Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this review misstated the year in which the Battle of Yorktown occurred. It was 1781, not 1787.

McMansionizing History

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By John A. Farrell
Sunday, November 16, 2008

In 1964, Michael Shaara, a frustrated writer of little-known fiction, took his wife and children on a road trip to the World's Fair in New York. On their way home, they stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park, where a fine statue of Robert E. Lee guards the western reach of the famous battlefield.

The statue marks the area where, on July 3, 1863, Confederate Gen. George Pickett led some 13,000 men out from the shelter of the woods and up the long slope of Cemetery Ridge. Shaara and his 12-year-old son, Jeff, followed the path of Pickett's men, across undulating ground and a fence at Emmitsburg Road. As they climbed the ridge, Michael Shaara told stories to his son. He recounted how Pennsylvanians had done what Lee did not think they'd do that day: They'd fought and died in defense of their state's soil. He spoke of Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead and Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, great friends before the war, and how they lay bleeding, yards apart, not knowing the other was near. And when the Shaaras got to the small stone monument that marks the dirt where Armistead was mortally wounded, the boy was stunned to see his father weeping.

"What happened to my father, walking the ground at Gettysburg, changed his life," Jeff Shaara remembers. "He became obsessed with telling that story."

It took Michael Shaara seven years to complete "The Killer Angels," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, but not a wide audience. It was only in the wake of Ken Burns's wildly popular 1990 PBS documentary series, "The Civil War," that a faithful adaptation of Shaara's book was filmed, propelling "The Killer Angels" to the top of the bestseller lists and establishing a family franchise. Michael Shaara, who died in 1988, never knew the success that Jeff has had with a series of novels that, in the style of his father, revisit the Civil War, the American Revolution and other storied clashes.

"It is a testament to the power of that ground," Shaara says, remembering when he climbed Cemetery Ridge with his dad. "There is no substitute for coming out by the Lee statue, looking out across that mile of open ground and then walking it yourself {lcub}hellip{rcub} And realizing it is not that Hollywood stuff where guys charge, sort of screaming and yelling and lickety-split. No. They walked. One step at a time."

Last summer, Shaara was asked to join the board of trustees of the Civil War Preservation Trust, whose calling is to save battlegrounds from bulldozers as sprawl creeps beyond the suburbs of Washington, Richmond and other cities with historic land nearby. The trust was formed in 1999, when the two small and troubled private groups merged and chose a onetime Maryland politico -- Jim Lighthizer -- to serve as president.

Lighthizer has built the trust into an effective organization that is part conservation fund, part lobbying shop, part political pit bull. He is not afraid to take the tools of modern politics -- polling, direct mail, media -- into battle with developers, and defeat them.

When the trust asked for Shaara's help, "I listened long and hard," the author says, "because this is a huge time commitment." In the end, Lighthizer won him over. "He is the energy behind this."

Which is noteworthy, because, when I ask Lighthizer what triggered his love for Civil War battlefields, he goes back to a day in 1983 when he asked a friend to recommend a book to take on vacation. Lighthizer was skeptical of his pal's suggestion. "I don't read novels. I read history," he says. But the friend persevered, and in Nags Head, N.C., that summer, Lighthizer read "The Killer Angels."

"It lit something that can best be defined as between a passion and an obsession," he says.

The ground had inspired a story; the story a man, to save the ground.

"When I took the job... did I say we were going to start a political organization? No," Lighthizer says. "But as the facts presented themselves, I recognized {lcub}hellip{rcub} if we don't get political, we are not going to be in business."


CONTINUED     1                 >

More From The Washington Post Magazine

[Post Hunt]

Post Hunt

See the results from our crazy, brain-teasing game.

[Date Lab]

Date Lab

We set up two local singles on a blind date.

[D.C. 1791 to Today]

Explore History

3-D models show the evolution of Washington landmarks.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity