In his 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara defined a new era of military history storytelling. In the decades following his father’s passing in 1988, Jeff Shaara has crafted a series of 15 consecutive New York Times bestselling war novels. The amazing fact is, Jeff Shaara had never written a book before picking up where his father had left off.
In The Fateful Lightning, Shaara masterfully completes his series of War in the West, which will debut at the National Writers Series on June 2. This is history brought to vivid life, and page-turning storytelling at its best.
Shaara will sit down on the main stage of the Traverse City Opera House with guest host Ed Tracy, an award-winning television and webcast producer. Tracy is also a career nonprofit professional and president of Roxbury Road Creative, LLC, a Chicago-based management company. As the founding Director and later President and CEO, Tracy led the team that built the first Pritzker Military Library in 2003.
For more information about “An Evening in Conversation with Jeff Shaara” or to purchase tickets please click here.
Ed Tracy: With all the recognition for The Killer Angels in 1975, why do you think it took nearly two decades to become a bestseller?
Jeff Shaara: My father was a master of bad timing. Consider what else was happening in 1975 —the end of the Vietnam war. If there was a subject in this country that was out of vogue, it was anything to do with the military. That was a bitter disappointment to my father. He knew what he had created, but unfortunately, he created it at the wrong time. The book sort of languished. If you were in the military, you read it. Or, if you were a die-hard Civil War buff. It took virtually 20 years, when the film Gettysburg debuted, based on my father’s book, for it to catch fire.
Ed Tracy: How did the Gettysburg film project help that to happen?
Jeff Shaara: As is often the case in Hollywood, a movie will drive a book. It happens all the time and that was definitely the case with The Killer Angels. The film, financed by Ted Turner, was always meant to be called The Killer Angels. But we received a letter from Ted Turner saying the name had been changed to the more generic Gettysburg. We were devastated because we thought that would end any connection between the film and the book. It turned out we were dead wrong. I knew some book store people around that time and they told me that the book was flying off the shelf. Once the movie debuted, 19 years after the book was published, it became a number one bestseller. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before.
Ed Tracy: With the success of Gettysburg, who convinced you to begin telling military history from this unique perspective?
Jeff Shaara: I was contacted by the film director, Ron Maxwell, the man who wrote the script based on my father’s book. He was very close to Ted Turner. Maxwell said, “Ted’s excited. He wants to make more Civil War movies. Wouldn’t it be great to take your father’s book, expand it in both directions, before and after [the War], and follow many of the same characters and tell the same kind of story? In other words, tell it through the eyes of the character themselves as they would tell the story.” I had never written anything before. That’s not false modesty. I was a rare coin and precious metals dealer. I had no idea how to write a book. The idea was for me to put a story together that Ron Maxwell could adapt for a screenplay. It was always about being a movie.
Ron and I actually had the conversation, if whatever I come up with stinks, it goes in the garbage. Nobody will ever see it, which is how I was able to attack this with no fear.There were no expectations that anyone other than Ron and I were going to be looking at this thing. Another miscalculation on my part. I wrote the story and at the same time, I’m sending it to Ron for screenplay purposes, I’m dealing with Random House in New York who has this number one bestseller in The Killer Angels. When I told the publisher at Random House what I was doing she said, “You ought to send us the manuscript.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I sent them the manuscript for Gods and Generals. They called to say, “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. We think you’re a writer. Here’s a contract.” That changed my whole life.
Ed Tracy: Certainly Gods and Generals is a huge follow up to The Killer Angels and you have had a career that any writer would love to have since that book came out —three other Civil War books in this series. This is the fourth and it deals with Sherman’s March to the Sea, which is highly regarded as the turning point of the war. There is also a strong sense that in running rough shod over the South, he created several generations of despair and resentment. Do you agree and if so, how is this conflict displayed by Sherman in the book?
Jeff Shaara: I would say no and yes. I agree that there is resentment. When I’m on a book tour, I’m going to run into that resentment in places like Atlanta and Birmingham, and Jackson, Mississippi.
Sherman to this day is a four-letter word across Georgia. I portray that in the book very well — that he’s a little conflicted, but not really. Sherman understands the idea of total war and it’s actually something he teaches to Grant. It’s the subordinate teaching the superior a little bit about what we need to be doing here to win this thing and win it quickly. Sherman understands, if you’re going to win a war people need to hurt, everybody needs to hurt. Not just the army, but the civilians too, because if the civilians don’t hurt, they have no incentive to make it stop. Everywhere he goes, he has people come out and tell him, “Oh we’re not a part of the war. We’re innocent. You know our boys…yeah, well all the men are gone, but they were made to go and we didn’t send anybody off to war.” He knows that’s bologna and he’s not just a butcher. I’m very careful about this. There’s a lot of myth about Sherman’s March and what he does — that he was just brutal and destroyed everything in his path. That’s not the case. He makes it very clear, if you shoot at me from your house, I’m burning your house.
There are small towns where skirmishes break out, where the Confederate cavalry is sort of waiting for the army. A skirmish ensues. The cavalry might be using the local courthouse for their fortress. So, he burns the courthouse and the message is very clear—If you help your army fight me, I’m going to make you hurt. That theme is pretty consistent all the way through the story.
I do not believe that Sherman is a sadist. I know all the ridiculous descriptions you hear of him, sort of overblown butchery and so forth…no. I don’t buy that for a minute. What he was, was an outstanding field general who knew how to win a war.
The first part of what you said, I would disagree with —when you say Sherman’s March is the turning point of the war. By the time Sherman crosses Georgia, we’re talking late 1864, the War, for the most part, is over. Lee’s army at Petersburg is under siege. They’re not going anywhere. Lee knows this. His own army, the army in northern Virginia, is in serious trouble and the chances of them winning anything is pretty remote. In the West, the Mississippi River is totally under the control of the Federal army. New Orleans is held by the Federals. The blockade is pretty solid across the entire Confederate post. It’s a matter of time and Grant knows that. I think Sherman understands it as well. So I’m not sure I would call it a turning point. I think you can look back more towards Vicksburg…in my mind, Vicksburg or Gettysburg, really are the turning point and they happen a little bit earlier.
Ed Tracy: What are some of the pivotal scenes that we can look forward to in The Fateful Lightning?
Jeff Shaara: For the first time ever, in any of my books, and certainly in the Civil War stories, I have a character who is an escaped slave. So you have an African-American perspective. I won’t use that term in the book, by the way, because it’s an anachronism —you have a Negro perspective, which is something I’ve never done before. I’m curious how that is received.
Suddenly the masters and the overseers, the people with the bullwhips, are gone. Here comes Sherman’s army. The slaves are hanging around the plantation and they realize they can walk away if they choose to. Tens of thousands of them choose to leave and they follow Sherman’s army across Georgia and into the Carolinas.
The reason I love this character is that he walks off the plantation because he understands the brutality. His father, on the other hand, stays there. His father is afraid. He won’t leave the plantation. The boy, who’s 19 years old, marches with the army and begins to see all these people cheering about the fact that they’re free and that they’re following this army of salvation. He is extremely intelligent but he’s ignorant…he had very little education. He begins to ask questions: “Where are we going? What does it mean to be free? We’re following this army of liberation but once they go home, what happens to us?” Those are sort of social questions, not just military questions. It’s new for me to get into that perspective. I really love that character and how he evolves. He actually becomes, in a way, a sort of a soldier. He wants to help end the war. His perspective is something that, I think, is often overlooked.
Ed Tracy: No spoilers please, but were there any surprises during your research for the book that changed your point of view about the end game of the Civil War?
Jeff Shaara: There are always surprises…that’s the fun. Because my research deals with original source material, diaries, memoirs, collections of letters, I always find something that I didn’t know.
For instance, characters like Fighting Joe Wheeler —a confederate cavalryman. Wheeler is a great character. He’s the commander of pretty much the only army in the field to hold Sherman away in Georgia. He has 4,000 men against Sherman’s 60,000. That’s not going to work, and Wheeler understands that, but he suffers under the heavy hand of his superiors. People like Braxton Bragg, Joe Johnston, Beauregard, and also William Hardy. I just love the character of Wheeler.
What I find out, of course, and a lot of military historians know this, Joe Wheeler goes back into the United States Army, and he fights. He’s a General in the Spanish American War. He actually commands Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. It’s a fabulous story. I had no idea.
Then you have the character of Sherman himself. To get past the clichés about Sherman and to get into the depth, was a wonderful surprise. Sherman is a three-dimensional character —his relationship with Grant. Sherman goes to see Grant early in 1865 at City Point at Grant’s headquarters in Virginia and Abraham Lincoln is there. There’s a scene between the three of them that is absolutely accurate historically. I put it in the book. Lincoln is talking to Sherman and to Grant, and Sherman begins to appreciate Lincoln. He’s never thought much about Lincoln until then. But, he comes away from that meeting realizing, ‘Wow. You know this guy has his hands full. It’s my job to help him end this war.’ It’s a fabulous scene.
That kind of thing happens all the time in the research —where little gems will pop up, historically. It’s my license and it’s my job to put them in the story, and I do.
Ed Tracy: With all that’s been written about the Civil War, what keeps bringing readers back for more?
Jeff Shaara: When I am on book tour, I go everywhere —places like Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham and Atlanta, and Charlotte. There’s interest in the confederate side of the story. There’s even a fair amount of bitterness about the outcome of the war. I run into that a bit more than you would think, even today. I meet a lot of people who have ancestors who fought in the war.
But then you go to places like Spokane, Washington and Albuquerque, New Mexico where 300 people will show up. I ask, why? Why are these people coming? The answer I get universally, and I don’t care if it’s Boston or Chicago or Kansas City or Seattle, the response I get is, “This is our war.”
Civil wars are not unique. They’re going on today in different parts of the world. Our Civil War, and I’ll argue this with any historian, was a war fought over an idea. It wasn’t fought over land. It wasn’t fought over spoils. It wasn’t even fought because of personalities. World War I began because of the clash of personalities. It was fought over an idea. Nobody else in the world has had that conflict. It’s unique to us, and there’s a certain pride, I think, in the fact that the right side won. Had the other side won, you can get into some issues with this in the South, but had the other side won, this country would in no way resemble what we know of the United States today.
Who knows what horrors might have followed in the decades after the 1860’s. But it’s our war and I think it is uniquely American.
Sadam Hussein, in the first Gulf War, made the statement that Americans do not have the stomach for war. I would say that Sadam Hussein never read American History, because our bloodiest war was fought against each other. We inflicted more casualties on each other than have been inflicted against us in every American war combined. That right there is a statement. I think that’s a pretty deep wound. To me, it’s an easy answer. People want to know more and I’m thrilled that they do.