For all its centrality to American history and the shadow it casts over much literature, the actual events of the Civil War weren't particularly the fodder of novelists until recent years. Gone With the Wind is, of course, one of the most popular novels ever written and Michael Shaara's Killer Angels one of the finest. But other than William Safire's massive Freedom, and maybe MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville, there just weren't many other must reads. Shelby Foote may be our greatest historian of the War, but his novel, Shiloh, is missable, as is Confederates by the normally reliable Thomas Keneally. In the wake of the Ken Burns' Civil War phenomenon that's all changed somewhat in recent years, with more authors drawing upon this rich source, but the results have been pretty disappointing. The most acclaimed of the new batch, Cold Mountain, is rather off-putting and the most readable, Jeff Shaara's prequel and sequel to his dad's classic, suffered by comparison.
If we look then at just the three that really succeeded we find that, besides their Civil War setting, each is driven by a powerful central theme: there's Scarlett O'Hara's iron determination to preserve her family's land; there's the idea of a truly civilian army and its unexpected potential for greatness (As Joshua Chamberlain demonstrates in Killer Angels); and there's the awkward process by which the War came to be defined, though it didn't start that way, as a struggle for freedom (in the Safire book). This may not be the key to writing a great Civil War novel--a great novel period--but it's worth our considering. If nothing else, it does give the author something to organize his text around and provides some sense of gravity to keep the reader oriented.
All of which is by way of introduction to Wyatt Kingseed's novel, Fredericksburg : Squandered Courage and Uncertain Allegiance. In style the book is reminiscent of the Shaaras, as it follows a cast of historical and fictional characters -- from President Lincoln and his Cabinet, to the generals on both sides, to simple foot soldiers, and even a pretty Confederate spy in Washington -- as the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Ambrose Burnside, prepares to engage Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Lincoln has been desperately trying to find someone who'll fight, but Burnsides is an unfortunate choice. He lacks the self-confidence to lead effectively and the battle plan he draws up is so foolish, suicidal even, that his subordinates lack confidence in him. meanwhile, Lincoln is fending off the radical Republicans in Congress and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who have been plotting against him and secretarys Seward and Stanton, mounting what could almost be described as a coup, an attempt to dictate who will serve in the Cabinet. Hovering over all are issues like emancipation and British support for one side or the other and, of course, the tide of the war itself.
For my tastes, Mr. Kingseed is a tad leisurely in getting us to the battlefield, which doesn't occur until the final third of the book. It's not that other strands of the plot are uninteresting, but the pace does pick up noticeably as we get to the main event. Moreover, what was only an incipient theme finally becomes clear in this final portion, that the Union will indeed win the war if only they wage it forcefully. I wonder if some clearer foreshadowing or discussion of this point might have helped Mr. Kingseed hit his stride a little earlier in the book. In the event, Burnside's plan of attack calls for his men to charge at Confederate held heights, with predictably disastrous results:
Turning to Lee at the height of the battle from their vantage point behind the Confederate line, Longstreet calmly remarked: "General, if every man on the other side of the Potomac advances toward me over the same line, with enough ammunition, I will kill every one before they can reach me."And Longstreet recognized better than anyone that the South's only hope lay in fighting from such overwhelmingly advantageous positions:
Longstreet beamed. His theory of defensive tactics could not have had a better trial by fire. The trick would be convincing Lee and Jackson to adopt it in the future as readily as he did. They preferred the offensive. defense was against their very being. But the evidence seemed clear--put me in a position of strength and send the Federals to me, Longstreet thought. It had been a massacre, a brutal massacre and nothing less.Of course, at Gettysburg the Confederates put themselves in exactly the opposite position, to Longstreet's dismay, and in that sense this book makes for a fine companion piece with Killer Angels. But beyond that, it was Lincoln who realized that Longstreet was wrong in the long run anyway:
"You know, John, General Lee lost 5,000 men at Fredericksburg. It's really all a matter of arithmetic. If he lost 5,000 men each day for a week, at the end of that week he would have a defeated army. We can sustain more casualties for a longer time than the enemy. Sooner or later he will run out."In the ends it is that arithmetic lesson that brings the book together and makes it well worth reading.
-ESSAY: The Assassination of William McKinley: Anarchist Leon Czolgosz came to Buffalo, New York, with a mission. He believed that government was evil, and he planned to stamp out that evil, beginning at the top. (Wyatt Kingseed, American History)
-ESSAY: The First Airplane Fatality: When a plane piloted by Orville Wright in 1908 crashed during a test flight, the result proved disastrous, especially for Wright's passenger, Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge. (Wyatt Kingseed, American History)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: Longstreet and Lee: Generals At Odds: At Gettysburg, Longstreet told Lee that a direct assault would end in disaster -- but Pickett's Charge went forward anyway. (Jeffry D. Wert, Military History)
-ESSAY: The Irish Brigade: Never Were Men So Brave (John F. McCormack, Jr., Civil War Times Magazine)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd