Historical Novelist Jeff Shaara On The 150th Anniversary Of Vicksburg And Gettysburg
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HH: On this July 3rd, the eve of the Declaration of Independence celebration, it is also the 2nd day of the sesquicentennial celebration, commemoration, call it what you will, of the Battle of Gettysburg. And it is two days before the sesquicentennial remembrance of the surrender of Vicksburg. And as I looked around to find someone to deal with both of those battles, I could find no one better than Jeff Shaara, novelist extraordinaire, whose brand new book, A Chain Of Thunder, I read on my recent vacation, along with the book that preceded it, A Blaze Of Glory. They are both linked over at Hughhewitt.com, because I’ve always believed that the best way in to a part of history you do not know is through historical fiction followed by history of the traditional sort. Jeff Shaara, welcome, it’s great to have you on. Congratulations, A Chain Of Thunder is really a remarkable book.
JS: Well, I very much appreciate that. I’m very proud of that one, mainly because as you said, you mentioned Vicksburg, and that’s a story most people just don’t know.
HH: That’s what I want to do in this hour. You know, I began today’s program talking with Rich Lowry about Lincoln. And today, I want to talk with you about both A Blaze Of Glory and A Chain Of Thunder, the western campaign, and then next hour, draw on your knowledge as your father’s son, the author of Killer Angels. It’s done more to teach people about Gettysburg than probably any book in history has taught about a war, a single battle. But let’s start in the western campaign. First of all, A Blaze Of Glory comes before A Chain Of Thunder. That’s about the Battle of Shiloh, and I think we really can’t talk about Vicksburg, can we, Jeff Shaars, without talking about Shiloh?
JS: No, because certainly Shiloh, which takes place in April of 1862, is really the first great, I hate to use the expression, but the first great bloodletting of the war. Most people, you know, assume that Manassas, Bull Run, is the first great battle of the war in 1861. There are 5,000 casualties at Bull Run. At Shiloh, just a few months later, there are 24,000 casualties, and five times as many, and yet it’s a battle almost nobody hears about because of where it takes place, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere in Southern Tennessee. And it’s not close to any of the media centers, and so it doesn’t get, it doesn’t have the newspaper reporters, there are no photographer, and it just doesn’t, people aren’t really aware what happened there. But two major things happened at Shiloh that will impact, certainly will impact Vicksburg. One is the rise of Ulysses Grant. This is Grant’s, after sort of a shaky start, Grant wins the Battle of Shiloh, which elevates him significantly, his reputation in Washington. It elevates him, in terms of his own competence of his own soldiers, his own commanding officers, and it really puts him on the map. The other part of Shiloh that really changes history is the death of Albert Sydney Johnston. Now this is the Confederate commander at Shiloh. He is the highest-ranking field general in the Confederacy. He outranks Robert E. Lee, and his death in April of 1862 changes the entire hierarchy, because Lee, we’d likely never would have heard of Robert E. Lee had Albert Sydney Johnston lived. So it really, the entire scope of the war after that does change.
HH: And it’s a beautiful portrait of Albert Sydney Johnston as well, and we’ll get into that as we talk this hour. I have to indulge one bit of curiosity. When I read A Blaze Of Glory, I did so with some trepidation because of a little peculiar quirk. It’s not my quirk, but it’s my wife’s family’s quirk. Her great-grandfather is a guy named Frederick Knefler. Do you know the name?
HH: Colonel Knefler was with Lew Wallace
HH: …and may not have…
JS: Now I understand.
HH: He became a general. He may have been the one not to deliver the message. And so tell people about Shiloh and what happened there that Grant almost lost the war in the west.
JS: Well, Grant’s bringing a lot, a huge army down through Tennessee. They have taken the city of Nashville, which is a critically important rail hub and supply center for the Confederacy. They’ve taken Nashville without a fight. And Albert Sydney Johnston has had to withdraw his army, wisely, down through Tennessee. He sacrifices Nashville, which of course doesn’t make the people in Nashville very happy. But Grant’s army is in pursuit. And the ultimate goal, the reason Shiloh is fought in the first place, is that Grant intends to capture the city in Northern Mississippi, the city of Corinth, which is a very important rail hub, a rail crossroads. Grant is sort of complacent in the way he sends his army southward. They believe they’ve got the Confederates on the run, they’re full of confidence. Grant’s army begins to sail up the Tennessee River. They disembark at a couple of places along the shoreline. The army’s sort of gathering. They’re going through training and drill and so forth. They don’t dig trenches, they don’t prepare any defenses, because they think the Confederates are gathering at Corinth waiting for them. Well, this is the genius of Albert Sydney Johnston. He knows that Grant’s army is sort of spread out all over the place, and they’re at various landings along the Tennessee River. And so Johnston, rather than just sit at Corinth and wait, he decides to attack, and he chooses one area of Grant’s army where he believes they’re fairly vulnerable. He does find out from his own cavalry Grant’s not ready for him. Grant has not prepared a defense at all, and if Johnston’s Confederates can surprise Grant, it could be a complete surprise, and it could be an overwhelming victory. And that’s sort of the background, the basis for the beginnings of what happens at Shiloh. But Grant, to his credit, I mean, Grant is doing what he’s been told to do. His commanding general, I mean, Grant at this point is not in command of the entire Union army, just a very small part of it. His commander, who’s Henry Halleck, is telling him, you know, sort of pulling his strings, telling him what to do. And Halleck doesn’t expect an attack, either. Well, you mentioned Lew Wallace. Grant leaves Lew Wallace’s division, about 8,000 men, several miles north of where the main body of the army is. The main body of the army is under the command of this guy you’ve probably heard of, a guy named William Tecumseh Sherman. But Wallace is, you know, when the battle breaks out and Sherman’s army is attacked by surprise, Wallace is nine miles away, and he sort of hears it, and Grant tells him, you know, you’d better get down there and help out. And for whatever reason, Wallace himself never fully explains, he just doesn’t move. And so he doesn’t arrive there until after the day’s, the first great battle has been fought all day long. He gets there that night, too late to really do any good. It doesn’t help Lew Wallace’s career.
HH: No, even though he goes on to write Ben Hur.
HH: But I have to say, at this point, this is why I like great historical fiction. I think A Blaze Of Glory and A Chain Of Thunder, like your father’s Killer Angels, does this. You invent a couple characters, Dutchie Bauer and Willis are privates at the time of the Battle of Shiloh, and they come out of the North. They come out of Wisconsin and different places, and they are, they’re just paralyzed by the unexpected violence of this collision at Shiloh, and when Albert Sydney Johnston comes out of the mist. And I think this is what you do so well is you communicate the terror of Shiloh.
JS: Well, up until now, particularly with the Civil War books, and then even in my father’s book, in The Killer Angels, the books I did on the American Revolution and on the Mexican War and so forth, it’s all told from the top down, from the points of view of the generals. When I got to the 20th Century, and began working on World War I, and I did a four book set on World War II, I realized that doesn’t work anymore. You need that guy out front. And the generals are now ten miles behind the lines. And so that’s not the best point of view. So I give you that character, the character of what we would call today the grunt, the kid with the musket in his hands who’s actually out there doing the fighting, and what he sees and experiences. And when I finished with the 20th Century and went back to start this new series, I wanted to do that same thing with the Civil War characters, that I needed the privates. I needed the guys who carried the load, and what they witnessed. I mean, think about these kids. They’re coming out of Wisconsin, they have no clue. They’ve never seen a rebel. They don’t really know what they’re doing. They’ve been trained peacefully in these camps up around St. Louis, and up around Madison, Wisconsin, and they go through the marches and the drills, and then they get out in the field, and the food turns bad, their shoes start to wear out, the officers can be some pretty nasty people, and then they find themselves being shot at. And not only being shot at, but having people with bayonets run at them.
HH: Screaming the rebel yell.
JS: Yeah, the rebel yell, which is terrifying all by itself. And what happens, of course, Fritz Bauer, Dutchie Bauer, his first reaction when he confronts this, he’s not proud of the fact he runs. I mean, a lot of them run. And in fact, Grant’s army at Shiloh, a huge percentage of them turn around and with their tails between their legs, and seek shelter at the Tennessee River. I mean, they’re terrified.
HH: And I’ve got to say, people are going to have to read, because I’m going to concentrate on Vicksburg, A Blaze Of Glory. I don’t want to give too much away, but the way you just describe dysentery for Willis and the rest of the suffering of the ordinary soldier is really inspired. And I know that people like the president of Harvard, Faust, has written The Republic Of Suffering, but these were hard days for these guys.
JS: Well, again, they’re in unfamiliar ground. They’re in ground they’ve never seen. They’re in a climate they’ve never experienced before. They’re drinking the water right out of the Tennessee River. Well, that’s kind of a problem. I don’t think we would do that today. And that’s where the dysentery comes from. I mean, sickness, disease, bad food, they’re eating raw bacon, is the meat they have. I mean, we can’t even fathom that today, what that would be like. And sure, I mean, so you’re creating a physical situation for these soldiers that’s, you know, and then, you’re asking them to stand up and fight.
HH: And to fight in close quarters over a period of days at such an alarming rate of violence that no one had ever seen before.
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HH: Let me begin by asking you, though, Jeff, did you expect your life to be formed by the Civil War? In many respects, I don’t know if anyone’s life has been more formed by the Civil War than yours, because your father’s book, your life as a Civil War novelist and a military novelist. You have to know this stuff as well as my guest on Friday, Victor Davis Hanson does.
JS: Yeah, it’s hard to argue that. I mean, I certainly never expected this. I mean, as the kid, I mean, I was the Civil War kid. I mean, I had the little soldiers, and I would set up these elaborate battles in my bedroom over the floor. But no, from that beginning, and going to Gettysburg for the first time when I was 12 years old with my family as a tourist, I mean, that’s what we were doing there, we had no expectation that what would happen to my father walking the ground at Gettysburg would become an obsession. My father was a writer to begin with, a writer all his life, and he knew a good story when he saw one. And walking the ground at Gettysburg really affected him. It started an odyssey that lasted seven years. It took him seven years to write The Killer Angels. And even through all of that, I mean, we had no idea of what was going to happen as a result of that book. The people in Gettysburg will tell you what has happened as a result of that book. It’s the basis for the motion picture, Gettysburg. I mean, Ted Turner took an enormous risk to bring that book to film. It made the book a number one bestseller. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. All of this, I mean, the success of this book all coming well after my father’s death. He died of heart disease. He did not live to see the enormous success of his book. He didn’t live to see the film. And I’m walking in enormous footsteps, and I mean, I take that very seriously. But I never expected to pick up the gauntlet. And when Ted Turner’s people came to me and said wouldn’t it be great to take your father’s story, which is just Gettysburg, expand it both ways, before and after? And I had never written anything before, and thought it was something I’d like to try to do, and with no expectations. And now, here, you know, 13 books later, here I am. And I’m still pretty stunned by that.
HH: Let me tell you, Jeff Shaara, this is a very sincere compliment, I think you have done for Vicksburg what your father did for Gettysburg in this battle, A Chain Of Thunder, because I didn’t know anything about Vicksburg, and I actually kind of know this stuff. I read a lot of history, and I interview a lot of authors, and the western campaign of the Civil War is a couple of paragraphs in almost every book in America. And I actually want to go to Vicksburg now, and I want to see where this unfolded, and I want to see where did they build that parapet that they built, and where are these caves in which these people suffered and ate their mules, and trapped the rats. And so I think you’ve done for them what your father did for Gettysburg. I’m not sure if they’re going to like you as much as Gettysburg likes your dad, but have you begun to hear that?
JS: Oh, no, actually the response I’m getting, well, first of all, I mean I very much appreciate that compliment. I mean, Vicksburg, I love that area. First of all, it’s beautiful. If you go there, I mean, the city overlooks the Mississippi River from really high bluffs, which was why it was important in the first place to the Confederacy. They thought it was an impregnable citadel. They thought it was unconquerable, because it was so high off the river, they had so much artillery. Well Grant, to his credit, ignores the river and really comes at Vicksburg from the land side. But much of that is still there. I mean, you can see that today. And you know, I feel bad for the people, the Park Service people today at Vicksburg, because it is the 150th of both Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and Vicksburg is being mostly ignored. And just like 1863, if you think about what we would call today media centers, well, where’s Gettysburg? It’s within a hundred miles of Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore.
JS: It’s not much farther from Richmond. Where are all the newspaper reporters? Where are the photographers? They’re all at Gettysburg. Vicksburg, you can argue that what happens at Vicksburg, where the federal control of the Mississippi River becomes absolute, that is more important to the outcome of the Civil War than what happens at Gettysburg, and I get in all kinds of arguments with people when I say that .
HH: Well, let’s talk some about that. And first, I’ve got to ask you, because when I read this for the first time, I thought to myself, I wonder if the Japanese in organizing the attack on Singapore in 1941, had studied this campaign, because it’s the same thing. They go around back.
JS: Exactly. I mean, I’ve actually heard that. Not only the Japanese, but I’ve heard Rommel studied Stonewall Jackson. I mean, Rommel studied the campaigns of Ulysses S. Grant. This is, you know, I love that, because you know, we think of the Civil War as our war. But it fascinates me to hear from people literally all over the world. I mean, my father’s book, The Killer Angels, is published in Polish. It’s published in Portuguese. It’s published in Chinese. I mean, that would absolutely amaze my father. But yes, I mean, it is our war, but war itself is certainly not unique. Civil wars are not unique. And when you have good tactics, whether it’s Napoleon or Alexander the Great, good tactics will prevail over bad tactics, and that’s exactly what happened in the Civil War.
HH: A couple of things people should know about Vicksburg. At Gettysburg, 63 Medals of Honor were awarded. At Vicksburg, 98. Now it’s been my honor to know a Medal of Honor recipient in Bill Barber, and so I know what that means. And the people who listen to this show know what that means. But my gosh, Jake Tapper, who wrote The Outpost, would know what that means. But I did not know that the U.S. Field Manual, the Army Field Manual, calls Grant’s campaign the best ever on American soil about Vicksburg. Explain to people why that is.
JS: Well first of all, we attribute to the Germans in World War II the concept of the blitzkrieg, lightning warfare. No, it was invented and first used, really, by Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1863. He understands that Vicksburg is a citadel. It is perched high above the Mississippi. A number of Confederate artillery pieces there is enormous. I mean, you’re not coming at this place from the water. What he does is he crosses the river from the Louisiana side south of Vicksburg, moves inland, and instead of just running northward and just striking right into the town of Vicksburg, he goes across Mississippi instead, and he heads to Jackson, the capital, which is sort of right in the middle of the state. He takes Jackson virtually without a fight. William T. Sherman does what Sherman’s known for doing. He burns the city. And then Grant turns and then heads westward and attacks Vicksburg from the land side. Well, this all takes place in a very short period of time. And the Confederates can’t keep up. They don’t know where he is. They don’t have adequate cavalry, which is unusual. Usually, the Confederacy are the ones with the better cavalry. Not in Mississippi. And so when Grant arrives at Vicksburg, he has defeated John C. Pemberton’s Confederate army in several different battles, has defeated them soundly. And so they scamper back into the fortifications at Vicksburg pretty beaten up.
HH: And what happens, let me take a break. And what happens next is the subject of A Chain Of Thunder. After Pemberton retreats, the siege begins. And we talk about that with author Jeff Shaara when we return. Vicksburg surrenders 150 years ago this Friday, tomorrow, in fact. I think it’s July 4th. Did it surrender on July 4th , Jeff Shaara.
JS: Yes, July 4th.
HH: 150 years ago tomorrow, Vicksburg went down, and we’ll tell you why that matters so much when we return.
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HH: I’ve got to say, again, I’m glad to admit ignorance. I didn’t know anything about Pemberton. I didn’t even know about Grierson, the U.S. cavalry man who sweeps through Mississippi and disorients the rebel cause. But Pemberton is a very interesting character, Jeff Shaara. Were you surprised…I never even knew that we had a Union man who went to the South.
JS: Oh, there were actually several of those, but yes, Pemberton is probably the one that stands out. I mean, John C. Pemberton is from Philadelphia, and he marries a woman from Virginia. He pledges his, well, he pledges his allegiance to her. And of course when the war breaks out, he decides to join the South, and join the Confederacy. He’s a lieutenant general. I mean, this man is, he was a West Pointer. He’s been in the Mexican War. I mean, this guy is a career soldier, and he surprises a lot of people when he decides to take up sides with the Confederacy. Well, the problem with that, from his own army, is there are a lot of people in his army subordinate to him who don’t really trust him, who don’t really believe this guy’s with us, that his heart’s in our cause. And that causes him a lot of problems with some of his subordinate commanders. And by the end, when he does surrender, I mean, there are a lot of people in the Confederate army that think it was a, that that was his plan all along, that he did it on purpose. Well, there’s no evidence to support that. In many ways, he’s a man who just reaches a level of competence that he’s not up to.
HH: And he’s not supported by Jefferson Davis’ other general, Johnston, who basically doesn’t attempt to relieve him. I’m not sure if you’re sympathetic to Johnston or not. Good witer. I shouldn’t know what you think about it. It’s just the story as it is. But are you? Did he do the right thing? Or ought he had tried to relieve him?
JS: Well, Johnston, I mean, is one of the most capable, and we’re talking about Joseph Johnston here, is probably one of the most capable battlefield commanders in the Confederacy, maybe in the entire war. But there’s two things at work here. One, Johnston understands that Vicksburg ultimately can’t be saved, that the Union has too many resources, it’s a fixed position that I don’t care what kind of fortifications you build. Eventually, Grant’s going to find a way to grab that, just by, which he does, by surrounding it. Johnston understands it’s not defensible, and that we’re wasting troops, which is exactly what happens. 30,000 men are surrendered to Ulysses Grant. But the other side of Johnston is his own ego. This is a man who doesn’t get along with anybody, including Jefferson Davis. He has, he feuds with Jefferson Davis throughout the entire war. Well, that’s not a productive way to run an army. And Johnston, he knows that Pemberton and Jefferson Davis are very good friends, and they communicate with each other directly, which you know, is not chain of command. You’re not supposed to do that. But they’re doing it anyway, and of course, Johnston, and you could call it petulance or pride, whatever you want, but yeah, Johnston really, that’s not his finest hour.
HH: At the same time, you give a portrait of Sherman, which was begun in the earlier book, and continues in A Chain Of Thunder. He’s a tormented man, and he is also bedeviled by, he needs to be in the front of this thing. And he’s afraid of his own cowardice.
JS: Well, there’s two parts to Sherman that I really appreciate, and to me, this is what makes a three dimensional character. I actually have talked to a medical doctor recently about Sherman, and the diagnosis is fairly simple, that by modern terminology, he was bipolar. I mean, this is a man who suffers from manic depression. And the depression often leads to panic. And this happens to Sherman at the Battle of First Bull Run. I mean, he does panic. He leaves the battlefield along with his men. He gets swept up in the chaos and the loss there. Well, that’s a stain on his reputation that he carries very, very heavily, and he’s really scared it’s going to happen again. And he sort of carries that around with him. But the other side of Sherman that I love, this man understands total war. And this is in an era when you know, war has been fought as sort of a nasty gentlemen’s agreement. Sherman understands no, that’s not what a war is. And actually, he teaches Grant a lot of those principles that if you want to beat your enemy, you need to beat your enemy. And of course, Sherman is despised by a lot of people in the South today for that reason. But he’s a very good field commander, and a very good general, and for my point of view, he’s a lot of fun to write about.
HH: And a very good portrait of him emerges in Jeff Shaara’s brand new book, A Chain Of Thunder.
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HH: And you know who’s going to love this, Jeff Shaara, you’ve probably already heard from the Riverines around the world, because give, finally, the gunboats their due. And I don’t know that anyone quite knows what it was like to be a sailor on the river of Mississippi for the Union under the guns of Vicksburg. Have you heard from any of the Riverines who were at work and said hey, thanks for this, yet?
JS: Oh, yes, very much so. In fact, and mainly because I’ve gotten grief from them before, the impression being that I’ve sort of overlooked the naval service in general. And I try to throw them a bone when I can, but I mean, this was a great example. One of the reasons I like talking about the riverboats in this situation, the Union gunboats, is it shows, actually, one more example of Ulysses S. Grant’s genius, because unlike so many, and this goes on today, and unlike so many of the sort of rivalries that exist between the services, between Army and Navy, or they don’t cooperate, and they’re competing, and all of that, Grant understands that cooperating with Admiral David Dixon Porter, who’s in commander of the naval forces there, is a good thing. And if they work together, they can make this, they can complete this siege successfully, and that’s exactly what happens.
HH: Did Sherman actually visit the gunboat? Or is that just something you used as a device?
JS: Oh, no. That’s absolutely true. No, Sherman…
JS: He, Sherman puts together four little sloops. I mean, these are little one-masted things manned by four people. He sends them downriver, or actually, they carry them over the land and they launch them right in the middle of this naval fight that’s going on in the river. And Sherman, all he’s trying to do is help out. He knows if some of the sailors on the Union boats go overboard, or if a ship is blown up or badly damaged or sunk, maybe he can try to help and he can rescue some of the sailors. And that’s in fact exactly what happens. But he likes Porter. He gets along very well with Porter. And that scene between the two men is absolutely real.
HH: Well, very well done. I also want you to talk a little bit about engineers, because you give them their due as well, Major Lockett, engineers on both sides, in fact, building either the ramparts to protect Vicksburg, or the platforms from which to launch the siege. Not a lot of attention is given to military engineers, but in your book, their pivotal role is displayed.
JS: Well, I think that evolves over the course of the Civil War, too. I think as the war, you know, up until midway through the war, most of the time, you didn’t need an engineer. You lined your guys up in a straight line and marched toward the other guys lined up in a straight line. Well, there’s not much engineering to that. But at Vicksburg, Major Lockett, I mean, this guy, he’s the Confederate chief of engineers there. He is the one who creates all the embankments, all the fortifications in a nine mile arc around Vicksburg to protect the city. He places the artillery. He’s the one in charge. Well, for a better term, he’s the one in charge of the shovels. And his, what he accomplishes there, and you can see it today. I mean, if you go there, I mean, a lot of those works are still there. And it’s a valiant effort. Unfortunately for him, the Union engineers are up to the task. And what they do, and I love this notion of digging a trench right up to the enemy’s trench. Well, if you think about doing that, well, if you dig a straight line in a ditch right toward the enemy, well, they’re going to have a pretty easy time of that. But no, what the federal engineers do is they dig these trenches in zigzag. So every night, they put their people out there, and then they realized during the day, they can do it. All they have to do is put a bunch of hay bales and logs out in front of where they’re digging, and they just keep moving the hay bales forward, and there’s nothing the Confederates can do about it.
HH: Can do. And I also, another compliment, and you’re probably embarrassed by this point, but I’ll keep it going. I would never in my life have picked up a book on nursing in the Civil War. I just wouldn’t have done it, because life is short. You don’t read about, even though my mother was a nurse, nursing in the Civil War. But your characters, Spence, who is sort of, is not gentry, but is sort of the footwoman soldier of the Confederacy, it’s very well done. And the horror of military medicine and military wounds, very beautifully conveyed.
JS: Well, thank you. And one, and this is a point I hope we really get to talk about, is that I really was happy to include a civilian character in this story. I’ve not done that before.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that. Okay.
JS: And at Vicksburg, one of the tragedies of Vicksburg is that the civilians who typically during the Civil War are allowed to get out of the way, at Vicksburg, they’re not. At Vicksburg, they’re right there. And so the citizens of the town suffer the same privations as their soldiers. And they can’t live in their homes, because the Union army is shelling the town constantly, and so they have to go out and dig holes in the ground, and they’re living literally in caves. They’re trying to make something of home of that. They take dishes with them and linens, and so forth. But it’s still living in a hole in the ground. They run out of food, and so they’re starving as badly as their soldiers are starving. But then you have Lucy Spence, this 19 year old girl, naïve, proper, as are most young girls during this era. By the end of this story, she is neither naïve nor proper. She’s had her hands in the worst filth imaginable in caring, volunteering as a nurse at the makeshift hospital. And it’s a story that rarely is told, but it’s a big part of the Vicksburg story.
HH: Are the caves of Vicksburg still there?
JS: There are some. There’s some evidence of them, but the town, of course, has grown up quite a bit. And of course, the other thing is, and which is actually being rectified today, is the woods have grown up, trees. I mean, there’s forest land all over the place that was bare dirt in 1863. And to their credit, the Park Service is changing that. I mean, they’re getting rid of a lot of the woods so that you can actually see more and more of that. And as they do this, they actually discover many of the caves, things that have been covered up for 150 years.
HH: A minute to the break, Jeff Shaara. Gettysburg, of course, is a pilgrimage, a sacred space. Is that evolving in Vicksburg?
JS: I think so. And I think part of it is what I just said about the Park Service taking sort of a proactive attitude about converting it back. It is a historical park. It’s not a conservation park. The people who criticize the Park Service for cutting down trees, saying the Park Service shouldn’t be doing that, and I’ve talked to the rangers there, and they say look, we are a historical park. We need to preserve the history. The way to do that is to make it look as close as it looked as we can to 1863. They’ve done that in Gettysburg with enormous success, and I’m happy to see it done at Vicksburg.
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HH: It’s a short segment, Jeff. Next hour, we’ll talk about Gettysburg. But I wanted to say that Captain Hickenlooper leading the forlorn hope, and the Ketcham grenades, and throwing them back, and the whole stuff about sniper fire from the platform, this is all news to me. Obviously, you’re a Civil War historian. Do many people find this as surprising as I did, that this sort of stuff went on?
JS: Oh, very definitely, and for the reason we’ve talked about already a little bit, is that you know, typically, two armies lined up and faced each other in the wide open and just blazed away, which is you know, a pretty bloody way to fight a war, and a very costly way. At Vicksburg, they have to use a lot more ingenuity. And I mean, all the things I mentioned in this story, the railroad tower that is built, it’s literally a wooden tower just made out of railroad ties on the Union side. And you would think well, gee, why doesn’t some Confederate cannon just take that thing out? Well, every time a cannon, the Confederate cannon fires, 14 Union cannons aim at the Confederate cannon. I mean, it really is, it becomes a chess game. It becomes a game of wits, which you don’t usually find in many battle of the Civil War. And that’s why I think Vicksburg is so unique and so interesting.
HH: You also find your fictional characters, Willis and Bauer, on the earthworks. And Willis says to Bauer, let’s climb, are you with me? It’s a very memorable scene, and I don’t that I have, I don’t remember Ken Burns’ series, but did you get much of the diaries of the men involved in this? Are they as divided as between Willis, the true and obvious warrior and Bauer, the citizen-soldier who’s doing what he has to do?
JS: Absolutely. I mean, think about it today. I mean, think about whether you’re talking Vietnam or Afghanistan or World War II. It’s always that way. These are human beings. I mean, this is us. It might be you and me. If you and I were in a trench somewhere, how would we be different from each other? Well, we don’t know. You don’t know until you’re in that situation. And I love, and I point this, and I’ve done it several times in other books as well, where the loudmouth, the guy in the training camp who’s always talking about oh, he can’t wait to get ahold of the enemy by the throat and all this kind of stuff, that’s the guy you never hear from on the battlefield. That’s the guy who disappears. You know, it’s the quiet guy, the guy who never says much, who ends up receiving the Medal of Honor. And you know, I love that, because that’s the humanity part of this. It’s very much the human part. This is us. You know, this is not ancient history. These are not marble statues. And that’s my job, is to dig into those points of view, the diaries, the memoirs, the collections of letters, to find out who these people are, and to put words in their mouth.
HH: And well and truly done in A Chain Of Thunder, Jeff Shaara’s new novel on the Siege of Vicksburg.
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HH: He succeeds in that project his father, Michael Shaara, whose book, The Killer Angels, really revolutionized historical fiction in America by bringing the Battle of Gettysburg to life. Jeff, we touched on this last hour a little bit, but I want to do it for the people who are just joining us this hour. Your father’s life is remarkable. It ends very soon. He died just a few days shy of 60 at 59, unaware of what he had launched. Tell people the story of Killer Angels as a way of getting into the story of Gettysburg.
JS: Well, we went to Gettysburg as, my family, as tourists. And my father, I mean, we were literally wandering around. In fact, I have old 8mm film, and I’m really dating myself with that, that my father took a lot of pictures all over the place. He was a writer. He was a science fiction writer, mostly, had been a writer all his life. And he had no interest in history beyond, again, the tourist aspect of wandering the fields of Gettysburg. But he knew a good story when he saw one, and he was first and foremost a great storyteller. And it started an odyssey with him as he began looking into the research and discovering people like Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and he became obsessed with this. It took him seven years to write the book. The Killer Angels was turned down by the first 15 publishers who saw it. It was finally picked up in 1974. It came out, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. And yet, the book was never successful in my father’s lifetime. You think about 1975, end of the Vietnam war. Nobody in this country wanted to read a book about generals. And so the book really did nothing commercially, which was a bitter disappointment to my father. But what he had done in that book that was so special that nobody had ever really done before is he took you and me, and he took us and put us into the heads of these principal players, these names we know, people like Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain. He put us in their heads, told us the story the way they would have told it to us. Well, by definition, that has to be called a novel. But historically, the events are real, the people are real, and that, it made a lot of historians a little uncomfortable, because he heard criticism, you know, who’s this guy to tell us what Robert E. Lee is thinking. Where’s your PhD in history? And my father’s response is it really doesn’t take a PhD. It takes good research and it takes good storytelling, and that’s exactly what The Killer Angels is.
HH: You know, the Hancock-Armistead friendship, everyone had written about that. I don’t think anyone really could have understood it until they read Killer Angels in the way that your father made it available to the masses. Explain a little bit to people, because I think that summarizes so much of why The Killer Angels is such a powerful book, and why Gettysburg symbolizes so much besides the turning of the war.
JS: Well, I agree with you, and first of all, I mean, the story of Hancock and Armistead is a wonderful, wonderfully poignant and wonderfully sad story. These are two men who are in the old army, the United States Army together in the 1850s, and you know, young officers, both West Pointers, and they’re best friends. And they’re in California, which is about as far removed from events in 1861 as you can get. But Armistead is a Virginian, and when he hears about Virginia seceding from the Union, he realizes he has to go home and fight for his state. And Hancock, who’s from Pennsylvania, Hancock is furious at him. I mean, he’s telling him you took an oath as an officer of the United States Army. And Armistead says I’m sorry, I’ve got to go home. Well, their parting of the ways in California, that last night they’re together, it documented. I have a first edition of Myra Hancock’s, Winfield Hancock’s wife, her memoir, published in 1890. And she talks about that night when she’s playing the piano, and there’s a lot of wine flowing, and there’s a lot of emotions. And Armistead says to his friend, Hancock, if I ever raise my sword against you, may God strike me dead. Well, on July 3rd, 1863, Lewis Armistead is leading one brigade as a part of Pickett’s Charge across the ground at Gettysburg, right into the guns of his best friend, because Winfield Hancock is holding that hill. And he is raising his sword against his best friend. I mean, that kind of poignancy, you can’t make that up.
HH: No, you can’t.
JS: I mean, if you made that up, it would seem sort of hackneyed and soap operaish and melodramatic. But it’s true. It actually happened. That’s the magic of The Killer Angels.
HH: You know, Jeff Shaara, in 1985, I wrote my first book. And all my books are non-fiction. And in that book is that story of Hancock and Armistead, because it was a chapter on friendship and its centrality to people’s lives. And Armistead thinks Hancock is dead as he’s dying, and he sends word to please have him forgive me. And I just don’t think there’s anything that is matched in real life than that incident of the two best friends opposing each other across the most important battle on the most important day in American history.
JS: Exactly, and I mean, that’s of course a microcosm of what happens all over the Civil War, brothers against brothers. I mean, at Vicksburg, we were talking before, you have regiments from Missouri fighting regiments from Missouri. And guys are running into their cousins and that kind of thing. They’re literally shooting at each other. I mean, that’s our war. That’s what the Civil War did to us. And when you run into a story like the story of Winfield Hancock and Lewis Armistead, it illustrates so much of that tragedy, that part of the war. It’s not about what regiment was on what hill, and how many musket rounds were fired. It’s a human story, and that’s what my father did. He sort of opened the door for that.
HH: Now let me ask you the burden of coming after and picking up this legacy of your dad. You can’t really do better than he did with Pickett, right? The guy was the last guy at West Point, and yet he makes him into a lovable rogue. And even if you’re a Union man like me, you love him. And here you come along, and you do this for Sherman, by the way. You do for Sherman what he did for Pickett. You make him very, very real. But that must have been daunting, Jeff Shaara.
JS: Well, you know, when people ask me how you do that, and I don’t really have an answer for that. I mean, I think my father, who taught creative writing at Florida State when he was alive, and what he would tell his creative writing students is I can’t teach you creative writing. You know, I can’t teach you to be a writer. All I would tell you is if you’re going to try to do anything like this, just tell a good story. And I mean, that’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart. And you know, I leave it to the critics or I leave it to readers to decide whether these stories are good or not. And my job is not to worry about that. My job is simply to find these characters, get into their heads. Somebody said to me, and I’m happy to mention this. Somebody said to me how dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E. Lee.
JS: Well, okay, fair enough. I mean, if I dare to put words in the mouth of Lee, or Grant, or George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower, I had better believe that those words are authentic to the character. If I don’t believe it, neither will you. And these stories simply won’t work. And certainly, my father understood that. You can’t play games with history. You can’t fabricate who somebody really was. If you get it right, the story tells itself.
HH: And if you try to invent, people will destroy you. I mean, I think one of the reasons Colleen McCullough’s novels of Rome are so extraordinarily well-received, and your novels and your father’s novels, is as far as history will take you, you go, right?
JS: Yes, absolutely. And that’s it. You don’t, what I have found, and whether it’s the Civil War or going back to the Revolution or up to World War II, is you don’t have to play games with the history. You don’t have to make this stuff up. If you get into the research, read the accounts of the people who were there, study their lives, it’s fascinating stuff. And you don’t have to create a good story. The story’s already there.
HH: I’ve visited Chamberlain’s house on the campus of Bowdoin College, and I know that many people credit your father’s book with actually making us aware of Joshua Chamberlain. Do you agree with that?
JS: Absolutely. I mean, I think prior to The Killer Angels, most people outside the state of Maine had never heard of Joshua Chamberlain. Now, you go to Gettysburg, and he’s a growth industry between posters and hats and T-shirts. And you know, and again, there’s backlash to that, and I have very little patience for that. I mean, there are people who say well, you know, Chamberlain wasn’t the only hero at Gettysburg. He wasn’t the only hero on Little Round Top. My father doesn’t say that. Nowhere in The Killer Angels does it say Joshua Chamberlain won the war. He’s simply one piece of the story, and to give some credence to it, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for what he did at Little Round Top on July 2nd, 1863. And you know, that’s fairly legitimate, so it’s up to me. You know, Michael Shaara did not create the character of Joshua Chamberlain, and he certainly didn’t create any myth around the character. He just told you the story.
HH: Does The Killer Angels continue to sell and sell and sell?
JS: Amazingly well, yes. I mean, it really, it’s remarkable. That book is now in its 112th printing, which would just floor my father. I mean, my father’s been gone now for 25 years, and my family, my mother and I, actually had a conversation about this. We didn’t realize it had been 25 years. And he missed it all. He missed the things happening at Gettysburg this week.
HH: Yeah, but he gets to clink glasses on the other side with Joshua Chamberlain and James Longstreet as they thank him for making their stories available to people.
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HH: Jeff Shaara, I want to use the next three segments, this one and the next two that follow, to cover the three days of Gettysburg. So let’s begin on day one. The army of Northern Virginia has invaded. They are approaching a little town in Gettysburg. Your father puts into Lee’s mind, I do not care. I must find their army. What’s actually happening that day? And how do they not get to the high ground with James Longstreet, whom you might want to explain as well in the senior command?
JS: Well, first of all, what happens to start the Battle of Gettysburg is an accident. Lee doesn’t want that fight. His army is scattered sort of all over the place. He’s got Dick Ewell marching well up to the north up past Carlisle. He’s got, A.P. Hill is out in the middle of nowhere, Longstreet is bringing up the rear. They’re scattered, and Lee has very inadequate cavalry, because J.E.B. Stuart, the eyes of his army, they’re off galavanting, and Stuart actually gets himself caught on the far side of the federal army, so he can’t get back to Lee, and which was a surprise for Stuart. And meanwhile, the Union Army is sort of paralleling the march of the Confederate Army up into Pennsylvania. I mean, George Meade, brand new to command, very cautious, he doesn’t really know what’s going on. It’s, as so often happens in history, it’s a violent accident that starts the Battle of Gettysburg. You have Union cavalry under General John Buford, who’s a marvelous character in my father’s story.
HH: Great character. Yeah, great character.
JS: And you know, he’s played by Sam Elliott in the film, Gettysburg, a wonderful character. Buford rides into the town of Gettysburg. He looks around, and he sees this hill where there’s a cemetery above the town, and he realizes this is really good ground. And if we’re marching up here, we need to be on this ground. Well, across the way out to the west, here comes Lee’s army. Here comes infantry marching through a pass in the mountains, and they’ve heard, and this is rumored, that there is, that there are shoes, that there’s a shoe factory in Gettysburg. Well actually, the shoe factory is not at Gettysburg. It’s in Hanover. But the Confederates are barefoot and they don’t know that. So here comes a bunch of Confederate infantry. They are not expecting to run into Union cavalry. And the Union cavalry is certainly not expecting to see gray-clad foot soldiers. And suddenly, there’s a clash. And Buford, to his credit, realizes I need to protect this hill. And so he pushes his people out west of the town to hold the Confederates back. Now Buford, he’s only got 2,500 men. That’s all he’s got. And here’s, for all he knows, here’s all Lee’s entire army is coming right down his throat. Well, he knows that coming up the road well behind him south of Gettysburg, here comes the rest of the Union Army.
HH: And here comes General Reynolds. And by the way, I must say, your father’s work of art, “In all of his life,” he has Buford say, “he’d never been so happy to see somebody as when he saw Reynolds ride into Gettysburg.”
JS: Exactly. John Reynolds is leading the Union First Corps, a whole bunch of soldiers, and here comes Reynolds. And Reynolds sees what Buford sees, and Reynolds goes back and hustles his people, gets them to come forward. Unfortunately for the Union Army, John Reynolds is killed almost immediately by a Confederate sharpshooter. It may be, talk about one of those what if things, Reynolds is possibly the finest battlefield commander in the Union Army. Well, we’ll never know how that would have turned out. But what Buford accomplishes by holding off the Confederates, slowing them down just enough, he allows Reynolds, he allows Hancock’s Corps coming up behind Reynolds, to occupy Cemetery Hill, the high ground. And that ground is really the key to the entire fight. Well, the Confederates have the opportunity to take that ground, and they delay. And they don’t do it, and it’s Dick Ewell, who is one of the, the replacements for the departed Stonewall Jackson, who died two months earlier. Ewell doesn’t do the job. The question always asked to me is had Jackson lived, would he have done the job? Well, most likely. The Confederates might have seized the high ground, and it would have been an entirely different battle.
HH: Now talk to me a little bit about art here, Jeff Shaara, because your father has Reynolds, the general, say to Buford, the cavalryman general, “’Keep at it, John. Someday, if you’re spared, you may make a soldier.’ He bowed his head once slightly. It came over Buford like a sunrise that he had just received Reynolds’ greatest compliment. At that moment, it mattered very much.” Now that could be true. It feels true. I don’t know if it’s true. Does it matter?
JS: Exactly. That’s the point. And you know, there are the academic historians, a small group of them, who will argue that you shouldn’t do things like that. You shouldn’t write these characters in that way. I’m sorry, it’s good storytelling. And there’s nothing about that that’s counterfeit. I mean, it could have happened. And knowing, again, getting into the heads of the characters through the research, knowing how they thought, the respect they had for each other, you know, the affection they had for each other, that all plays into the research. And that’s a part of the storytelling.
HH: Let me ask you, I’m a civilian’s civilian. So I have no way of knowing. But I would guess that soldiers respect, admire and appreciate this kind of writing, because you’re doing for them and conveying to the public like me that doesn’t know what they do some sense of why and how they serve.
JS: I hear that all the time. And I hear it today from soldiers in Afghanistan. I mean, I get emails through my website with that thanks, the recognition that it’s not just about the generals, either. I mean, it is about those guys out there, and what it’s like for them. And it’s not all, and certainly it’s not blood and guts. I don’t want to say that.
HH: Oh, no, it’s about 120 Maine mutineers. I mean, that’s a true story, right?
JS: That’s right. Absolutely.
HH: And we’ve got two minutes in this segment. Tell people about that.
JS: Well, I mean, Joshua Chamberlain, who’s in command, a colonel in command of the 20th Maine regiment of volunteers, and suddenly he gets word, he has nothing to do with this, 120 mutineers from the 2nd Maine regiment are being handed to him. These guys quit. And they’re under guard. They get sent to the 20th Maine under guard, and here’s Chamberlain, and now he has to deal with this on the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg. And Chamberlain goes out and speaks to them, because he’s not sure quite what to expect. And he goes out and talks to these guys, and what he says to them is so inspiring that all but six of them pick up their muskets and join the fight. And you know, there’s always hard cases, and those six guys, actually by the end of the fight at Little Round Top, four of those six pick up muskets and join the fight. And nobody’s more surprised by that than Chamberlain. He has no idea. But that particular talk that he gives to them, a brief speech, if you want to call it that, in The Killer Angels, is one of the things I think that makes that book as great as it is.
HH: Oh, it is. It’s wonderful. By the way, in The Killer Angels, there’s also Sir Arthur Lyon Fremantle, a Brit lieutenant colonel observing the Confederacy. Is he made up, or is he real?
JS: Oh, no, he’s absolutely real. In fact, he’s all over the Confederacy. He actually is very briefly around Chattanooga, he’s at Vicksburg. He’s representing Queen Victoria, and he’s there sort of touring through the Confederacy.
HH: What a great character. I mean, he’s just an extraordinarily great character.
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HH: I want to read a paragraph from Killer Angels, his father’s great epic storytelling of Gettysburg. “It was Longstreet’s curse to see the thing clearly. He was a brilliant man who was slow in speech and slow to move, and silent-faced as stone. He had not the power to convince. He sat on the horse, turning his mind away, willing it away as a gun barrel swivels. And then he thought of his children, powerless to stop that vision. It blossomed. A black picture. She stood in the doorway, the boy is dead. She didn’t even say his name. She didn’t even cry.” He lost his three children before this. He knew he was going to lose this battle. And Jeff Shaara, it, he’s a remarkable character done justice by your father, I think, probably for the first time.
JS: I think it is for the first time. I think Longstreet, after the Civil War, becomes a scapegoat for a lot of people in the Confederacy who just don’t want to believe that Robert E. Lee could make a mistake, because Lee is so highly regarded. And so Longstreet, it’s sort of easy to pick on him as the guy who makes, and he does make mistakes. He’s certainly not perfect. He’s not the perfect soldier, nor the perfect man. But Longstreet, my father really took to the character of Longstreet, and he really got into his head, and he presents Longstreet in a way that most people were not familiar with and were surprised by. And he is a sympathetic character, and that’s the beauty of good storytelling, is you know, no, he’s not the hero, he doesn’t get the girl in the end, all this sort of stuff. No, he’s just a good man in a hopeless situation.
HH: And on day two, he wants to flank the Union. And if he’d been allowed, with Hood, to do so, they might have won.
JS: Exactly. I mean, the Union line is in the position of, the shape of a fishhook. While on the straight end of that fishhook which points south towards Washington, D.C., Longstreet’s idea is if we can get around that, if we go around the right hand end of that, get around the end of that fishhook, we might, first of all, we might be able to curl up the Union line and defeat them. Or we can drive past them and get between the Union Army and Washington, D.C., which is the one thing, which is one of the goals of invading Pennsylvania in the first place, is to scare Congress into realizing that uh oh, Washington’s in trouble, we’d better end this thing. Longstreet sees the opportunity for doing that. Lee will have none of it.
HH: And I’ve got to say when he explains Longstreet’s theory, he says, “A man with a good rifle, which has a good range, it may even be a repeater, he can kill at oh, two, three hundred yards shooting into the crowd attacking him. Forget the cannon. Just put one man behind a tree. You can hardly see him from 200 yards away, but he can see you and shoot and shoot again. How many men do you think it will take to get that man from behind a tree in a ditch defended by a cannon if you have to cross an open field? At least three. He’ll kill at least two. The way you have to do it this. One man fires as the other is moving.” He explains military tactics so civilians can understand. Longstreet wasn’t a coward. He just knew they couldn’t win.
JS: Exactly, and he was also a man ahead of his time, I mean, much the way Sherman was. I mean, Longstreet understood that war is not a gentlemen’s agreement. You know, it’s not a spat. I mean, this is not people standing up, facing each other with full honor intact. No, it’s a bloody, nasty business, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.
HH: And on day two is Chamberlain’s day. Describe. We have two minutes to the break what he does at Little Round Top.
JS: Little Round Top is the tip of that straight part of the fishhook, of the far end of the Union line. The 20th Maine, by sheer chance, is ordered to hold that ground to the last. Chamberlain makes the point to the last what? The last man? The last gun? All he knows is here come the Confederates, and every time they attack him, and they attack him a half dozen times, every time they attack him, they spread out Chamberlain’s line a little more, a little more. His lines are thinner and thinner. And finally, his people begin to run out of ammunition. Chamberlain does the unthinkable. He orders them to fix bayonets. And when the Confederates come up the hill one last time, Chamberlain orders his men to charge down the hill. The audacity of that so shocks the Confederates, they throw down their guns. They surrender. And Chamberlain breaks the assault on the end of the line, possibly saving the day for the entire Union left flank. And for that, he’s awarded the Medal of Honor. It’s one of the great moments in American military history.
HH: And possibly saving the Union. I mean, we’re in the world of what ifs, but if he rolls up the flank, and he interposes his army between that of Meade and Washington, all sorts of things can happen.
HH: And so again, The Killer Angels is a book you really ought to have your kids read if they don’t know anything about Gettysburg, and which you ought to read if you want to know more and understand what goes on.
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HH: But here is this big day. Everyone knows Pickett’s Charge, but the disputes that surrounded it come alive in The Killer Angels, Jeff.
JS: Well, Robert E. Lee’s army has tried to attack the Union left, now tried to attack the Union right on the first two days, and what’s left is the center. And Lee believes, and unfortunately for Lee, he’s mistaken, he believes that the Union line is weakest in the center, that they’ve fortified both ends, expecting more attacks. So he decides to send George Pickett’s division, along with two other divisions, Isaac Trimble’s division and Pettigrew’s division across this one mile of flat, open ground. And I mean, well, you can walk it today. It’s open grassland, to send these 13,000 troops across this ground right into the center of the Union position. He starts out by shelling, bringing all the artillery to bear that he can on this one central point, hoping to break up whatever Union defenses are there, maybe demoralizing them, maybe destroying whatever Union artillery is there. The cannon goes on for quite a while. It does not have the effect that Lee believes it does. When he orders the attack, I mean, James Longstreet, under whose command Pickett is, Longstreet is devastated. He knows what’s going to happen, and he tries to explain it to Lee, and he has a hard time even giving the order to his own division commander, George Pickett. Longstreet can’t even say the words to go ahead. Well, Pickett is full of fire and brimstone. He hasn’t been on the field, yet. He’s the last division to get there. His men are ready to go. They walk out into the field. Immediately, they are, they receive solid shot from the Union artillery. Their lines are decimated as they get closer. Again, a mile of open ground, of one step at a time, they take artillery all the way across the field. When they get within 300 yards of the Union lines, they start taking musket fire. By the time they get to the low stone wall where the Union troops are, and they actually make a breakthrough. Some of the Union troops do break and run. But here come the reserves, and here come a whole bunch of Union troops to fill that gap in the line. And the attack ultimately is a complete disaster. Two-thirds of the troops who begin the attack are casualties. It’s one of those moments in American history that you just stop and shake your head and wonder how could we do that, certainly how could we do it to each other. How could a man as brilliant a commander as Robert E. Lee have ordered that to happen?
HH: What’s the actual date of Pickett’s Charge?
JS: The actual date is July 3rd, 1863.
HH: So 150 years ago today.
HH: So now, I’ve got to tell people, Fremantle, I mentioned earlier, this Englishman who’s going around. On the night before, your father puts into his words, and to Longstreet, a conversation about the Confederate Army. Longstreet says to him about Stonewall Jackson, “’He knew how to fight, Jackson did. A.P. Hill is good, too. He wears a red shirt when he goes into battle. It’s an interesting army. You met George Pickett?’ ‘Oh yes,’ Fremantle says. ‘Perfume and all,’ Longstreet chuckled. ‘It’s a hell of an army.’ But thinking of Pickett, last in line, reminded him of Pickett’s two brigade commanders – Garnett and Armistead. Old Armistead, torn by the world way from his beloved Win Hancock, who was undoubtedly waiting ahead on that black hill beyond Gettysburg, Armistead would be thinking of that tonight. And then there was Dick Garnett.” And I want to talk about him, because Garnett stayed on a horse in that fusillade which you just talked about.
JS: Yeah, Longstreet orders the brigade commanders nobody’s to ride a horse, because you know, again, a mile of open ground? Who do you think every one of those soldiers is going to be aiming his first musket shot at? The guy on the horse. Well, Garnett is injured. He’s got a wound in his leg. And he has to stay on the horse, because he can’t walk. And he knows what’s going to happen to him. He knows exactly, and there’s a bittersweet moment between Armistead and Garnett when Armistead sang to him, you can’t do this. You can’t ride the horse. And Garnett just turns and says, “I’ll see you at the top.” And there’s nothing…
HH: And he’d been court-martialed, right? He had been accused of being a coward. He had no choice, in his mind.
JS: That was part of it, is that he had been accused of being a coward by Stonewall Jackson, and honor, and again, this is a quaint notion today, but in those days, honor meant everything. And for a man to be a coward, that’s why when in fact, and I love this moment. When the Confederates retreat from the pinnacle, the high water mark, as far as they get, they do not retreat by turning around and running away. You run away, you get shot in the back. Nobody wants to be shot in the back. It means you’re a coward. They back away. I mean, that’s a wonderful little moment. I mean, it’s a horrible moment on the one hand, but it just shows what kind of characters these people were.
HH: You know, your father has Longstreet say that like all Englishmen and most Southerners, Fremantle would rather lose the war than his dignity. Dick Garnett would die, and die smiling. And there is too great a risk of making war, too, isn’t that Lee’s theory, that you can make war too glorious, that people…
JS: Well, certainly, and you know, of course, and people like Sherman understand how to take advantage of that, that you know, I liken it to war was a game of capture the flag. It’s like, you know, the greatest thing you can do is capture, for the Union, is capture Richmond. The whole first two years of the war, all their energy is spent on capturing Richmond. And Grant and Sherman understand, Richmond’s a symbol, it doesn’t mean anything. What you need to do is kill the other guy, and kill more of them than he can kill of you. That’s how you win a war.
HH: That comes through in Jeff Shaara’s brand new book, A Chain Of Thunder, the difference between the western Union commanders and the eastern Union commanders, until they both became U.S. Grant. When I come back in my final segment, I talk with Jeff Shaara on this 150th anniversary of the Pickett’s Charge about whether or not he ever gets tired about writing about, well, I’ll ask you now. We have 30 seconds. Do you ever get tired talking about this war, Jeff?
JS: Well, it’s not the war. It’s the people. And that’s what keeps me interested. And I hope that’s what keeps readers interested, is this is not just facts and figures, names, dates, places. It’s human beings, and that’s always interesting to me.
HH: I’ll be right back, America. In the meantime, what’s your website, Jeff? www.jeffshaara.com?
JS: It’s simply www.jeffshaara.com, yes.
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HH: Jeff Shaara, I want to conclude by asking you about your dad, actually, because but for books, we would not know of war and both of the horror of it and the glory of it. And I’m curious if he had any clue what he had done? Obviously, this is before social media by so many years, before the giant engines of publicity, 115 printings. I can’t even believe it. But when he finished the thing, did he know he’d done this great work of art?
JS: I think he did, and I think he held great pride in that. And of course, winning the Pulitzer Prize, which he was aware of, that was, and you know, a writer wins a Pulitzer Prize, that’s the pinnacle. I mean, his ship has come in, and he has a right to believe that anything he does from now on will be welcome with open arms in the publishing world. They’ll fight over his next book. None of that happened to my father. 1975, when the Pulitzer was awarded The Killer Angels, think about it, the end of the Vietnam War. Nobody wanted to read a book about generals. And it was about as out of fashion a subject as you can imagine. And that was a bitter pill for him to swallow. And in fact, people are always asking me what other historical works did he write? Nothing. He went on to write a Hitchcock sci-fi novel, a baseball story, For Love Of The Game, which was made into a movie with Kevin Costner, which my father also didn’t live to see. But there was no audience for The Killer Angels in his lifetime.
HH: Was your mother, is your mother bitter about any of this?
JS: Somewhat, yes. And I mean, it’s a bittersweet thing. I mean, you know, she sees the success of his book now, and it’s regarded as possibly the finest historical novel written on American soil, and she hears things like that and wonders why didn’t he get to hear that in his lifetime? I mean, he’s been gone 25 years now, and in his own heart, he knew what he had created, but it seemed as though no one else noticed. And that was a terrible disappointment to him.
HH: Jeff Shaara, last question. You’re such a prolific and successful author, and you’ve just written about Vicksburg. Is there a favorite child among your books for you?
JS: I think, and this is, talk about a curveball answer, my World War I book, To The Last Man.
HH: That is a curveball.
JS: Yeah, and I realize that. I mean, and we could talk about a lot of reasons, but I mean, I love the characters – The Red Baron, the LaFayette Escadrille, Blackjack Pershing. But I think, I have to look with affection at Gods and Generals, which was my first book, and the prequel to The Killer Angels. That’s the first time I tried to do this. That’s the first time I tried to stand in my father’s shadow and try to complete something that by all rights was his to complete.
HH: Well, well done, and again, congratulations on the new one, and every one in between, from Gods And Generals through A Chain Of Thunder, and the third book, which I am eagerly awaiting. By the way, when will that be done? We have fifteen seconds.
JS: Next May. It’ll be out next May.
HH: Oh, have to wait a long time. Jeff Shaara, thank you. Thanks for helping us commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago. His website’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.