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Literature / Gods and Generals

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Gods and Generals is a 1996 novel of the American Civil War. It was written by Jeff Shaara and serves as a prequel to The Killer Angels, the novelization of Gettysburg that was written by his father Michael Shaara (later adapted into the movie Gettysburg). This book too was adapted into the film of the same name in 2003, although the more extensive narrative resulted in greater cuts.

The novel covers the origins of the war starting in 1858, depicting the rising tensions in the South, John Brown at Harper's Ferry, and the divisions of loyalty when the Southern states began to secede following Lincoln's election. It focuses on the Eastern Theater, mainly the Army of the Potomac's revolving door of commanding generals and the generalship of Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. It closes in June of 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.


Tropes present:

  • A Day in the Limelight: The wives of Lee, Hancock, and Jackson have some point-of-view sections.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Mildly, with Tom Chamberlain's tendency to address his older brother (and commander) by name.
  • Ascended Extra: Hancock is a significant figure in The Killer Angels but is only seen a few times through the eyes of Buford, Chamberlain, and Armistead's description of him. In this book, he is one of the protagonists.
  • Armchair Military:
    • Hancock is cursed by this at the beginning. He's so good at being a quartermaster that his career is stagnating there; fortunately McClellan recognizes his capacity for field command and promotes him to General. Lee is hampered for similar reasons and for his lack of connections in Washington.
    • High command (in both Washington and Richmond) had an unfortunate tendency to make appointments based on politics rather than ability and experience, resulting in a lot of incompetent officers.
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  • As the Good Book Says...: Most often Jackson, Lee, and Chamberlain.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: The "strategy" at Fredricksburg: repeatedly sending Union troops uphill, over open ground, towards the well-fortified Confederate position.
    Lee: If I were General Burnside, I would not attack here. I'd move back upstream, come across from above us. But Burnside is not a man with the luxury of flexibility. He's being pushed from behind by loud voices in Washington, by newspapers who demand quick action. But we're here, and so he will attack us here.
  • Blasphemous Boast: Hooker says that "the Almighty himself" could not stop the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. Some of the men reflect on this after the defeat.
  • Blood Knight: Stonewall Jackson is absolutely relentless and much is made of his fiery eyes in battle. Noted in The Killer Angels when one Confederate recalls that Jackson once said "I don't want them brave, I want them dead" when his men wanted to hold their fire against a valiant Yankee soldier.
  • Call-Forward: The window-curtain that makes a sound like never, forever at Fredricksburg was something that Chamberlain remembered in The Killer Angels.
  • Condescending Compassion: Pre-war Lee requires a lot of convincing to "sell" one of his slaves to his free brother, who has been saving up, because he doesn't think they're capable of supporting themselves as free men.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: The book depicts the ethical struggle of Lee and Armistead in choosing to join the Confederates and, on a broader scale, the political upheaval in Southern states after secession comes down.
  • Demoted to Extra: Longstreet does have a few chapters, but the Confederate sections focus more on Jackson (who was a Posthumous Character in The Killer Angels). General Buford also does not appear on the Union side.
  • Field Promotion: Multiple. Hancock jumps from Major to Brigadier General when McClellan takes command and Chamberlain goes from Lieutenant Colonel to full Colonel near the end of the book.
  • Friend or Foe: Jackson is shot by Confederate men while conducting reconnaissance and dies after he contracts pneumonia on the sickbed.
  • Ensign Newbie: Lt. Colonel Chamberlain. He was aware of his lack of military experience, so he turned down a possible appointment as a full Colonel.
  • General Failure: The early Union commanders, in order....
    • General McClellan is actually excellent when it comes to organizing the army and selecting good commanders, but he's terrible in the field. (Hence the lament of one soldier that "McClellan brought superior forces to Antietam, but he also brought himself.")
    • General Burnside is a genial man and a decent general under someone else's command, and unlike the others understands very well his own shortcomings, but his lack of strategic imagination and rigid adherence to the initial plan leads the army to disaster in the Battle of Fredricksburg.
    • General Hooker is a Miles Gloriosus who seems more concerned about how well he can boast than effective strategy and flames out at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
  • Happily Married: Winfield Scott and Almira Hancock. The other marriages depicted are rockier for various reasons, mostly related to military life.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Jackson befriends a little girl and frolics with her in camp like she was his own daughter, to the astonishment of his men.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Hancock and Lee are stuck at their current rank before the war. In Hancock's case, it's because he's too good at being a quartermaster for the Army to promote him out of the job. For Lee, it's a lack of connections and diffidence about politicking his way up.
  • Loophole Abuse:
    • At the Battle of Williamsburg, Hancock is repeatedly ordered to withdraw his men despite his excellent position. He finally complies by "retreating" into the Confederate flank.
    • Chamberlain is given a two-year sabbatical from Bowdoin when his older colleagues feel his lectures on the war are too incendiary. Chamberlain uses his leave to sign up for the Army almost immediately.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Lee and Longstreet speculate that the men of the 18th North Carolina will carry Jackson's death with them forever.
  • New Meat: The 20th Maine. Until they reach a battlefield they're rather Mildly Military (as most of them are from the same area and are used to discussing things before a collective decision is made) and accidentally draw attention to the Union artillery at Antietam because they want to watch what's going on.
  • No Sense of Humor: Jackson tends to respond to jokes by staring in confusion.
  • Not So Stoic: Jackson is broken-hearted when the little girl he befriended dies of scarlet fever.
  • Origins Episode: The first part of the book depicts where each of the protagonists were before the war and how they chose the sides they did (Hancock in California, Lee in Mexico, etcetera).
  • The Professor: Chamberlain is a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Maine.
  • Religious Bruiser: In an already religious time, Jackson stand out for his belief that God wants him to kill all of the Yankee troops in front of him.
    Jackson: Mr. Smith, my religious faith teaches me that God has already fixed the time of my death; therefore, I think not of it. I am as calm in battle as I would be in my own parlor. God will come for me in his own time.
  • Renaissance Man: The head of Bowdoin wryly speculates that Chamberlain will become a great soldier, since he can become an expert in any subject apparently at will.
  • Stern Teacher: Jackson's job prior to the war. He memorizes his classroom lectures and will repeat them word-for-word the next day if someone doesn't understand, although he's more interesting when teaching on the actual artillery range.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Hancock and his friend General Couch grow increasingly frustrated with their ineffectual commanders, although the narrative makes sure to point out that it was only the commanders, not the men themselves, who were the problem.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Following the pattern of The Killer Angels. Here, the principals are Hancock and Chamberlain for the Union, Lee and Jackson for the Confederates.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Jackson and lemons.
  • War Is Hell: Throughout the book, from the First Battle of Bull Run/Mannassas onward. It's also particularly clear in the scenes at Fredricksburg when men are able to ford a canal because the bodies of their comrades have made it shallower and Chamberlain has to build himself a fort out of corpses.
    Lee: It is well that war is so terrible... or we should grow too fond of it.
  • War Was Beginning: The narrative covers the tensions in the country that lead up to the Civil War—John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, the ethical questions about slavery, Lincoln's election in 1860, secessionist propaganda in newspapers, etcetera.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Chamberlain's father was disappointed that his son didn't go to West Point. Chamberlain joins the Army because he believes in the cause, but the thought of pleasing his father is a bonus.
  • Worthy Opponent: Mostly Armistead and Hancock due to their strong friendship.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Civilians at the First Battle of Bull Run/Mannassas dressed up and brought picnic baskets to watch the battle (specifically, to watch the Union trounce the rebels). They were quite astonished to discover that, in fact, people getting shot and blasted with cannons is bloody and horrific.