Lee would have to be mad to send his divisions across that field. And Hunt was sure he would do it.
When I finished reading Ralph Peters’ Civil War novel Cain at Gettysburg, I almost checked my clothing for blood spatter.
Up until now Michael Shaara’s epic novel The Killer Angels has been considered not only the best Gettysburg novel ever written, but the best possible Gettysburg novel.
It’s been a long time since I read Shaara’s book, but I’m fairly certain that, for all its virtues, it didn’t have anything like the impact on me that Cain at Gettysburg did.
Cain at Gettysburg is a tactile book. It’s written at eye level – sometimes ground level – and leaves a powerful – occasionally sickening – impression of the actual experience of the men involved, generals and common soldiers alike. We are never far from the smells of gunpowder and dysentery and decomposing bodies. We feel the itch of the uniforms, the burning heat of the July sun, and the thirst and hunger of men who can never get sufficient clean water or food.
The characters, most of them real historical characters, come vividly and cantankerously alive. If the book has a villain, it’s probably Gen. Daniel Sickles, the New York politician soldier who nearly loses the battle singlehanded on the second day through blatant disregard of orders. But another villain – in the sense of being responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths, is Gen. Robert E. Lee, out of sorts and short on sleep, and suffering from loose bowels. For all his genius and virtue, which are never denied, the man does not see the world as it is. Southrons must always defeat northerners, he is certain, because they’re simply superior, and Virginians are the pinnacle of all. That naïve faith leads him into disastrous decisions.
The hero must be Gen. George Gordon Meade, the dour, detail-oriented northern commander, an engineer who’d rather be building lighthouses. Meade sees everything in terms of numbers and angles of elevation, which allows him to choose his fighting ground effectively and make the most of his superior resources. The denial of his genius on the part of subordinates and historians is, in Peters’ estimation, “the worst injustice ever done to an American general.”
But we also spend plenty of time with common soldiers – a German brigade from Milwaukee saddled with an unjust reputation for cowardice. A platoon from North Carolina led by a sergeant embittered by betrayed love, whose story is raised to the level of metaphor through the persistent existential pestering of a cynical, syphilitic comrade. A company of Irishmen from Pennsylvania led by a sergeant who is nothing less than a sociopath, and all the more valuable for it.
All in all, Ralph Peters’ assessment of the battle is not greatly different from Michael Shaara’s. But the approach is far more visceral.
Cain at Gettysburg is not light reading, and it’s not for the weak of stomach. But if you’re a Civil War buff, eager to re-live the experience of the war from your armchair, you could hardly do better than this.
Cautions for all sorts of stuff.
Lars Walkaer is the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book, Hailstone Mountain.