I had a friend buy me a copy of The Killer Angels on a recent visit to the States. As someone who is trying to write her own novel about the Civil War, I wanted to reread this book and study the choices Michael Shaara makes in describing the characters, landscape, and military actions.
The Killer Angels was the first Civil War book I read after I watched the movie made from its pages. It is a fantastic book, deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. As most know, its Southern narrative comes from Longstreet's memoirs and was responsible for the revival of the forgotten general, who was victimized by Lee's aides and some generals of the ANV in their attempt to shield Lee from any culpability for the loss at Gettysburg. A loss that Lee did not hesitate in accepting responsibility for. He tried to resign afterwards, citing his health as a major cause for the loss.
I was ignorant of any of Civil War history when I read this book. Well, except for what I remembered from high school and gleaned from my many readings of Gone With the Wind. I saw the movie and read the book and knew that I wanted to learn more about this time in our history. That is a debt I owe to Michael Shaara's stunning prose.
But, Michael Shaara, whether intended or not has done some of the men he writes about a grave injustice. But I wonder if that is his fault or ours as Civil War enthusiasts.
In the pages of The Killer Angels, Longstreet is advanced at the expense of Lee. Longstreet is credited with understanding that Pickett's Charge was foolish and suicidal. It is not his fault that the attack failed. No that falls on Lee, who stubbornly refused to listen to Longstreet's sage advice. That conversation never happened because Pickett didn't charge across the field as the movie portrays. Instead, Pickett's advance was a huge flanking movement "up the Emmitsburg Road" designed to push Hancock's Second Corps into Ewell and Hill. Hancock acknowledges this in his testimony before Congress, when he says that he thought Lee was intending to go through him... that Lee was looking to roll up his line. If one has walked the Southern position at Gettysburg, one finds that Pickett's brigades were not in front of the Second Corps but to the right of Hancock's position.
But the absolute thing that Shaara's book did was ruin Stuart. The Stuart presented in those pages and in the film is one that bares little resemblance to the Stuart of history. Shaara's Stuart was an irresponsible publicity hound, who on purpose, disobeyed his orders and went riding around the Union army to avenge his loss at Brandy Station (a battle he did not lose) and restore his good name. This Stuart has to be lectured to by an angry Lee like he was a child. If this Stuart actually existed, he would have been cashiered and sent back to Virginia.
Now all that makes good drama. But in the hands of lazy historians it is a slur that Stuart can never recover from. I have argued with many enthusiasts, who read books and love the history as much, if not more than me. But they can't get past what they saw on their television screens. An angry Martin Sheen berating a contrite Stuart close to tears.
But to all of us who claim to love the history, on both sides, it should matter greatly. It should matter that Stuart's orders never tell him to communicate with Lee, but with Ewell. It should matter that Stuart was ordered to the right of Ewell on the Susquehanna and not to Lee's flank on the Potomac. It should matter greatly that Stuart was told to look for Early at York, where the army would be consolidated. And finally, it should matter that right after Lee's death, his aides and some of the generals of the ANV systematically destroyed both Longstreet's and Stuart's reputation in order to salvage Lee's.
I have to wonder if there is any book I can write that could do for Stuart what The Killer Angels did for Longstreet. Since the movie Gettysburg premiered, isn't it true that Longstreet has become the hero of the battle? Reading online societies, online forums, and participating in debates, I find this to be the case. But we are basing his role during the battle on a myth he created in order to protect himself from the unfounded charges made by Walter Taylor, Charles Marshall, Jubal Early, and W.N. Pendleton after Lee's death that he was responsible for the loss.
The reason I ask these questions is that I recently had a conversation with a Civil War enthusiast, who did not care what Stuart was ordered to do. It simply did not matter. He argued that Stuart was a randy cavalier, sleeping around (don't even get me started) and so upset over the negative publicity he received after Brandy Station that he disobeyed his orders and cost Lee the victory. The only thing that saved him from his mistake was Lee's affection for him. This narrative does exist in the historiography, but just because it exists, does not mean it is correct. We, as Civil War enthusiasts, have access to the Original Records of the War. We can look up the orders ourselves. We can read what Stuart was ordered to do. We can compare those orders with the accusations against Stuart that he disobeyed his orders and see that he did as both Lee and Longstreet ordered him to do.
So, I don't fault Michael Shaara for writing a book based on a forgotten memoir of a disgraced general. I do fault all those who take fiction, no matter how well done, and turn it into history. How bad is it? I argued with a professor during a Civil War class in college over this very issue. He didn't like being challenged. He thundered at me: "Did you not see Gettysburg?" My response was a stunned: "That's a movie, it's not history." No matter. He came in the next week and read from a historian's book that upheld the scape goating of Stuart. The class laughed, but I did not care. Stuart deserves better.
I will close this rant with a quote from Longstreet regarding Stuart's role at Gettysburg. He was writing to Major McClellan, Stuart's adjutant, after McClellan wrote an article quoting Stuart's orders. "Your paper, as it was intended, is a complete vindication of General Stuart. It shows General Lee's authority for the movement of his cavalry, and those movements were well conducted, rapidly and vigorously executed, (This is very disingenuous of Longstreet, who, not only knew what Lee's orders said, but endorsed them in a letter that is included in the Official Records) that Stuart left more cavalry with us than we actually used - a fact not known to me heretofore -, and that therefore it was peculiarly unjust, not to say cruel, in all who assailed Stuart, as the cause of the failure of the Campaign." August 3, 1878.
In his memoirs almost twenty years later, Longstreet writes: “Our plans, adopted after deep study, were suddenly given over to gratify the youthful cavalryman's wish for a romantic ride.”
And thanks to The Killer Angels, Gettysburg, and finally our own lack of curiosity into the actual facts, that is the story that remains. To the utter ruin of James Ewell Brown Stuart.