My Favorite Civil War Novels

Article excerpt

"THE REAL WAR WILL NEVER GET INTO THE books." So wrote Walt Whitman, who witnessed the Civil War close up as a volunteer nurse in war hospitals in Washington, D.C. As effective as his war writings are, one can read them and yet acknowledge the truth of his point about the war never being fully represented in words. Tens of thousands of Civil War books later, his declaration still holds true. But fiction gives us a visceral understanding of what Whitman called "the seething hell and black infernal background" of the war. Well-crafted novels bring alive the richly textured atmosphere and varied personalities of the war in a way that even the best journalism and history books can't. A number of masterly fiction writers have used the bleak context of the Civil War to offer profound insights into the human condition. Here are my favorite Civil War novels.

The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Stephen Crane (1871-1900), a minister's son born several years after Appomattox, wrote one of the great war novels of all time when he was scarcely more than a boy. In The Red Badge of Courage, he produced powerful war scenes by imaginatively embellishing stories he had heard and read. His brother William, with whom he lived for several years, was an attorney who had schooled himself on the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and young Stephen had studied books such as Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887-88).

The hero of The Red Badge of Courage is Union Army private Henry Fleming, whom Crane refers to as "the youth." Tossed by moods and emotions in the campground and on the battlefield, Fleming works his way through cowardice and terror, gaining a sense of manhood after being tried in the crucible of combat. The battle described in the novel is commonly thought to be that of Chancellorsville, but, like the Army officers who appear briefly, it is not named. Crane was uninterested in the specifics of history. The battle he portrays--a murky chaos of smoke, whistling bullets, and soldiers dropping "like bundles"--could be any Civil War engagement, and Henry Fleming is the universal soldier.

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The Killer Angels (1974)

In The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara (1928-88) dramatizes the activities of well-known participants in the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. He etches detailed portraits of the Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, J. E. B. Stuart, George Pickett, and Jubal Early, and, on the Union side, officers such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, John Buford, and George Meade.

Shaara strips the generals of their mythic trappings and makes them accessibly human. The reserved, blunt Lee has a surprising aversion to slavery and is guided by a Christian conscience. An aggressive warrior who believes in well-organized frontal assaults, he differs from his second in command, Longstreet, who prefers defensive maneuvers, and from Pickett, a dandyish tyro whose hunger for military action fuels his famous, doomed charge across an open field.

A stickler for fact, Shaara provides maps that show the positions of the opposing armies on successive days of the battle. His style has the understated directness of Ernest Hemingway and the sensitivity to human thought patterns reflected in the works of James Joyee and William Faulkner.

After Shaara's death from a heart attack in 1988, his son, Jeffrey, wrote Gods and Generals, a prequel to The Killer Angels, as well as a sequel, The Last Full Measure, and other war novels. All of them were bestsellers, but none approach the magnificence of the original.

Love and War (1984)

John Jakes's entertaining popcorn epic is part of a sprawling trilogy that spans the entire Civil War as it follows the lives of two families: the Mains, South Carolina rice planters, and the Hazards, Pennsylvania steel manufacturers. …