“. . . a classic for the ages, a supremely truthful look at the horrors of war and a battle that shaped who we became as a people. It will be a bookshelf treasure until my grandchildren are old enough to understand that tragedy as well as triumph determine the character of men and nations.”
Ralph Peters has been a friend, brother-in-arms and colleague (columnist, television analyst and military historian) for at least 30 years. So why is NYJB allowing me to review his latest novel, Cain at Gettysburg? Perhaps so I can tell you that just as General David Petraeus is the greatest soldier of my generation, Ralph Peters is our best military writer—the rest of us trailing far behind. And if you doubt my words, then just read this masterpiece.
To begin with, Lieutenant Colonel Peters doesn’t take it easy on his readers. To fully appreciate his novel, it helps if you know military history, high school German or have visited the battlefield. (If you have somehow omitted that pilgrimage: Read the book first but haul your sorry, unpatriotic butt up there as soon as the snow melts!) Because from its first pages, you will feel yourself caught in a time warp, transported to southern Pennsylvania during those hot, humid July days of 1863 when Fate was the real writer.
As the forces gather around a battlefield chosen by neither side, the author uses N-words, F-words and timeless soldier-talk to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of contending regiments like the 26th Wisconsin or its gray-clad twin, the 26th North Carolina.
The reader joins a march next to Blake and Cobb, hard-bitten members of Lee’s barefoot legions. Turn a page and you eat hardtack with Schwertlein and Bettelman, German immigrants unfairly blamed for cowardice during the recent Union debacle at Chancellorsville.
As their respective armies hurriedly concentrate around the obscure village crossroads at Gettysburg, Colonel Peters repeatedly shows why soldiers everywhere question how any sane leader could truly be in charge.
The Civil War raised those eternal questions to new heights, “Team of Rivals” describing the entire Union chain of command. General George G. Meade, placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac on the eve of battle, is one of the author’s most compelling character-studies. Meade, the engineer who preferred building lighthouses, struggles with his own demons while divining Lee’s intentions - and whether his own generals are trust-worthy. One who definitely was not: the sensualist-politician turned-general Dan Sickles. “They diverted their horses around a tangle of guns. . . . The sleek barrels of the Parrott (cannons) put Sickles in mind of long, black thighs.”
Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee struggles with dysentery and the delusion that the Army of Northern Virginia cannot be defeated, something his agonized subordinate, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, questions to the point of insubordination.”Longstreet felt stricken . . . as if by a spent ball. The army had never taken the field that could not be defeated. Especially if its generals believed it could not be . . . Look at Xerxes . . . the French knights at Agincourt . . . Charles XII . . . Napoleon.”
Their disagreement sets up the book’s central conflict—and highlights one of the most enduring controversies in military history. Should Lee have attacked the well-defended Union position on the heights above Gettysburg? Or tried to maneuver around Meade’s left, threatening Union supply lines, reinforcements and even Washington itself?
Military orthodoxy then stressed the Napoleonic offensive, a doctrine made obsolete by the industrial revolution enabling the massed firepower of rifled musketry and artillery. Unless infantry, cavalry, and artillery were artfully combined, battlefields became killing grounds, particularly if the artillery was well-handled.
And at Gettysburg, it was, Union cannoneers under Major General Henry Hunt concealing their guns and holding their fire until Pickett’s climactic charge came into their sights.
Generations of war college students have stood precisely where I marched mine to show them how Lee’s troops endured a mile-long assault across open fields to reach the Union center on the aptly-named Cemetery Ridge. “Now as we step out of these woods, long-range Union guns on Little Round Top can see us and begin firing to thin our ranks, so close up your alignment.
As we make our way across these fields, every Union cannon on the field pours solid shot into us, so a third of you are now dead. But as we reach the wooden fence-line here at the Emmitsburg Pike, Union gunners change loads to case-shot and canister, giant shotguns combining with infantry volleys from behind those walls.” Eyewitnesses later spoke of entire Confederate lines disappearing, of a crimson mist that seemed to hang in the air.
Ralph Peters puts you on both sides of that charge, bringing together his superb talents as novelist, soldier, and historian in a climax that leaves the reader moved as well as breathless. “Men died by the hundreds because a command went unheard or ignored. . . . Personal rivalries and negligence worsened the slaughter and pride too often triumphed over sense.” The 26th North Carolina lost 85 percent of its men; but both they and the 26th Wisconsin were reinforced and fought to the war’s end.
In a final note, the author pays a generous tribute to Michel Shaara’s The Killer Angels, “the most beloved Gettysburg novel,” to which Cain at Gettysburg is already being compared.
I can only testify that Ralph Peters has written a classic for the ages, a supremely truthful look at the horrors of war and a battle that shaped who we became as a people. It will be a bookshelf treasure until my grandchildren are old enough to understand that tragedy as well as triumph determine the character of men and nations.