Cain at Gettysburg – Book Review
Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters. Tor Forge, 2012. 432 pages. $25.99
The greatest battle ever fought in North America – the three-day ordeal in July 1863 when Union and Confederate Civil War armies slaughtered each other near the tiny Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg – has inspired thousands of books. Just search “Gettysburg” on amazon.com and you’ll get over 6,000 results listing books, fiction and non-fiction, with “Gettysburg” in the title. The plethora of Gettysburg books available raises two questions for anyone interested in learning about this Civil War turning point battle: “Why read a novel to learn about it?” And “Why, among the many novels written about Gettysburg, should readers single out Ralph Peters’ new novel, Cain at Gettysburg?”
The answer to the first question, “Why read a novel to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg?” is that a well-written work of fiction that remains true to historical facts and is carefully crafted by a skilled author can take readers far beyond a mere non-fiction account of people and events, units and tactical movements, to reveal the very soul of a battle. A compellingly-written novel created by a gifted story-teller with a firm command of the battle’s history can bring readers right into the “action” and allow them to not only understand what happened but also to get a feel for what the experience was really like for the battle’s participants. This unique ability of the novel format to propel readers beyond the merely “educational” understanding of an event provided by a non-fiction account into the “experiential” realm in order to achieve a truer understanding of it is what the most famous 20th century American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, meant when he wrote: “All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened.”
The answer to the second question, “Why single out Ralph Peters’ new novel?” is that the award-winning author’s latest work of fiction, Cain at Gettysburg, is a masterpiece of inspired story-telling that better than any novel yet written on the subject reveals the very soul of the Civil War’s most famous battle. In his Author’s Note, Peters judges that “A novel about Gettysburg for our time must demonstrate war’s horror and appeal, while depicting the complex humanity of those who shoulder rifles or lead armies.” Clearly, Cain at Gettysburg accomplishes that on every level. Peters’ riveting novel vividly brings the battle’s desperate fighting to life through the eyes of historical figures and unforgettable fictional characters in a way that no other novelist has yet achieved. Indeed, as some critical reviews of Peters’ new novel have already asserted, Cain at Gettysburg surpasses the – until now – best-known, most widely read novel on the battle, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974). Peters shuns the romanticism that is all too common in previous Gettysburg novels and instead presents the battle as it surely must have been experienced by those who fought it through his brutally realistic, masterfully crafted prose. Cain at Gettysburg is destined to become the classic fictional account of the Civil War’s most famous battle.
Peters’ superb narrative breathes life into the Battle of Gettysburg’s principal historical figures, allowing the reader to experience first-hand the challenges they faced and how they fought the battle. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is Peters’ treatment of Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and victor at Gettysburg. Despite winning this major turning point battle – and thereby becoming the first Union general to beat the Army of the Potomac’s arch nemesis, Confederate General Robert E. Lee – Meade has been much maligned by Union generals jealous of his Gettysburg triumph and by, as Peters’ writes, “Southern chroniclers [who] could not forgive him for defeating Robert E. Lee in a fair fight.” Meade’s untimely death – in 1872 at age 56 – gave his critics free rein to second guess his command at Gettysburg and belittle his leadership of the Army of the Potomac (which he led for the remainder of the war) and to denigrate his wartime accomplishments. Peters’ insightful examination in Cain at Gettysburg of Meade’s character, the daunting challenges he faced when command of the Army of the Potomac was thrust upon him on the eve of the battle and his command of the battle reveals the true accomplishments of the Victor of Gettysburg. Peters’ final judgment of Meade in the novel’s Epilogue seems spot on:
“Fatally, [Meade] was not a political general and had little patience with newspapermen – with the result that he was damned by partisan scribblers or, when not attacked, ignored in favor of self-promoters and liars. The man who grasped the reins of an army literally overnight and saved the Union in the course of three desperate days of battle was demoted in the public mind to a drab second-rater, his victory credited to his subordinates. It was the worst injustice ever done to an American general.”
Peters is also to be applauded for shining the spotlight on Union General Henry Hunt, the Army of the Potomac’s chief of artillery, and Hunt’s gunners. The actions during all three days of the battle by Hunt and his artillerymen, masterfully woven into the fabric of Peters’ narrative, reveal how crucial artillery support proved to be to the Union victory. Hunt’s timely tactical deployments of Union guns throughout the 3-day battle, and his incredible discipline and self-control on July 3, the battle’s culminating day – in the face of heavy pressure from Union infantry commanders to open fire prematurely – wisely preserved the Union cannon and their precious ammunition in order to deliver massed artillery fire and achieve maximum impact at the battle’s critical moment: fatally shredding the ranks of attacking Confederate infantrymen mounting Pickett’s Charge and thereby smashing Lee’s last attempt to win the battle. Although non-fiction books have emphasized the importance of artillery in the battle – the late Fairfax Downey’s excellent The Guns at Gettysburg (1958) is only one notable example among many – Peters marvelously succeeds in bringing to vivid life the gunners on both sides of the battle line and the key role they played in the fierce combat swirling around them.
In addition to historical figures, Peters has created memorable fictional characters to help readers fully understand and experience the true nature of Civil War combat and its effect on the human beings who endured it. Yet, referring to them simply as “characters” does not really do justice in describing what Peters has accomplished with his fictional creations. Instead, readers encounter people who come alive in the narrative under Peters’ skilled hand. In the Union ranks, readers get to know Gallagher, the homicidal Irishman for whom battle was “a beautiful thing” because it gave him the chance to kill, as often and as savagely brutal as possible. Also wearing blue is the German-born Fritz Schwertlein, serving with fellow Germans in one of the Union Army’s many ethnic regiments (German-Americans constituted nearly 25-percent of all Union army soldiers in the Civil War, the largest ethnic group serving in the war). German units had been unfairly maligned by the nativist American press as the “Flying Dutchmen” because they had been broken at Chancellorsville in May 1863 by Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack – native-born Americans had fled Jackson’s attack, too, and Schwertlein’s 26th Wisconsin had stood fast in the face of appalling casualties; but the “Dutchmen” with their thick accents and broken English were convenient “foreigner” scapegoats. Schwertlein’s regiment was broken at Gettysburg, but, as Peters tellingly reveals, not because the “Dutchmen” couldn’t or wouldn’t fight and not before they had helped to blunt the Confederate assault north of the town and saved the critical high ground at Cemetery Hill.
Among the people in the ranks of Lee’s Confederate Army that Peters has created is the steady Sergeant Tom “Quaker” Blake of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. The 26th lost more men at Gettysburg than any regiment on either side – 709 soldiers fell killed or wounded out of the 800 in the regiment who began the battle. Blake’s “Quaker” nickname, however, is only a galling reminder of the faith he was raised in but in which he no longer believes – the war has “killed the last prayers left in him” but not by “a sense of revulsion at the suffering and death, but how much he loved it.” Fighting alongside Blake is Private Billy Cobb, small, ugly, filthy and profane – “God’s hideous excuse for a man” – who takes an evil delight in constantly badgering Sergeant Blake (although Cobb slyly saves his most insubordinate outbursts to Blake for moments when there are no witnesses around). Blake despises the abominable Cobb, but what upsets Blake most is that the bile Cobb “spits out” is too often maddeningly true.
Peters skillfully weaves the stories of the people – real and created — who fought on both sides at Gettysburg into the rich tapestry of his novel to reveal what happened in the battle and what it was like for the 150,000 soldiers in blue and gray who fought it. The battle and its participants are brought to life in the pages of Peters’ brutally-realistic novel in a way no other novelist has yet achieved. Reading Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg is the closest any of us today will ever come to actually experiencing the horror of Civil War combat in the conflict’s bloodiest battle. Again, a quote from Hemingway helps to explain Peters’ singular achievement in his “must read” new novel: “The hardest thing to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write.” In Cain at Gettysburg, Ralph Peters proves beyond any doubt that he knows both … very, very well.