Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Civil War Generals Thought and Fought

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Civil War Generals Thought and Fought

Article excerpt

THE LAST FULL MEASURE

By Jeff Shaara

Ballantine Books 560 pp., $25.95 Americans may never stop peering back in wonder at their Civil War. How did the young country survive that terrible conflict? What did the men who shaped the conflict think as they led tens of thousands of their countrymen toward the carnage of the world's first modern war, with rifled guns, exploding shells, and rail transport vastly raising the toll in human lives? Jeff Shaara's new novel tries to get at that last question. It's the final installment in a series of historical fiction begun by Shaara's father, Michael, with his bestseller about Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels." An earlier volume, "Gods and Generals," traced the battles leading to Gettysburg. "The Last Full Measure" takes the story to its end: Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The path there lies through the second battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and the siege of Petersburg. Shaara artfully blends novelistic license with a deep reverence for history. Readers steeped in this history will no doubt find things to take issue with. For instance, during the war's final months did Lincoln really remain open to almost any compromise, even on the closed subject of slavery, if only the Southerners, now probing for peace, would simply renounce their secession? Another criticism could be Shaara's sometimes distracting stylistic peculiarities, such as a habit of stringing sentence elements together without conjunctions. The latter may be his way of trying to simulate the breathlessness of this narrative. The war was relentless, especially after Lincoln gave Grant full charge of the Union forces. The book thus has a sure momentum. The chapters swing from gray to blue, focusing on various battlefield leaders, with a strong concentration on the two giants: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee is a study in brooding, self- enforced calm, maintaining the Southern code of dignity and his personal code of faith even as it becomes clear his Army of Northern Virginia cannot prevail. Shaara draws Lee as a man convinced of the rightness of his cause, having had ample evidence early in the war that God was smiling on that cause. …

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