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The Unwritten Chronicles Of Robert E. Lee
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
In his short, audacious, and quite remarkable novel, Lamar Herrin seeks to reveal Lee and Stonewall Jackson not through their campaigns but through the spirit that made those campaigns successful.
The two commanders worked together with instinctive mutual comprehension, routing one blue army after another, until the moment of their triumph at Chancellorsville when Jackson took his mortal wound. Speaking sometimes in his own voice and sometimes in that of his two protagonists, Herrin explores their psyches. Despite the title it is Jackson who dominates the narrative, and it is not the least of the author’s achievements that he makes convincing to a more secular age the religious zeal that animated the man. This Jackson does not simply thank God for his every success (as he indeed did); he is harrowed, consumed, and exhilarated by Him, full of the joy and the terror of a constant private colloquy with so immeasurably potent an ally, and finally at peace with Him. As he lies dying, Jackson “hears the weather, the chiming of the sunlight along the curving blue of the sky. Birds fly about his window—cardinals, their appearance sudden, the impression they leave behind an exultant red—and he hears their long, liquid notes. He also hears a voice, masculine, in a deep whisper telling him to rest. He draws breath with that voice, breathing through the pain. The war, soundless, full of the furious spent bluster of the sinking sun, slips out of sight and mind. …”
Jackson crosses the river, and Lee goes north without him to Gettysburg, then south to the bitter roads that now can lead only to Appomattox. Herrin gives us a spooky sense of how the brute power Grant commanded might have struck Lee at that final interview: “His expression was solemn, but not stern. Nor was it clean. Bits of all that it had looked on seemed to have stuck to it, which could only mean that however horrible the sight, he would be willing to look on it again and again.”
The author is careful with his history and daring with his people. The shape and color of the war are in this book, but its power comes from the dark, close poetry of the writing. Herrin has given us an intimate private chronicle of immense public events.