By Al Benson Jr.
Over the years I have picked up some historical fiction books about the War of Northern Aggression. Though not completely accurate historically they often do contain a large measure of truth if you know what to look for. Some do briefly hint at certain truths, but usually not enough to catch the attention of the average reader.
I am reading one now, which I have read previously, called The Last Full Measure by Jeff Shaara. It was a New York Times bestseller, which may explain why some of the history has been soft-peddled. If Mr. Shaara had told his readers more about some of what he hinted at it probably would not have gotten published by his publisher, Ballantine Books and it might have interfered with the New York Times picking it as a best seller.
I’ve read several of Mr. Shaara’s books and they are entertaining and readable and he does give you some accurate history, but he also leaves out some things that the regular history books leave out, and if he did research for the books he has written on the War of Northern Aggression I can’t believe he didn’t run across some of this.
On page 2, in his introduction, he talks about some of the people that fought the war on both sides. He says: “From the North came farmers and fishermen, lumberjacks and shopkeepers, old veterans and young idealists. Some are barely Americans at all, expatriates and immigrants from Europe, led by officers who do not speak English.” You would have thought his finding of this kind of information would have piqued his interest enough to give at least brief commentary on who these officers in the Union army were that could not speak English—but no, he says not a word more. If you know the accurate history you have to realize that “those people” he refers to are, in the main, the Forty-Eighter socialists that Donnie Kennedy and I wrote about in Lincoln’s Marxists.
On page 88 he makes another rather trite comment about Franz Sigel, one of the more notable of the Forty Eighters. He comments on Sigel’s defeat in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 (Sigel was far from the greatest general in the world) and he says of Sigel that: “He was a graduate of the German Military Academy, an experienced fighter who had emigrated himself because he happened to pick the wrong side in a brief revolution.” Oh come on, Mr. Shaara—there’s a lot more to Franz Sigel than that and I’m sure you realize it. The 1848 socialist revolts in Europe may have been brief, in that they only lasted a bit more than a year, but they were hardly insignificant. Revolts during that time went on in something like fifteen different countries and they shook all of Europe, plus they had lasting ramifications that went beyond that time, not only in Europe but also here. Many of the leaders and regular participants in those revolts ended up in this country, in the Republican Party and in the Union armies because they recognized that they could readily identify with what Lincoln was promoting—centralism and collectivism. I would have thought Mr. Shaara could have devoted at least a brief paragraph to those people, but no, nothing more than what I have quoted. Again, this is history the general public is not supposed to be aware of.
He did make an interesting comment about the Yankee general Joshua Chamberlain which is generally not mentioned, so I wonder if he let something slip here unawares. He said on page 7 that: “…Chamberlain accepts a prestigious Chair at Bowdoin, formerly held by the renowned Calvin Stowe, husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her controversial book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inspires Chamberlain.” I’ve heard over the years that Chamberlain wasn’t a abolitionist. He may not have been, but he was inspired by one of the movers and shakers of the Abolitionist Movement. Interestingly enough, when Ms. Stowe wrote her book she had no firsthand personal knowledge of the South or of conditions in the South. She was a Unitarian who had been dabbling in spiritualism. Of course Shaara didn’t mention that—another no-no!
I wouldn’t discourage folks from reading Shaara’s books. They are entertaining and, as I said, very readable and you will get some history from them. You just won’t get everything you need to give you an accurate picture of what the War was really all about. Admittedly they are fiction, though I’ve seen some “history” books that have about the same amount of truth in them. I would, however, encourage people reading them to do some homework yourselves to find out just what has been emphasized and what has been mostly left out. That might be an interesting exercise.