This is the third book of Peters' that I have read, more or less in reverse historical order. It covered probably the greatest span of events of any of Peters' books, from Wilderness to Cold Harbor. Consequently it felt to me to be a bit spotty. But I don't think this could have been helped, being that it was already a good-sized volume. Once again I am so impressed by this man's ability to provide psychosocial insight into the minds of the participants. I only wish he'd stop repeating Lee's expression "those people" so often when he has him speak, or when Burnside repeats phrases. I would contend that, in 50 years of reading about this War, Peters is the best in this genre of historical fiction. And to those that don't like his representation of Grant, let me remind you that that's how he was seen by his subordinates at the time. Indeed, Grant did not win any of the battles that are depicted in the book. If "the rules" dictated that in order to win you were supposed to pick a field of your choosing to fight on, then remain in possession of that field after the battle, then Grant did not play by those rules, unlike Lee. As Lincoln said, Grant "understood the arithmetic" of attrition. Lee could never stand up to the killing for long, and Grant could, due to the North's vastly greater manpower reserves. Moreover, tactical "rules" were of minimal importance if one had the strategic vision of maneuvering Lee into a siege (of Richmond and Petersburg) from which Lee could never escape. It is not Peters' style to spell this out. The reader needs to draw his or her own conclusions from the narrative. Still, Peters does have Grant speak to his vision within pages 456 to 458. And that's what Grant ended up doing, after all.
For the record, I don't read all that fast. But I got an advance copy of "Hell or Richmond" a few weeks back and read it, so I can offer a review on the same day the book hits the shelves here and elsewhere.
I said a lot of good things about Peters' earlier "Cain at Gettysburg," and for "Hell or Richmond" I can do the same, only more so. For while this book equals its predecessor in several ways--the rich cast of complex characters straight out of history, the meticulous delineation of complex military movements, the battle pieces that thrill and compel you--it also improves on it. For one thing, it is a bigger canvas. The Overland Campaign was more complex and covered much more ground and time than the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a huge story and Peters' thorough explanation of it will be a revelation to those, like me, who come to the book knowing something, but not much, about it. For another, he shows the physical and psychological dimensions of warfare in even greater and more convincing detail. Many writers will point out that "the men had had to march all night, so they arrived at the battlefield tired," but this book gives you a full sense of how trying and miserable the conditions were, and how the men up and down the chain of command were affected by them. For still another, he even more artfully balances and integrates the personal and the universal, the military and the political, the social and the individual.
In sum, in my long stint of reading military history and fiction, I have never so convincingly felt the environment of war--its tedium and terrors, its chaotically overlapping actions and demands, its rawness. Read this if you want to know in minute detail how a month of brutal fighting took place over miles of Virginia countryside. Read it if you want to understand much of what is worth knowing about one particular military campaign. Or read it if you want to feel what pretty much any battle, down through the contentious history of our species, would have been like had you been there.
I’m absolutely hooked on this series and the author’s style of bringing history to life. He takes these real historical characters and develops them on ten pages based on all that he has read of them and by them (their own letters). “Killing well was the darkest form of genius. And, God help them all, the greatest of earthly thrills.” Lines like this grab you; could someone come to get a thrill from killing? Almost certainly, but who would ever think of it? “They had to consolidate the lines, officers explained. Old soldiers understood that ‘consolidate the lines’ was secret code amount generals for ‘We’re not sure what to do next’.” Read it for the history, hold it for the adventure.