How Civil War Generals Thought and Fought


By Jeff Shaara

Ballantine Books

560 pp., $25.95

Americans may never stop peering back in wonder at their Civil War. How did the young country survive that terrible conflict? What did the men who shaped the conflict think as they led tens of thousands of their countrymen toward the carnage of the world's first modern war, with rifled guns, exploding shells, and rail transport vastly raising the toll in human lives?

Jeff Shaara's new novel tries to get at that last question. It's the final installment in a series of historical fiction begun by Shaara's father, Michael, with his bestseller about Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels." An earlier volume, "Gods and Generals," traced the battles leading to Gettysburg. "The Last Full Measure" takes the story to its end: Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The path there lies through the second battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and the siege of Petersburg.

Shaara artfully blends novelistic license with a deep reverence for history. Readers steeped in this history will no doubt find things to take issue with. For instance, during the war's final months did Lincoln really remain open to almost any compromise, even on the closed subject of slavery, if only the Southerners, now probing for peace, would simply renounce their secession? Another criticism could be Shaara's sometimes distracting stylistic peculiarities, such as a habit of stringing sentence elements together without conjunctions.

The latter may be his way of trying to simulate the breathlessness of this narrative. The war was relentless, especially after Lincoln gave Grant full charge of the Union forces. The book thus has a sure momentum.

The chapters swing from gray to blue, focusing on various battlefield leaders, with a strong concentration on the two giants: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee is a study in brooding, self-enforced calm, maintaining the Southern code of dignity and his personal code of faith even as it becomes clear his Army of Northern Virginia cannot prevail. Shaara draws Lee as a man convinced of the rightness of his cause, having had ample evidence early in the war that God was smiling on that cause.

But as the tide of battle turns, and his commanders fall in battle or lose their fire, he's forced to reconsider. The hand of God, Lee has to conclude, is working in ways he cannot fathom, but to which he must submit.

Grant has none of Lee's fatalistic piety, just a rocklike determination to win. And, unlike prior leaders of the Army of the Potomac, he has Lincoln's unqualified support. Grant's inner life, as sketched by Shaara, is not, however, devoid of emotion. He despises fellow generals who seem incapable of quick decision and movement. He worries about any appearance of officers living in luxury as their men huddle behind muddy earthworks. And he worries about his family, who during the Petersburg siege take up residence in his headquarters. Grant knows his numbers and resources are superior, and he hurls those forces at Lee regardless of cost. How else to end the war?

A number of lesser characters get chapters as well. Foremost among these is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Maine religious professor turned general. Multiply wounded, Chamberlain rushes - despite a maddening tendency to stand back mentally and reflect on every thought and action - toward blood-stained, mud-caked heroism amid the chaos of battle. At the end, he is handed the duty of accepting the arms and colors of the vanquished Rebels in the ceremony of surrender. Chamberlain unfailingly sees the humanity of all - his comrades in blue, the tattered men in gray, the black soldiers who fought for the Union. But he, like Lee, can finally only acknowledge what has happened, not understand it.

Readers will have some of that feeling themselves. This drama happened, and its aftermath following the death of Lincoln and his commitment to healing reunification extended at least another 100 years. Shaara's story centers on the war itself. But his novelist's exploration of the thinking that shaped that conflict feeds our own thinking. This conflict still has something to teach us.

* Keith Henderson is an editorial writer for the Monitor.

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