Jeff Shaara’s GONE FOR SOLDIERS
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
It is impossible to read this historical novel about the US-Mexican War of 1847 without thinking about the later experiences of the novel’s two main characters, Gen. Winfield Scott and Capt. Robert E. Lee. At the start of the US Civil War, the head of the US Army Winfield Scott asked protégé Lee to join the Federal military against the Confederacy. Lee refused, as we know, and later he became head of the Confederacy’s armies.
In Gone for Soldiers these events are far in the future. Instead, author Shaara constructs a taught and plausible tale of how Scott leads the US Army in its invasion of Mexico to its ultimate victory against the Mexicans in Mexico City. This culminates in a massive transfer of Mexican land to the US.
Lee, an engineer and rising star in the Army, comes to Scott’s attention through his involvement in a series of daring but critical exploits. By the end of the war a relationship has developed between Scott and Lee which makes Lee’s eventual renouncing of his loyalty to the US both shocking and understandable.
In the novel Scott is presented as a towering and grave figure whose belief in duty is paramount. A career military officer – he fought in the War of 1812 -- he sets aside his personal feelings about the rightness of the war and concentrate entirely on following orders. He expects his officers and the traveling army of volunteers and careerists to do the same.
Lee, not yet 40 and never having experienced combat, is still feeling his way. His belief in doing his duty is not that different from Scott’s but he lacks Scott’s experience and depth of devotion. As Shaara represents it, Scott recognizes Lee’s potential and actively encourages him as a model of devotion to duty that, sadly, Scott’s other and older leaders do not seem to share given their focus on petty interests and politics.
How accurate is this book’s representation about how Scott and Lee continuously wrestle with their personal demons as it shifts personal perspectives from chapter to chapter? I don’t know, but I do intend to find out more about this war’s causes and effects.
This is as good a historical novel about military action as I have ever read. As any serious student of military history will recognize, truth can often be stranger than fiction and this book makes the reader repeatedly comment, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
Book review copyright 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald