Once I get interested in a topic, I tend to get obsessive about it, diving in to learn all I can. I’ve spent most of the last 15 years living less than an hour away from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but, beyond a couple of drive-throughs, I had never really visited the famous Civil War battlefield. That finally changed back in September when I finally was able to spend several hours at the Gettysburg National Military Park. If you’re ever in the area, the park itself is well worth a visit. There’s a fantastic visitor’s center, complete with a short film narrated by America’s Narrator: Morgan Freeman; and the battlefield, which really takes up most of the land around the town, has been wonderfully preserved.
For this week’s pick, though, we will move away from the location of the battle to the land of historical fiction. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1974, The Killer Angels, covers the events of Gettysburg from the night of June 30, 1863 through the end of the battle on July 3, 1863 from the points of view of select people on both the Union and Confederate sides.
For the Union, Shaara focuses mainly on General John Buford, whose cavalry was instrumental in delaying the Confederates long enough for the bulk of the Union army to reach Gettysburg on the first day of the battle, and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who led his men of the 20th Maine in the defense of Little Round Top on the second day of the battle. On the Confederate side, Shaara stays mainly with Lieutenant General James Longstreet, trusted advisor of General Robert E. Lee, who had grave misgivings about Lee’s handling of the battle.
While the novel is technically historical fiction (The book is full of dialogue that Shaara was not there to witness, and he makes some changes to the battle itself, such as moving the 20th Maine to the center of the Union line on the third day of the battle), Shaara has closely hewn to what happened over those days and makes sure that his readers understand the course of the battle and what is at stake. On top of that, it is a very entertaining read and turns Longstreet, Lee, Buford, Chamberlain and others into real characters rather than names in a history book. I found myself zipping through chapters in no time.
In 1993, the book was adapted into the film, Gettysburg. It was originally intended to be a television miniseries, and, while it has a fantastic cast including Martin Sheen and Richard Jordon, it lacks the scope of a feature film. It is also VERY long and overwrought at times. The Confederate charge of the Union line on the third day, famously known as Pickett’s Charge, takes maybe 20 pages in the book but close to an hour of screen time. It is worth seeing, but the book is far better.
And, since I seemingly have to bring Joss Whedon into everything, he credits reading The Killer Angels as his inspiration for the television series Firefly. Jubal Early, the bounty hunter from the episode “Objects in Space,” shares his name with one of the Confederate generals at the Battle of Gettysburg.
For anyone working on the puzzles from yesterday's post, here are your promised hints:
1) These are puzzles
2) The solution will be an English word, name, or phrase
3) Each clue will lead us to the one-word title of a movie
4) Capitalizing our answers will be helpful
- Alan Decker
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