- August 1914
- Bullets, Bottles and Gardenias
- Gringo Rebel
- A Fine Fellow
- Timeline of Revolution
- Battle of Tierra Blanca
- Gray Automobile Affair
- Gringo Rebel
- Gun Running
- John Reed
- Lifelong Friends
- Massacre of Huitzilac
- Nordenskjold Lives!
- Pancho Villa
- Soldier Under 13 Flags
- The Devil's Dictionary
- Villa's Swedish Gunner
- Yaquis capture Acaponeta
- ¡Vamanos Con Pancho Villa!
- Centennial Edition
- Veracruz Expedition
Killer-Angels: In Defense of the Historical Novel
Good historical novels are praised until they get too good, and then they are savaged in reviews as bad history. Reviewing John Harris’ novel “So Far From God”, loosely based on “Gringo Rebel”, forces the question on us, since it is a really great example of the very bad historical novel. So before looking at “So Far From God”, we ought to look at some examples of excellent historical novels, so as not to encourage the throwing out of the baby out with the bath-water.
Michael Sharaa’s “The Killer Angels” is a magnificent model of historical novel that is so faithful to the actual events of the Battle of Gettysburg that it was universally panned by historians, who were offended by casting of historical events in scenes with dialog. If Shaara had put dialog to the lips of General Lee, Longstreet and Pickett as ridiculous as that cast by Harris for Pancho Villa, then nobody would have complained, but would rather have groaned. But Shaara’s work is so carefully crafted, that his dialog is not so much invented, as lifted from the fabric of the historical record. Shaara comes at his characters with the same spirit as William Lansford in his treatment of "Pancho Villa", in his non-fictional account of the Attila of the North. Lansford said of this project:
“My Avowed purpose in writing this book is to stand Pancho Villa up, right there in front of you, and let him be still while you walk around him. If I succeed, you should be able to discover how tall he was, how he moved, the actual configuration of his face and body, his likes, hates, fears; his way of thinking, and his manner of speech. Then I'll set him in motion like a resurrected man, and let you see what he was, how he became that ... and why"
“The Killer Angels” is cast alternately in the Union and Confederate lines. Our principle protagonist on the Union side is the Col. Joshua Chamberlain, posted to the extreme south-eastern flank of the Union lines, and, on the Confederate side, Lee’s faithful right hand, the large, long-bearded General James Longstreet. Chamberlain is given orders to hold his ground at all costs; no retreat. Lee tells Longstreet that everything depends on taking the hill occupied by Chamberlain, known as “Little Round Top”.
Chamberlain went from being a down-east yankee college professor to Major-General of the Union Army, and was the man ultimately selected by Grant to receive the surrender of arms at Appomattox. Longstreet was a man haunted by the loss of his small children to smallpox, and by the vision of his boys heroically charging into modern fields of fire. He was a soldier before his time who came to grasp the strategic implications of warfare in the age of the machine, unlike his contemporary General Pickett, or for that matter Pancho Villa, 50 years later. Fortunately for the Union, his great strategic conception was squandered by Lee, much like the abilities of Gen. Ángeles under Pancho Villa.
The actual history of Chamberlain’s unit, the 20th Maine, is detailed in John J. Pullen’s dry yet fascinating non-fiction work "THE 20TH MAINE". On reading that along with works of Chamberlain himself, and letters Chamberlain wrote home on campaign, the dialog ascribed by Shaara to Chamberlain is as a refracted, concentrated light from a much greater source. None of the novel’s scenes or dialogs are contrived for the purpose of carrying the action, but everything calibrated to reveal the minds of the protagonists:
With half his battalion down, out of ammunition, and rebel whoops from Longstreet’s men coming at them yet again, Shaara’s Chamberlain begins a mental exorcise in rhetoric, standing as a manman on the firing line reciting alternate sentence constructions, as he tries to make sense of his circumstances and his responsibility. Shaara reveals to us this brilliant insight: that the battle for Little Round Top, on which the fate of the Union lines at Gettysburg and the Union itself absolutely depended, was actually won after then ammunition was spent, in the mind of a single man: Joshua Chamberlain.
In the Confederate lines, Shaara brings us around the campfire in Longstreet’s camp the night before the assault on Little Round Top. In the flickering light of that hot summer night, Sharra gathers together for us the players: the jubilant, boyish Pickett with his perfume and long, golden locks. The prophetic, melancholy Longstreet. Then, Shaara sets in motion a scene which reveals the bizarre, obscured motives for those years of slaughter, the American Civil War, through the character of the English military observer, Arthur Fremantle. The naked truthfulness of this scene is what really put-off many academic historians. No mere history has provided so faithful a picture of the events at Gettysburg or the meaning of the war itself. Shaara understood that battles are fought in the minds of men before they give themselves over to the killing fields; that it is terrain the human mind which is the true object of history.
So, I invite you stand on Little Round Top with Col. Chamberlain, out of powder in the face of Longstreet's charge; and to sit around the campfire with Longstreet, Pickett and Freemantle, before you cast judgment on the value of the historical novel.