Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cain At Gettysburg, Ralph Peters, Forge/Doherty Publisher, 429 pp., 3 maps. $25.99.

Allow me to answer the first question most readers of Killer Angels ask.

Yes.  Cain At Gettysburg is as good as Michael Shaara's novel and in some ways it is better.  Peters is a career military man who also writes compelling fiction. Owen Parry is a pseudonym of Ralph Peters and Parry writes a detective/mystery series with Able Jones as the main character. Enjoyable and having eastern a Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. settings, CWL always looks forward to the next in the series. With really good fiction, the reader finishes the novel and ponders the characters, the plot, the setting and the truths that fiction is able to tell.

Peters' Cain At Gettysburg may be the most accurate fiction work about Gettysburg. The best fiction offers felt facts and felt history: what is going on in the inside of the generals and the combat soldiers. Killer Angels and Cain at Gettysburg are informed to a degree by Biblical notions. Peter's detective Abel Jones often presents an 19th century understanding of religion, faith and justice. Peters does so again in Cain at Gettysburg. Two characters in the 26th North Carolina are very familiar with the Bible and quote it to explain or describe a situation, environment or the human condition. Blake, a sergeant, has turned in back of his Quaker faith and Cobb, a private, has turned is back on his call to preach.

German and Irish immigrants are in the forefront of Cain at Gettysburg.  Peters challenges the myths of  Germans and the Irish unwillingness to fight and fighting poorly when they do. Generated by the press, these stereotypes dominated wartime and post-war interpretations of the battle. In contrast, the author offers a 'boots on the ground' perspective of what the Germans and Irish  accomplished through courage and tenacity.

There are extensive scenes with George Gordon Meade, the Federal commander and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander. Meade is the center of scenes regarding Federal military leadership; Lee is often viewed through the eyes of Longstreet, a Confederate corps commander. Sickles, Federal corps commander, drives the story forward at times. Peter's expertise as a army veteran intelligence officer and strategist comes to the fore in these characters' interior thoughts. Among these generals, it is Meade and Sickles that are most fully described. Meade, who took command of the Army not quite three day before the battle, becomes exhausted in course of six days. Sickles, who left his troops right after the May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, returns less than three full days before the July battle of Gettysburg. He  is the politician-on-the-make who needs battlefield glory to rehabilitate his career from a pre-war murder charge.
The Confederate officers are exhausted and aware that their futures are in the balance during the battle. They each realize that imminent capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi will tip the war's balance as would a defeat in Pennsylvania.

A major difference between Killer Angels and Cain at Gettysburg is the realism.  There are vulgar dialogues and behaviors in Peters' novel. Latrine issues in open fields and shaded woods  are described; human and animal corpses are graphically described.  All the wounds in Cain at Gettysburg are felt and shown, not just mentioned. Lusts, hatreds and bigotries are among the common discourse of the soldiers. The Blue and The Grey are not brothers but enemies intent on killing each other.

So, Cain at Gettysburg stands beside Killer Angels on CWL's personal bookshelf along with
Shelby Foote's Shiloh, Perry Lentz's The Falling Hills, Richard Slotkin's The Crater and Howard Bahr's The Black Flower.  Each are very fine novels with their individual strengths.


tommygee said...

After reading your review on "Cain at Gettysburg", I immediately purchased it for my e-reader. Now this is historical fiction! I'm about 40 pages into it, and it is really great. Thanks for you recommendation. Hope to see you this fall at CCAC. Tom Gilbert

tommygee said...

After reading your review of "Cain at Gettysburg", I immediately purchased it for my e-reader. Now this is historical fiction. Great book! Thanks so much for your recommendation.
Tom Gilbert