
Books of Civil War Photograph, especially Miller’s Photographic History {Mathew Brady et al}, 1911.
The Birth of a Nation, 1915 (based on The Clansman, 1905, a novel by Thomas Dixon). Sustained Southern resentment over Reconstruction; slavery apologia.
Poet Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume biography of Lincoln, appearing from 1926 to 1954.
Ordeal by Fire (1935), Fletcher Pratt, (paperback title: A Short History of the Civil War); everybody’s favorite all-time short history. Pratt was not an academic, but wrote many military works.
Gone with the Wind, novel (1937) and movie (1939). (The movie had the greatest effect on my own perception of the war. I read no books on the War until I began writing my own Civil War novel, Sharpshooter.)
Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (mainly controlled by academic historians, but many novels and nonfiction works were produced; re-enactors stimulated; narrow focus; celebratory, commemorative.)
The Civil War: A Narrative [1958-1963-1974] by novelist Shelby Foote (see his novel Shiloh, 1952).
The Confederate Flag controversies, from the Civil Rights Era to the present.
Glory (1989), movie; fresh perspective on the war: paved the way for Ken Burns’ documentary.
The Civil War (1990), documentary movie, by Ken Burns (stimulated much greater interest in Foote’s history).
The United States Civil War Center (1993)
Gettysburg (1993), movie, by writer-director Ronald Maxwell. Stimulated resurrection of The Killer Angels—published in 1974, not a big seller even though Pulitzer Prize winner. A major stimulation of re-enactor movement, reinvigorator of Civil war Roundtables and, unintentionally, Neo-Confederate organizations, as was Burns’s movie.
Cold Mountain (1997), Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (and film, 2003).
Gods and Generals (1996). While all his novels prove that he is a worthy successor to his father, Jeff Shaara should be regarded as a fine novelist in his own right. Takes a myriadminded approach, thus setting a vitally new pattern for others to follow in all genres and venues.
The Last Full Measure (1997) by Jeff Shaara. Sequel to The Killer Angels; movie in preparation, with focus on General Grant.
Gods and Generals (2003) movie, by writer-director Ronald Maxwell. Focuses on General Stonewall Jackson and General Lee; Joshua Chamberlain provides Northern perspective on slavery.

SIDE BARS

CIVIL WAR MOVIES: TWELVE BEST

Birth of a Nation
The General
Gone with the Wind
Shenandoah
Major Dundee
The Raid
The Horse Soldiers
Glory
The Civil War
Gettysburg
Gods and Generals
Ride with the Devil

CIVIL WAR FICTION: TWELVE BEST

By Northern Writers:
Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, John William de Forrest
In the Midst of Life, Ambrose Bierce
Raintree County, Ross Lockridge, Jr.
The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, Joseph Stanley Pennell
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara

By Southern Writers:
The Wave, Evelyn Scott
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Long Roll and Cease Firing, Mary Johnston
Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
(Twain prefigures the war and Warren shows its legacy)

admin

 Posted by at 1:48 pm

 Leave a Reply

(required)

(required)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>