Shaara's 'Full Measure': The war ends

July 12, 1998|By Tom Linthicum | Tom Linthicum,Sun staff

"The Last Full Measure," by Jeff Shaara. Ballantine Books. 560 pages. $25.95.

Jeff Shaara's latest novel is most aptly titled, for in it he gives us the last full measure not only of the Civil War but also of the remarkable trilogy he has authored with his father, Michael.

First came "The Killer Angels," Michael Shaara's account of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1974 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Then came "Gods and Generals," Jeff Shaara's first book, which took the reader from 1858 to where his father's book began.

Now, Jeff Shaara has written a fitting denouement, beginning in July 1863 as Robert E. Lee's battered Confederate army retreats into Virginia after Gettysburg. It carries through the end of the war and the deaths of the three protagonists, Lee, and Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Lee and Chamberlain are major players in each of the three books. Grant is introduced in this work, which focuses primarily on the last year of the war in Virginia after Grant comes east to assume command of the Union troops in March 1864.

Like its predecessors, "The Last Full Measure" is a historical epic told through the eyes of its characters. And like its predecessors, it manages to transport the reader into another dimension in which these characters come alive as complex, heroic and flawed men who must face not only the horrors of war but also the demons of death, self-doubt, family strife and political intrigue.

You are with Lee, a deeply religious man, as he first begins to wonder if the Confederate cause will prevail. He has likened the South's struggle to the American Revolution and has believed steadfastly that God would deliver a victory, but after Gettysburg, his doubts grow as his losses mount.

You ride with Grant to see the mounds of Union dead at Cold Harbor, and you share his sickening realization that thousands are dead because of his miscalculation. Shocked by the slaughter and worried about political repercussions in the North, he resolves to avoid frontal assaults and instead to extend Lee's defenses until they are stretched to the breaking point.

You are at Chamberlain's bedside as he fights to recover from nearly mortal wounds. The Bowdoin College professor had left his home in Maine to join the army over the strong objections of his wife and mother. Now his wife, Fannie, nurses him back to health, a temporary reconciliation in their troubled marriage.

Yet this is far more than a psycho-drama encompassing the lives of three men. Shaara also shows us tactics and strategy, often undermined by the foibles of unit commanders, and the savage nature of front-line Civil War combat. And his account of Lee's desperate march west after the fall of Richmond, culminating in surrender at Appomattox, is vivid and heartfelt.

"The Last Full Measure" is a worthy companion to its two predecessors. It's easy to say that it's not quite "The Killer Angels," and indeed it's not. The tableau of the most famous battle in American history and the wonderfully rich prose of Michael Shaara make that work unique. But so what? Each book is masterful in its own way and taken together, they are unmatched in the body of Civil War literature.

Tom Linthicum is assistant to the publisher of The Sun. He was reporter and editor for more than 25 years.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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