Book review: Battle horrors addressed in 'Cain at Gettysburg'
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More than 150,000 soldiers took part in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, and each one, no doubt, had his own individual adventure.
Ralph Peters describes in gory detail what happened to more than a dozen of those participants -- some real, some imagined -- in his historical novel "Cain at Gettysburg."
Forge Book ($25.99).
Any work of fiction about Gettysburg will invariably be compared to Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels." "Cain at Gettysburg" stands up well. Like Shaara, Ralph Peters alternates between describing the gritty you-are-there experiences of enlisted men and of their strategy-spinning officers.
His descriptions of the individual battles are clear. He also demonstrates how the fog of war, quirks of human nature and bad luck can shatter the most careful and clever plan.
The violence in "Cain at Gettysburg" is more graphic than in Shaara's story, and the language of Mr. Peters' soldiers is much saltier. The terms his Confederate soldiers and officers use to refer to blacks make clear their desperate determination to assure that somebody remained below them at the bottom of the South's social and economic pecking order.
That said, the most appalling characters Mr. Peters conjures up are both Union men: the very real Gen. Daniel Sickles and the fictional Sgt. Daniel Gallagher.
Gen. Sickles was a Pennsylvania congressman who, before the war, dodged a murder charge with a successful insanity plea. A "political" general commanding an army corps at Gettysburg, he hoped that battlefield success would propel him to the White House. In his selfish pursuit of individual glory, Gen. Sickles moved his troops far out in front of the rest of the Union army, where they were overrun by charging Confederates.
Gallagher is an Irish immigrant who sees the Rebels, and especially their officers, as the New World equivalent of brutal English landlords he had known at home. It is not enough for Gallagher to gut-shoot a Confederate captain, dooming him to a slow death. After Pickett's Charge has been repulsed, Gallagher locates his victim on the battlefield and taunts the dying man with lurid descriptions of what he will do to his female relatives.
Ralph Peters is a Pennsylvania native who joined the U.S. Army as a private in 1976 and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He now works as a commentator for Fox News and a columnist for the New York Post. His literary output includes two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction under his own name and under the pseudonym Owen Parry.
Mr. Peters is a good storyteller and he has chosen a worthy topic. In his author's note, he writes that he wanted to show readers lacking firsthand experience of battle "war's horror and appeal." "Cain at Gettysburg" succeeds. I turned the final pages of the book with disconcerting feelings of sadness and awe.
First Published July 15, 2012 12:00 am