By Ralph Peters
There are few events upon which one may point and state with confidence “The course of American history changed here.” The battle of Gettysburg during the first three days of July 1863 is such an event. Scores of books have been written about the battle, both fiction and nonfiction, including Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels.
A blurb from Booklist’s review on a sticker on the cover of Cain at Gettysburg, states Ralph Peters’ novel “Surpasses Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels . . . Brilliant . . .Brilliant.” Sadly Mr. Peters’ book comes out on the losing end of such a comparison. The two novels cover vastly different territory, both in literal and figurative terms. One is not the superior of the other, but rather they are two sides of the same coin.
While Shaara’s The Killer Angels is the emotional struggle of a nation torn in two and battling against itself, Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg takes on the physical reality of two giant armies battling to the death.
Each novel cover’s different areas of the battlefield: Shaara highlights Buford’s delaying action northwest of Gettysburg on the battle’s first day, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top on its second, and Pickett’s Charge on its last. While Peters’ covers the Confederate advance on Seminary Ridge, Sickles’ advance to, and the subsequent fighting at, the Peach Orchard and the Union Army’s defense of Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s charge respectively.
Both books in telling their version of the battle of Gettysburg, use essentially (as history would dictate) the same cast of characters. Shaara focuses primarily on Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, John Buford, Winfield Scott Hancock and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Peters brings forward George Meade and Daniel Sickles as well the foot soldiers on both sides of the battle.
Shaara’s The Killer Angels is a romanticized, noble view of the battle and its participants, while Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg is the dirtier, grittier, bloodier picture of the battle.
Where Booklist’s review went wrong was stating that Ralph Peters’ novel is superior to that of Mr. Shaara’s. Instead Cain at Gettysburg is rather a companion to The Killer Angels, for to read both books together would give the reader a more complete view of both the battle and those who fought it.
ISBN 978-0765330475, Forge Books, © 2012, Hardcover, 432 pages, Maps, $25.99