Sunday, December 28, 2008

Twilight at Little Round Top by Glenn W. LaFantasie

There are a ton of Civil War books out there, and of those books, tomes written about Gettysburg are probably the most numerous. Lord knows, I have at least a whole shelf of them, with more to come with each trip to the Battlefield.

As a result, the quality tends to vary rather wildly. Authors take different tacks, type in differing styles, utilize differing facts, and so on, to make sure their book has a hook or angle that makes people want to read it.

"Twilight" is no different, except that in this case, at least for me, the authorial voice was ham-handed and trying at every turn to be a book that emphasized sound bites and minimized historical detail. Perfect for your uncle who only wants to read maybe five Civil War books in his life, let alone five in a month preparing for a trip to Gettysburg. Not so perfect for a reader who's expecting a more serious treatment, especially when the book itself is so specialized.

And that, if I may be pardoned for starting a sentence with and, is why the book failed utterly for me. I don't expect a general Civil War book to read like a clinical text or a scholarly essay. I don't even expect an overview of a large battle, such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg or even Manassas to get into too much minutia.

However, when your book is about not just a specific day of a specific battle, but of a particular *part* of that specific day, I expect something along the lines of a research essay expanded to the level of a book. I suspect that's also what most people would think, so when you're reading a book geared more to the "hey, I just saw something on TV about the Civil War" set inside the cover of a detailed title, there's a disconnect you can't get over.

What I can't figure is the thinking behind the book. Surely this is too detailed an account for those who watched and enjoyed "Gettysburg" but don't plan on joining the Civil War Preservation Trust, yet it reads just that way.

Here are a few sample quotes to give you an idea:

"Too often we forget that the Civil War transformed America into a bloody carnival of death."

WHAT? I'd expect that as part of a tour program, but a serious Civil War study? I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this book is out there going, "eh, it was only several hundred thousand lives so I could bore the wife and kids on vacation." The only thing forgotten here is the audience!

"Long after the war, Longstreet tried self-servingly to free himself of blame for the defeat at Gettysburg and earned instead the vilification of his former Confederate comrades in the Army of Northern Virginia..."

Umm, first of all, Longstreet was right. Secondly, he became an ally of the Union Reconstruction, never having been all that keen on secession in the first place, even joining the Government after the Civil War in aid of his old friend, President Grant. The sentence above is a woeful oversimplification that might be excused in a more general text but is out of place here.

"Beneith the mettle of a young professional soldier was a romantic heart that could croon a ballad before wielding the sword."

Do I even need to comment on this one?

I feel like it's a little unfair to pull such smal quotes out like this, but I could not think of any better way to explain my problem with the writing style. At every opportunity, LaFantasie throws in some melodramic text, either about how awful it was to be a soldier, how desperate things were, or how no one knew if they were going to see the dawn.

That might be what appeals to a certain type of reader, but that certain type of reader isn't me.

In addition, a lot of the early part of the book is taken up by setting the stage for the events on Little Round Top. It's not something that needs to go on for nearly 100 pages of a specialized book. About 25 pages of scene-setting would have been plenty for a book with a narrow topic. It would be like talking about 20 years of elections for nearly half of a book called "2008: The Debates."

This is really getting negative, which is a shame because I did like some of this book. I didn't really know the details of Warren's desperate attemps to get troops up the hill without a prior road--here's a General who got down in the muck and personally assisted in getting an artillary piece on to Little Round Top--for example. I also like the idea of showing how chaotic the battle could be, how certain players moved about, and so forth. I feel like I had a better idea of what took place after reading the book.

The trouble is that I would have been even better informed had the author took a little less time to personalize the account--there are first-person diaries aplenty for that, and are a better read (they often lack the "drama" factor that is in high gear here)--and more time to ground the reader in plain english. In other words, more "Sgt. So-and-So tried hard to rally his troops around a rock outcropping you can still see today" and less "Sgt. So-and-So kept thinking about his brother on the other side of the battlefield."

Does this make me a heartless person that doesn't care about the Carnival of Death? Perhaps from the author's perspective. I admit I'm more interested in the military details than in the life stories of every person who ever wore blue or butternut and grey. But I think in his attempt to humanize the struggle, LaFantasie went too far, and turned dramatic tension into a set of stereotypical soap opera cliches. In addition, the book takes too much time to get to its real subject, overdoing the oversiplifications along the way. That dooms the book to failure, at least in my eyes.

The blurbs call this a "face of battle" account. I guess that's just not something I much care for. However, if you really like the human side of things and want to read more about Gettysburg than in the Park Guide or a Bruce Catton trilogy, then you might like this one better than I did. If you're a serious Civil War scholar, however, you should let this one hang back with the 6th Corps in reserve of better titles.

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