The Chicago Tribune publishes its tribute to George R. Stewart

“George R. Stewart: Unrestrained by literary borders,” Patrick T. Reardon’s fine tribute to George R. Stewart, was published yesterday in The Chicago Tribune‘s literary magazine, Printers Row Journal.    Editorial Assistant Andreea Ciulac was kind enough to send the link. (The Journal is published online only.)

The essay gives a good introduction to Stewart’s vast literary output.  As Reardon says, GRS wrote in many fields – history, geography, environmentalism, civil rights, and fiction – creating several new types of literature along the way.

Reardon highlights several of Stewart’s books – Earth Abides, Names On The Land, Pickett’s Charge, Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and others.  He quotes from the books to show Stewart’s style in each type of work, thus giving readers a sense of how the books read.

The portrait Andreea Ciulac chose for the article was taken in 1938, probably for East of the Giants.  It shows Stewart as the distinguished scholar and author he was – in a time when the publication of a book by a company like Random House meant honor and a huge readership. (Thanks to Anna Evenson for permitting use of the photo.)

To see that portrait with its fine accompanying article in The Chicago Tribune is to feel immensely satisfied – this is the kind of honorable place where GRS belongs.  In the literary magazine of one of the great newspapers of the country.

The article should encourage a new readership for Stewart’s work.  As Andreea Ciulac writes,  “… I think the article makes you jump from your seat and go read something written by GRS!”  (Andreea is a pleasure to work with – cheerful, enthusiastic, efficient, a friend of literature, and now, we hope, of GRS.  Printers Row Journal is lucky to have her on the staff.)

By the way – I wrote in the last post that you can subscribe to the Printers Row Journal; but no longer.  On the other hand, you CAN subscribe online to The Chicago Tribune, and receive the Journal as part of the subscription, for a reasonable price.  I was impressed with the Journal,  and have subscribed for a few months to try The Tribune and the Journal.



The First Micro-History: Pickett’s Charge

Stewart had long been interested in Pickett’s Charge, which historians consider the turning point in the American Civil War.   Stewart’s uncle John was a soldier for the union army, who told stories of the Peninsular Campaign to his  nephew. During his army service, Stewart was in a bivouac on the battlefield of Gettysburg, where he began researching the site of Pickett’s Charge.  Finally, in the late 1950’s he decided to write about the Charge.

Pickett’s Charge has long been debated by historians, both in terms of its strategy and its data.  If you go to Gettysburg, and follow the path of the charge, you’ll understand the questions about strategy:  The Virginians under Pickett lined up and walked up a hill with no cover into intense fire from Union soldiers who had the shelter of a stone fence at the hilltop – a classic example of Napoleonic tactics.  But those tactics were developed when ordnance – cannons and muskets – were much less accurate, so soldiers had some chance under such conditions.  By the time Pickett sent his men up the hill, 50 years later, highly accurate rifles and cannons meant there would be far more casualties if soldiers kept their straight line battle formation.

The battle was later seen as heroic by some, foolish by others.  Stewart didn’t want to get into that argument; but he did want to make sure that the statistics and research sources were accurate before he wrote his book.  He discovered that much of the data was off – the oft-stated number of troops in the fight, for example, was based on an off-hand remark by Confederate General Longstreet (who opposed the Charge).   And the times of events, reported in an era before Standard Time, varied wildly.

Once Stewart was certain that he had found the correct data, he began to write.  Again, he decided to invent a new form of literature – the micro-history, in which a small detailed section of historical time is the entire subject of a work.  (Stewart may in fact have co-invented the micro-history, since D-Day: The Sixth of June was written the same year.)  Entitled Pickett’s Charge, the micro history begins at 3:00 AM on July 3, 1863.  It ends, except for two short chapters which discuss later events and some of the controversies, 272 pages later, at sunset on the same day.  Stewart includes several appendices which discuss flags, artillery, battle orders, the battlefield and so on.

One of his comments about the battlefield is telling, spotlighting his role as an author of place, and his belief in the need to study places when writing about them:  “The battlefield itself is an important document…”

Another comment, in the beginning of the work, stresses his idea of microcosm.  Most of his works, although set in one place and concerned with one set of events there, were written with the idea that the place is a microcosm for all places, and its events are microcosms for all human or natural events.  In this case, Stewart writes “In a sense, even, the charge may stand for all of human life.  Some time in the years, if not daily, must not each of us hear the command to rise and go forward, and cross the field, and go up against the guns?”

When I visited Gettysburg, and walked the field of Pickett’s Charge, I must admit to tears in my eyes.  Even if I didn’t agree with their cause, I was moved by the thought of those men walking up that exposed hill into killing fire  – they were men of honor, a sense of duty and honor which we don’t understand, most of us, today.

The book, George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge. A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, is one of three Stewart bookswhich still sell well.  (Earth Abides and Ordeal by Hunger are the others).  Civil War students, amateur and professional, consider the book a sine qua non for learning about the War, and especially Gettysburg.

It was the only book Stewart would write about an historical war.  But for the next decade he would leave fiction behind to write several more histories.


Frank Brusca interprets Pickett’s Charge

Today, July 3, 2013,  is the 150th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.  I’ve already done a long post which describes George R. Stewart’s book about the Charge.  Today, on a lighter note,  I’m sending out a new map of the event.  Frank Brusca, who’s a noted Stewart Scholar with special expertise in Stewart’s work on the U.S. 40 highway book, has done a tongue-in-cheek version of the battle map.

Here it is, for your enjoyment.  Notice the lower left hand corner.GRS at Gettysburg, via FXB

PICKETT’S CHARGE – one of the first microhistories

Imagine wearing a wool uniform in 100 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, on a still and humid day, while carrying a rifle, ammunition, and a pack and walking uphill.  Add cannons’ roar, the whiz of bullets, the death of your comrades.  And, to complete the picture, litter the hillside with the corpses of those killed in the previous two days of battle.

Why are you there?  Because your generals, and your commander, General Pickett,  have told you this is the last chance for the Confederacy to win the War Between the States, and its freedom.   So you march up hill, in the heat, through the corpses, in a straight line, into the cannon and rifle fire while your companions drop around you.  It is a sense of duty and honor that we have great difficulty understanding today.

For those in the Union Army, at the top of the hill,  it is no less critical a day.  The Union soldiers have a stone wall to protect them, buildings behind them, and they hold the high ground.  Their equipment is better, too.  But the Rebs are tough, and determined, so there is great bloodshed on the hilltop, too.  About 3500 Union boys are killed.  About 7000 of the Confederates are also killed, on this terrible day.

Yet, in spite of the odds against them, the Rebs make it to the top of the hill.  And they break the Union line.  It is called “The High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”   Fortunately for the Union cause, extra troops arrive at that moment – and  push the Confederates back.

Pickett’s Charge has failed.  The Confederate Army retreats under cover of darkness that night.  The Civil War will continue for another year, but the South has lost.

Anyone who had relatives at Gettysburg, and who has walked the fields of battle — especially that of Pickett’s Charge — feels the power of the place.  In my case, I met and talked with a man who was showing his son the battlefield from Little Round Top.  They, as it turned out, were descendants of Georgia Confederate soldiers who fought there; but we shook hands as we left to continue our saunters.

George R. Stewart was the first Whole Earth author, but he was also an historian with a great interest in the Civil War.   His Uncle fought on the Peninsular Campaign, and left a journal which still carries in its words the scent of gunsmoke and blood.  Stewart himself, in his Army Ambulance Corps Days, bivouacked on the Gettysburg Battlefield.  Scholar-in-becoming that he was, he walked the field, and considered the course of the battle.  When he became an established writer, he decided to write about the Battle; and as a great believer that the microcosm reveals the macrocosm, he chose to focus on Pickett’s Charge. (Subtitled:  A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863.)

It is the detailed story of the few hours before, during, and after the Charge.  Told in an easy but precise style, it is a page-turner of a book.  In explaining the events of that short period, Stewart manages to present the essence of all battles and all wars in human history.

It is a remarkable work, now considered one of the most essential books to the understanding of the Civil War (and, in microcosm, all war).   Reprinted several times, it is one of the three Stewart books which have the greatest endurance.  (The others are Ordeal By Hunger and Earth Abides).

(Cornelius Ryan wrote The Longest Day in 1959.  It, too, is a micro-history,  so he and Stewart may share the honors of inventing the form.)

Here’s a Googlebooks site with more information:

Stewart wrote the book in 1959, probably for the Centennial of the Civil War.  We’re discussing it here a little ahead of its time in the Stewart timeline of books, but that’s because next Wednesday, July 3, 2013, is the Sesquicentennial of Pickett’s Charge — its 150th Anniversary.  There will be a re-enactment, of course, but not on national park lands.  (And perhaps that is as it should be, because “re-enactments” don’t have corpses on the ground or real death — they are play, not war, and many feel that they diminish the real experience of such historical events.)

Since we are in the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I recommend that you find and read Stewart’s remarkable book.  We’re a long way from that period in history, but his work will help bring it to life and give you some understanding of the time.

You may also want to watch Ted Turner’s “Gettysburg.”  Pickett’s Charge is dramatically presented in the movie, in context with the entire Battle of Gettysburg.