Shaara, Jeff. Gone for Soldiers.

NY: Ballantine, 2000.

I’ve read a great many books over the years about the Civil War, both history and fiction, and one of the very best novels about that key event in American history, of course, is Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. When he died in 1988, his son took over managing his estate and then moved into the family business, as well. And, despite the complete lack of literary training or previous experience, he’s turned out to be not too bad at it.

I’ve long had a deep interest in our War with Mexico not only because of my own background in military history, and the fact that I’m a Texan, but because that war, coming only thirteen years before the big event, has been relatively ignored. But almost every senior officer in both the North and the South in 1861 got his first experience of combat in Mexico. Lee, Grant, Jackson, Meade, Sherman, McClellan, Burnside, Bragg, Longstreet, Pickett, and Beauregard were all there, all fighting on the same side. And the whole thing was commanded by General Winfield Scott, also now largely forgotten, but one of the very few senior officers in 1846 with actual experience on a battlefield himself (not counting Indian fights). He had been one of the heroes of the War of 1812 against the British and he was the architect of the Anaconda Plan which eventually strangled the South in the Civil War, but the war on behalf of Manifest Destiny was his shining hour. (The elderly Duke of Wellington considered him the “greatest living soldier.”)

The author’s method is to concentrate in alternating chapters on Scott himself and on his senior engineer, Captain Robert Lee, now forty years old and very good at his job but completely without combat experience and apparently going nowhere. Scott, not himself a political general, has to struggle with President Polk and with his own senior subordinates who have ambition. Generals Twiggs and Pillow are especially difficult to deal with, and we know what later became of them. But Scott is a professional and he knows this will be his last war and he’s determined to do it right.

Lee, who has always managed to spend Christmas with his family, finds Mexico not only a foreign country but a very foreign experience and he’s a little nervous about it. But he also understands his duty and he sees the opportunity to be a “real” soldier. And, of course, though he can’t know what’s coming, this experience will create the man who will later take over the Army of Virginia. And Shaara does a pretty believable job of getting inside Lee’s head during the two years of campaigning from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. It wasn’t a very popular war in certain parts of the U.S. — the imperialist impulse was regarded as immoral by many, especially as it was also closely tied to the issue of slavery — and there are unavoidable parallels to Vietnam.

All in all, it’s not a bad book, through the author has various stylistic quirks (such as omitting conjunctions whenever possible) which I think sometimes get in the way of the story. But I would recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the Civil War as a way of providing historical balance and background.

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Published in: on 27 September 2016 at 9:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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