About Jeff Shaara
with Jeff Shaara
A Interview with Jeff Shaara
Author of The Last Full Measure
The Last Full Measure completes a Civil War trilogy, with your father's
book, The Killer Angels, in the center. What does this mean to you?
Something I will never take for granted is that it was my father who
opened the door for me to be doing this in the first place. Michael
Shaara left us a true classic in The Killer Angels, and the success of the
film "Gettysburg" should have been his success. He died too soon, and
never understood the enormous impact his work had on so many people. That
is the responsibility I now carry. I'm continuing the story he began, a
story that if he were alive would be his to tell. That's an extraordinary
The first part of the trilogy, Gods and Generals, was an enormous
success. Did you expect that?
It was an amazing surprise. I had never written anything before and had
no idea that continuing my father's story would be something I could do at
all. The Killer Angels has been around for 24 years and won a Pulitzer
Prize. To many people that book will always stand alone, even though it
is now the centerpiece of this trilogy. When Gods and Generals was
published I knew people inevitably would compare it to my father's book,
and I was ready for that. What caught me very much by surprise were the
favorable comparisons and the acceptance of Gods and Generals as a
companion to my father's book. The success of my book is in many ways a
tribute to my father's work. His story captured so many people's interest
and brought them to the subject, and many readers want to see the story
Why has this story captured such an audience?
An enormous number of people have said to me that they had little interest
in history in school and never read much about the Civil War. Now,
through my father's book and the film "Gettysburg," and perhaps from Gods
and Generals, they are caught up in the story, in the lives of these
characters. These books, and the film, are not just history as we often
think of it, the dry facts and figures. They are stories about people,
about fascinating lives of real men and women who had a tremendous impact
on our nation. It was a marvelous discovery for me, as I dug into the
lives of these characters, that there was no need for embellishment, for
creating myths around these people. Who they were, and what they did, is
fascinating and interesting enough.
What my father did, and what I have tried to do, is to explore the
history, the incredible events, through the eyes of these characters, to
put the reader right there, to experience the sights and sounds, to smell
the smoke, see the horror of that war. Beyond that, I have tried to make
these characters real in a way that a history textbook cannot. Not all of
the Civil War was fighting; the story is much more involved than that.
There is so much passion, so much frustration, and so much humanity in
these characters. They are, after all, not so different from us. And
that is why we are interested in them.
Where did the title The Last Full Measure come from?
It's directly from Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," near the end: "It is
rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,
that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for
which they gave the last full measure of devotion...." It was an obvious
title to me, a description of what both sides had to give to continue
their fight, and ultimately to end the war.
How does the story in The Last Full Measure compare to Gods and Generals
and The Killer Angels?
The similarities are in how the story is told, narrating the events by
moving from one character's point of view to another's. Two of the
characters are consistent in all three books: Robert E. Lee and Joshua
Lawrence Chamberlain. These two men are important to the telling of this
story because they are so very different and see the war from such
different places. The new element in The Last Full Measure is Ulysses
Grant. He is not in the earlier two books, of course, since he was not
involved in the part of the war where the first two books are centered.
Grant brings something new to the story, something that the Union army has
been sorely lacking. How that evolves, and how Lee must deal with that
from his side, is the basis for this story.
In addition, the mood of The Last Full Measure differs, particularly from
Gods and Generals. In the first book, you have the enthusiasm for the
cause, all the optimism in the South that their army will prevail. You
have Stonewall Jackson, a wonderful character who brings so much life to
Lee's army, and to Lee himself. The war is still in some ways a glorious
adventure, and, in fact, the South is winning in the first two years.
After Gettysburg, when The Last Full Measure begins, Jackson is dead, Lee
has absorbed a stunning defeat, and eventually a relentless Grant takes
command of the Union army. The mood becomes decidedly darker, the reality
of war much more grim.
The Killer Angels is the basis for the wonderful motion picture
"Gettysburg." Any plans for a film based on Gods and Generals or The Last Full Measure?
Both, actually. Director and screenwriter Ron Maxwell is working on both
projects. Certainly Gods and Generals will come first. He and I have
formed a new production company, Antietam Filmworks, with offices in
Hagerstown, Maryland. Both films will be produced in that part of the
country. Filmmaking takes time, though, more time that I ever would have
thought. It will likely be early 1999 before actual filming begins. Just
as in "Gettysburg," the Civil War re-enactment community will play an
important role. We are expecting to use twice as many re-enactors as the
5,000 who were used in "Gettysburg." Most of the actors from "Gettysburg"
have already said they would like to portray their characters again. The
great unknown at this point will be the casting of Stonewall Jackson.
And, later, in The Last Full Measure, the casting of Ulysses Grant.
When Gods and Generals was published, you seemed reluctant to refer to
yourself as a writer. After two books, has that changed?
Yes. And what an amazing experience! My whole life has changed because
of these two books. I'm in my mid-40s now, and moving in a different
direction than I had ever expected. I am very, very fortunate.
So, what's next?
I am doing research now on a story of the Mexican War and should have a
manuscript in early 1999. This is a story few people know much about, but
nearly every soldier whose name is familiar from the Civil War got his
first taste of war in Mexico. Jackson, Grant, Longstreet--they all did
some pretty amazing things in Mexico. The story will probably stay very
close to Robert E. Lee, who was on the staff of Commanding General
Winfield Scott. Scott is one of the most colorful and interesting
characters in American history, someone we know very little about.
Telling his story will be fun.
Why are these stories important?
The stories of the people who shaped our history are part of who we are
today. It's easy to think of them as mere names in a history book, as
though their lives are ancient history. I was amazed to meet a woman
whose father fought in the Civil War--that's right, her father. She was
born in 1920, when he was 75 years old. That really opened my eyes. We
are not that far removed from these events. The wounds are still open in
many parts of the country, particularly in the South, where, for many
people, the war never ended. What the film "Gettysburg" did, in reaching
such a huge audience, was help the healing process. I cannot count how
many people have said to me that they were struck by the fact that there
were no "bad guys," that the characters on both sides were just people.
There was honor and dignity and passion, and an honest sense of fighting
for something they believed in, on both sides. The more we understand
that, the easier it is, as Lincoln said, to bind the wounds. We are
entering a new century, and we all face some serious challenges. Our
history is not only a good story, it's who we are. It is important for us
to remember that we have faced some pretty serious challenges before, and
we can do it again.