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In the name of the fathers // Building on a legacy

GODS AND GENERALS: A Novel of the Civil War

By Jeff Shaara

Ballantine, $25

Reviewed by Robin Mitchell

The format is the father's, but the writing is the son's.

Two decades ago Michael Shaara told the story of America's most climatic three days _ the Battle of Gettysburg _ through the eyes of key protagonists. The Killer Angels won a Pulitzer Prize and hearts of a fresh generation of Civil War enthusiasts.

Now comes Jeff Shaara, the son, to take up where his father might have gone. Gods and Generals is (I shudder at the term) the prequel to The Killer Angels, the first two volumes Ballantine Books hopes become a trilogy. It is the first literary venture by the Florida State University graduate ((Michael Shaara taught there until his death in 1988).

Gods and Generals follows the mold created by Angels, focusing on four players _ Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain, both key in the father's book, and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Winfield Scott Hancock. Readers of The Killer Angels will recall both Jackson (because of his death, and therefore absence) and Hancock (because of his ill-fated, deep-rooted friendship with Confederate adversary Lewis Armistead, who dies before his guns during Pickett's Charge).

Gods and Generals opens with Lee, disenchanted with the peacetime Army, returning to Arlington to set in order the affairs of his late father-in-law. He is quickly summoned to lead the suppression of the John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry _ so quickly that he doesn't have time to don his uniform of lieutenant colonel of cavalry. His aide in the endeavor is a favorite former West Point cadet, Lt. J. E. B. Stuart. The world of the American military in those days was a small one: later it is Virginia Military Institute professor Thomas Jackson and his cadets who provide security at Brown's hanging.

Rapidly accelerating events lead to the firing on Fort Sumter and war, embroiling Hancock, who as quartermaster captain is the lone U.S. Army presence in Los Angeles, and Bowdoin College professor Chamberlain, whose reluctance to kill clashes with his belief in the Northern cause.

The world in Gods and Generals moves at a pace that will be familiar to those who lived through a similiar time, World War II. The captain of last month is suddenly a general, the professor a colonel, the awkward VMI instructor becomes the Western hemisphere's greatest military mind and Lee, in scarcely more than a year, is offered command of two armies _ one northern, one southern.

Jeff Shaara has created human beings of the myths and cold facts.

As manager of his father's literary estate, Jeff Shaara linked with film director Ron Maxwell, who created Gettysburg, the Ted Turner production of The Killer Angels. At Maxwell's suggestion, Jeff Shaara began work on this novel.

Grand idea, Ron.

As anyone who immerses his or herself in the story of the Civil War will do with any work, I cast a different interpretation here or challenge an historical tidbit there, but all in all, find Gods and Generals an enjoyable read.

Jeff Shaara gets better as the story unfolds (by the time you pass through Antietam Creek and Fredericksburg and reach Chancellorsville, you feel the author is seasoning, as are his soldiers). The wives, the subordinates, the ever-changing head of the Army of the Potomac, the always outnumbered and, until Angels, always successful Confederate infantryman are here full-bodied. Remember Sgt. Kilrain of the 20th Maine? He's here, too.

A nice addition is an afterword that fills you in on what happens to the secondary characters, characters who do so much to put flesh on the main four.

Jeff Shaara set out to "build on my father's legacy." Gods and Generals is a nice Father's Day present.

Robin Mitchell is a Times editor and columnist.