Thank you to the Shaaras, Michael and Jeffrey, as we enter the beginning of the most important weeks of the Sesquicentennial commemorations of the Civil War.
The siege of Vicksburg was already underway 150 years ago as General U.S. Grant pressed and pressed against the lifeline of the Confederacy between its western and its eastern halves. The city would surrender on July 4, 1863.
Far to the north and east, General Robert E. Lee had invaded Pennsylvania with his Army of Virginia and neared the small town of Gettysburg, but not fast enough to deny George Meade’s advance elements the high ground so that the rebels would be fighting uphill throughout the days of July 1, 2, and 3, 1863.
These days a century-and-a-half ago mark arguably the most important week in the life of our nation, the turning point in a long and bloody war that kept us one nation, not two.
Michael Shaara, the father, gave us the novel of the Civil War, “The Killer Angels,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975 and which uses all the many devices of excellent historical fiction to teach truths about the core of facts about which we can ascertain while illumining the characters of the men who led the armies. Longstreet and Chamberlain, Stuart and Buford — all the names familiar to historians become accessible to readers in a way that even the best histories dare not try. Michael Shaara died far too young, just shy of 60, in 1988.
Jeffrey Shaara, a hugely successful novelist, dared to pick up his father’s legacy and with his most recent two novels, “A Blaze of Glory” and “A Chain of Thunder,” has provided very fitting companions to his father’s fine work about the pivot of the war. The first of these two books (Jeff Shaara has written many best-selllers) is the story of terrible Shiloh, the shudder of killing that still startles for its ferocity. The second book is the epic of Grant’s genius in his campaign to seize Vicksburg and with it control of the entire Mississippi.
So many know so little about the battles of “the war in the west,” that it cannot be said of the younger Shaara what is often said of the elder: “He made the familiar tale come alive again,” because the various thrusts, failures and final brilliant strategy of Grant at Vicksburg is not familiar, and almost none of the Confederate generals arrayed opposite of Grant are as familiar as the commander-in-chief of the campaign and William Sherman and the rest of the Union brass are.
Which is why, as you prepare for the celebrations if July 4 this year, you should consider getting all three books and reading the novels of the western war before “The Killer Angels.” If you follow that order, then the glorious moments of the battles of the three days of Gettysburg, you will have in mind the awful suffering of the trapped citizens of the doomed river town far to the south, living in caves, eating their mules and praying for the deliverance of an army that never came.
The Sesquicentennial has not commanded anywhere near the attention as had been expected by many students of the war, and perhaps President Obama will work to change that as the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous address approaches, but that speech would not have been possible without the sufferings of the first few days of July, 1863. For their contribution to the understanding of that basic fact, a salute to the Shaaras.