Action-packed treatment of one of the bloodiest episodes of the Civil War, rendered with all due gruesomeness.
Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels, writes Peters (The Officers’ Club, 2011, etc.), is the gold standard of fiction about the Battle of Gettysburg, adding that it appeared in a time when regard for the military was low and “citizens had to be reminded that towering heroes wore our country’s uniform.” Or, perhaps better, our country’s, and another country’s, uniforms. Whatever the case, Peters, a former military officer, is more reverentially disposed to the people who fight wars in a time when the culture seems worshipful of armed might. His version of Gettysburg, therefore, is vigorous, decisive, stern and otherwise populated by heroic figures. Regardless of the two authors’ respective attitude toward the business of killing, Peters is both historically accurate and a well-practiced storyteller. He also has a good sense of the language and culture of the time; when Robert E. Lee enters the scene, for instance, Peters’ prose becomes somber and portentous: “Still a mere John Churchill, he had seen to it that new shoes awaited his soldiers along his line of march. But Lee had men who had gone without shoes for months. At Chancellorsville, he had hoped for a Blenheim, but ended with a gory Malplaquet.” When Lee’s counterpart, George Meade, is on stage, Peters’ back-and-forth is snappier, suggesting Meade’s impatience; he even provides Meade with a motivation for success, for “fending off Lee would secure his family’s place in Philadelphia for generations.” Among the many strong points of Peters’ version is his attention to the immigrant players on the battlefield, the Polish and Irish and German soldiers from North and South who fought and died for their version of freedom. Familiar figures—Chamberlain, Longstreet—are here too, but these overlooked characters add depth and diversity to the tale.
Literary readers will prefer Michael Shaara and Shelby Steele, and unliterary ones will want their Newt Gingrich. But Peters’ novel holds up well, and it’s welcome in the vast library of books about the Civil War’s great turning point.