Tag Archives: Michael Shaara


[Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I thought I would re-post a series of four essays that I originally penned a few years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first (below) is a kind of tourist’s report; the three that follow are more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

This past Thursday morning I hopped in my Kia Rio and made the nearly seven-hundred-mile trek from Wheaton to the site of the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. Along the way I prepared mentally by listening to books on tape: James McPherson’s On Hallowed Ground–a brief guide to the battlefield–and the first half of (what else?) Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. From Friday through Sunday morning I spent nearly sixteen hours roaming the six thousand acres of Gettysburg National Military Park, and I even managed to squeeze in a quick half-day tour of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (fifty-four miles to the south), the site of John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid on the federal arsenal there. After hiking on the battlefield a final time early Sunday morning, I drove the seven hundred miles back home while listening to the second half of The Killer Angels. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox shortly before I pulled in the driveway. It was the ultimate history nerd road trip.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

After I’ve had time to wrestle with it a bit more, I want to think out loud with you about one of the eternal questions that the experience has raised in my mind, but for the moment let me just share a few initial reactions:

Let’s start with the culinary landscape. After extensive reconnaissance, I have three discoveries to report: first, the “General Pickett Buffet,” much like the general’s charge in 1863, was ambitious but unsatisfying. Second, the Avenue Restaurant, a locally owned diner a couple of blocks to the north, serves a marvelous breakfast. And finally, proximity to the battlefield seems to have had no appreciable effect on the food at McDonald’s.

Next, the battlefield itself: It was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone at all interested in American history. The battlefield is under the auspices of the U. S. National Park Service, which has done a fabulous job of preserving as much of the original battlefield as possible and of interpreting all that transpired there. I’ve read countless books on the battle over the years, but there is simply no substitute for being there. If you can go, and if your health allows for it, get out and walk. I hiked a half-dozen times along the crest of Cemetery Ridge, stood in the woods along Seminary Ridge where John Bell Hood’s Texans formed to attack on July 2nd, clambered on the rocks at Devil’s Den (which Hood described as the worst ground he had ever seen), measured the length of line defended by the Twentieth Maine Infantry at Little Round Top, followed the route of Pickett’s Charge (and back), and stood where Robert E. Lee rode to rally his men after that charge was broken.

I am not a military historian, and to be perfectly honest, I have never been able to muster interest in academic disputes about strategy and tactics. And yet walking the battlefield helped me enormously in understanding what both armies were trying to accomplish. The ground mattered greatly in Civil War battles, and one of the most striking things about Gettysburg is how varied the ground could be.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Much of the setting is bucolic farmland–gently undulating fields dotted with clapboard barns and split-rail fences. A part of the setting is urban; Confederate General A. P. Hill’s corps drove Federal forces through the town itself on the first day, and his sharpshooters took up positions on Baltimore St. from which to harass the entrenching Yankees near the cemetery on the outskirts of town. Some of the fiercest fighting, however, unfolded on a landscape straight out of a science fiction movie. I had read about “Devil’s Den,” but I had never fully appreciated how bizarre it really is. I don’t know about you, but when I see Civil War battles in my mind’s eye, I never picture soldiers fighting hand-to-hand atop boulders the size of garbage trucks.

Young visitors to Devil's Den.

Young visitors to Devil’s Den.

The benefit of visiting the battlefield goes far beyond a better understanding of how topography shaped the conflict, and that’s a good thing. Setting aside the occasional sweaty, middle-aged re-enactor, I suspect that few of the park’s two million visitors each year are primarily interested in such technical questions. Most probably just want to gain a sense of what the common soldiers who fought there experienced. I certainly was hoping for that, among other things. There is an unbridgeable chasm that separates them from us, of course. I know that. We can never fully grasp the horrors that they witnessed and endured. (I feel that less as a limitation than as a mercy–thank you, Father.) And yet, I do believe that visiting places such as this enlivens the imagination, and imagination is an indispensable aid to historical understanding. In walking the land where these armies clashed, the landscape somehow connects us to those whose footsteps we follow. The result is a shadowy glimpse of long ago, and that, to my mind, is a treasure.

And now to the less-than-sublime–the town itself: There are numerous circa-1863 structures still standing that help us to envision what the town looked like as Union and Confederate forces converged on it 150 years ago. But much of the fighting on the 2nd and 3rd of July took place outside of town, and in the intervening century and a half there was all kinds of commercial development in that vicinity, and ever since the national park was established in the late-nineteenth century, entrepreneurs have sought to make money from tourism. Thus advocates of historical preservation have fought a battle of their own, heroically defending the ground from creeping commercialism.

They have won that battle, up to a point. The nearest McDonald’s (a good barometer of the balance of power in the struggle) is still several hundred yards from Cemetery Ridge. And yet if you head north from McDonald’s along Steinwehr Avenue, you will immediately encounter a gauntlet of cheap souvenir shops seeking to help you commemorate your pilgrimage to Gettysburg’s “hallowed ground.”

Tourism 4

The range of commemorative items is truly impressive. Notebook in hand, I visited several stores, all within a good tee shot of Cemetery Hill, and compiled a partial list. There were all kinds of caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies, of course. The vast majority referred to the recent sesquicentennial (“Gettysburg, 1863-2013″), but there were others appealing to hikers (“Hiked It, Liked It: Gettysburg Battlefield”) and imbibers (“Gettysburg: A Drinking Town with a History Problem”). For unreconstructed Confederates who might not otherwise enjoy visiting the site of a Union victory, there were declarations such as “Lee Surrendered, I Didn’t” and “Keep the South Beautiful: Put a Yankee on a Bus.”

Beyond this, there were commemorative coffee cups, travel mugs, flasks, beer steins, and wineglasses; refrigerator magnets, lapel pins, zipper pulls, ash trays, plates, jig-saw puzzles, key chains, iron-on patches, tote bags, windsocks, lap robes, piggy banks, paper weights, coasters, golf balls, Christmas tree ornaments, pens, pencils, pocketknives, cigarette lighters, thimbles, mouse pads, and playing cards. None of these much tempted me, but if I had had the money, I wouldn’t have minded bringing home the Pickett’s Charge snow globe, the shot glass with the entire text of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on it, or (my favorite) the Robert E. Lee bobble-head doll.

Maybe on my next visit.

Tourism 5


One hundred fifty-years ago today, around 3:00 in the afternoon, some 13-15 thousand Confederate soldiers left the cover of the trees to begin a 3/4 mile march across open Pennsylvania fields toward awaiting Union defenders on Cemetery Ridge, a commanding prominence at the center of the Union line just south of the town of Gettysburg.  After two days of brutal fighting, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped that a final assault might break the Union line and force a Yankee withdrawal.  Led by Major General George Pickett, the Virginia and North Carolina troops assigned to the undertaking fought valiantly but unsuccessfully, suffering casualties in excess of 50 percent.  The failed assault would eventually bear the title “Pickett’s Charge,” and the day would come when both North and South would remember the event as the turning point of the American Civil War.

"Battle of Gettysburg", L. Prang & Co. print of the painting "Hancock at Gettysbug" by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett's Charge

“Battle of Gettysburg”, L. Prang & Co. print of the painting “Hancock at Gettysbug” by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett’s Charge

If the National Park Service is correct, perhaps a quarter-million people will converge on Gettysburg this Fourth of July weekend to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the three-day conflict that killed or maimed more than fifty thousand Americans.  If you’re not among them, let me suggest a couple of books that will allow you to do so vicariously.

The first is the Killer Angels, by the late Michael Shaara.  The Killer Angels came out in 1974 to critical acclaim (garnering the Pulitzer Prize in 1975), and if the publisher’s figures are correct, it has sold approximately 2.5 million copies since its appearance.  Shaara will take you imaginatively into the thick of battle, so military buffs will find it engaging, but what makes the novel really work, I think, is his ability to place the personal stories of the cast of leading characters at the heart of the human drama he is creating.  After all, although the novel is undeniably packed with action, we already know how the battle is going to come out.  What makes us care about the outcome is Shaara’s ability to make us care about the individuals involved, tragic or inspiring figures like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, John Buford, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  I have assigned this novel numerous times in college courses over the years, and it’s routinely the case that even students who aren’t the slightest bit interested in military history find it thoroughly engrossing.

Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

For all its virtues, however, Shaara’s historical novel obscures what history actually is, and it will teach you nothing about what it means to think historically.  When I started this blog, I shared that it was my heart’s desire to be in conversation with Christians about what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past.  In my posts I have tended to concentrate primarily on the former, but not because the latter is unimportant.  As Christians, if we are ever to think with discernment and wisdom about the American past, it is imperative that we learn good historical thinking skills.

I believe that the first step to thinking historically is understanding the crucial difference between the past and history.  As I have shared before, the past is everything that humans have said or thought or done until now.  The past is almost infinitely vast and unfathomably complex, and only glimpses or shadows of it survive.  History, in contrast, is the effort to piece together the evidence that remains in order to make sense of the past.  I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ simple definition of history as the “remembered past.”

The Killer Angels tells a gripping story, some of which is true and much of which is inspiring, but it wholly conceals this fundamental difference between history and the past.  The omniscient narrator simply pulls back the veil and shows us exactly what happened.  And as we are drawn into the story, we easily forget that almost all of the dialogue and absolutely all of the private ruminations that we find so compelling are inventions of the author.  And when it comes to those factual details that seem utterly mundane (who charged when and where and why), one could read the novel a thousand times and never suspect that almost every factual statement Shaara makes is open to dispute.  Indeed, when I assign The Killer Angels, I do so not to teach students about the Battle of Gettysburg, but to help them to think more deeply about the differences between history and fiction.  I pair the novel with a tall stack of primary accounts left by the leading participants, and I challenge them to see how little of Shaara’s narrative of the battle can actually be proven.

Although no major motion picture will ever be based on it, a book about Gettysburg that does help us to think more historically is Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory.  The author, a professor of military history at Penn State, is primarily concerned with how the climactic charge on the third day at Gettysburg was remembered both by veterans and by succeeding generations.

Author Carol Reardon traces the evolution of Pickett's Charge from historical event to popular legend.

Author Carol Reardon traces the evolution of Pickett’s Charge from historical event to popular legend.

Reardon begins her study with a quote from a Union lieutenant who was an eyewitness to Pickett’s charge.  In a letter to his brother trying to describe the events of July 3, Lieutenant Frank Haskell concluded that “a full account of the battle as it was will never, can never be made.  Who could sketch the changes, the constant shifting of the bloody panorama?  It is not possible.”  In the end, he predicted, “out of the chaos of trash and falsehood that the newspapers hold, out of the disjointed mass of reports, out of the traditions and tales that come down from the field, some eye that never saw the battle will select, and some pen will write what will be named the history.”

Agreeing with Lt. Haskell, Reardon shows how little is definitively known about the battle.  How many troops were actually involved in the attack?  We’re not sure.  How long was the pre-charge cannonade, when did it begin, and how effective was it?  We can’t be certain.  What was Pickett’s actual role in the attack?  There are too many conflicting accounts to decide.

Reardon goes on to explain that, while there are a wealth of surviving historical sources concerning the battle, all have limitations.  Participants’ letters or diaries are of limited usefulness, inasmuch as individual soldiers saw only a microscopic fraction of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often remembered a kaleidoscope of disparate sensations more than a coherent narrative of what had occurred.  The official reports of commanders were often selective and self-serving.  Newspaper accounts came from reporters who typically had little personal military experience or knowledge and were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad individual, often conflicting perspectives garnered from interviews.

One of the book’s most striking features is Reardon’s demonstration that the memory of Pickett’s Charge continued to be a battleground for at least another two generations.   Part of this was a struggle over significance.  Immediately after the battle’s conclusion, Pickett’s Charge wasn’t even known as Pickett‘s charge yet.  (Pickett was rarely even mentioned in the first newspaper accounts.)  None of the participants knew what the battle meant in the big picture except that the Confederate invasion of the North had been blunted.  Most significantly, few soldiers at the time thought that the battle constituted a major turning point in the war.  Reardon writes that the battle’s purported effects on the “war’s decision, America’s destiny, the doom of the Confederacy–all of this was read afterward in to the story.”

Part of the struggle was over credit and blame. For the rest of the century, soldiers from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi wanted to know why only Pickett’s Virginians were remembered in the story’s retelling.   Soldiers on both sides wanted to know why the fighting on the final day of the battle seemed to be all that the public remembered.  Union soldiers wanted to know why so much attention was being lavished on traitorous Confederates.   Whatever had actually happened on Cemetery Ridge, the larger meaning for America was far from certain.

In a way that The Killer Angels does not, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory reminds us of the messiness of the past and the severe limitations on our ability to know it.  As Christians, we recognize in this not only a reflection of our own finiteness–we are vastly overmatched by the scope and complexity of the past–but also of our fallenness, as we strive to remember the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.