- - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VALLEY OF THE SHADOW

By Ralph Peters

Forge, $26.99, 512 pages

If you believe that wars never really change anything, then your education was incomplete or you are a member of the White House staff, paid to manipulate more current events. The cure for such shortcomings of character and intellect can be found in Lt. Col. Ralph Peters‘ latest Civil War novel, “Valley of the Shadow.” This epic tale of the 1864 Valley Campaign becomes even more compelling when told by a talented novelist who is also a military expert and no-nonsense historian.

Then and now, Washington has always been a notoriously complacent capital. But barely 100 miles west of the Oval Office, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provides an eternal counterpoint to our most cherished modern conceits, like underestimating supposedly overmatched opponents. The armies of the North and South met there in struggles that literally reddened and shattered the Valley’s bucolic landscape, campaigns that even extended to the gates of Washington.

It is a story often overlooked by harried commuters fleeing up I-70 to the modern bedroom communities of Frederick, Maryland. But in July 1864, that same corridor was the objective of marauding rebel armies, Washington’s back door forced open by Confederate Gen. Jubal Early. It was an improbable campaign by an unlikely “junior varsity” opponent. Conventional wisdom confidently believed that the Confederates had been defeated decisively the year before at Gettysburg, and weren’t Union armies now besieging Richmond?

Col. Peters builds a suspense-filled narrative as the Union commander, Gen. Lew Wallace, rallies sparse defenses against an opponent assumed by Pentagon precursors to be somewhere else. Wallace, later the author of “Ben-Hur,” is forced to fight the desperate delaying action known as the Battle of Monocacy Junction. Stripped of its defenses for the attack on Richmond, Union strategy had practically invited this counterattack from rebels who had a nasty habit of refusing to stay whipped. Jubal Early was just such a man, overwhelming Wallace’s beleaguered garrison before marching on to threaten Washington’s outer defenses.

“Gordon stared at the Capitol’s dome in the distance a fabulous dare. (His) longing to seize it, and to violate those precincts, was as palpable as the desire he had felt toward unruly women in his bachelorhood.”

Repulsed by the last Union reserves arriving at the last possible moment, Early retreats to the Shenandoah Valley, fighting at all costs to defend the Confederacy’s breadbasket. To defeat him, the risk-averse Union leadership finally sends an equally hard-bitten officer, Gen. Phil Sheridan. Bivouacked in a Virginia manor house, Sheridan considers such “fine houses the pride of dissolute and violent men The mansion behind him brought out the peasant vandal in his soul and he would as soon as have put a torch to its walls as sleep within them.”

Dramatizing the Valley Campaign allows Col. Peters to resurrect some of our military history’s most intriguing characters. In addition to Early and Sheridan, the Union’s George Armstrong Custer and Confederate John B. Gordon are major players, constantly in the thick of action where victory and defeat constantly traded places. So are two future American presidents, William McKinley and Rutherford B. “Rud” Hayes, relics of that forgotten time when frontline military service was a prerequisite for higher office.

While all of Col. Peters‘ characters are real, my favorite is Private George W. Nichols of the 61st Georgia Regiment, surviving blasts of Union artillery and often short of food and shoes. But never doubting Confederate victory, until maybe at the very end.

“Yankees everywhere that whipped and whupped on blue-belly infantry came crashing down upon them, rushing into their line like floodwater, splashing blue-coats every which way and drowning all hope. That was before their cavalry came on. The cavalry just finished them, adding more scare to the big scoot back to the rear. The men on horseback were cruel, showing no mercy.”

I have read practically every book Ralph Peters has written over the last quarter-century but wondered if this multi-volume Civil War series might be a bridge too far. Not only are there obvious pitfalls in scale and scope for an author who prides himself on getting the military history exactly correct, down to the last angles of attack and defense. Above all, would a largely civilian readership — increasingly alienated from all things military — still buy books in which that alien, forgotten world was center-stage?

Maybe it was an unfair test, but I read Col. Peters‘ book just after completing “Rebel Yell,” S.C. Gwynne’s superb biography of Stonewall Jackson. Same war and same Shenandoah Valley, but different authors, different genres, different generals and utterly different outcomes. I could not put down either book, proof-positive that our rich, shared history is still capable of instructing and entertaining those who seek it out.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.


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