LAST FULL MEASURE
by Jeff Shaara, 1998
As the two badly bruised armies withdraw away from Gettysburg, both sides understand there is something new about this war, and about the men fighting it. Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain return, both men veterans now of a horror neither man thought he would ever see. As Lee moves his army back into Virginia, he must contend with the loss of many good commanders, and the knowledge that without Stonewall Jackson, his army must learn to fight a different kind of war if the South is to prevail. Chamberlain leaves Gettysburg carrying the sickness of malaria, returns briefly to Maine to find a different mood from his family. He is now a war hero, and is surprised to learn that the description means more than a medal on his chest. As 1864 dawns, the North is desperate for new leadership. President Lincoln is frustrated that his great army has allowed the war to go on for too long, and has allowed Lee to escape too many times. So Lincoln brings a fresh face to the eastern theater of the war, a man who has built a reputation in Tennessee as a fighter and a winner. The third main character in this story is Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant begins to move the vast strength of the Union army southward. In May 1864, the first great confrontation with Lee is the Battle of the Wilderness. Here Grant learns that mere numbers will not defeat Lee, and that there is still a great deal of fight left in the southern troops. What no one can know is that the war will continue for another bloody year, Grant pursuing Lee down into central Virginia, through fights at sites now famous for their horror, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor. Finally, Grant pens Lee up at Petersburg, and begins a siege that will do by attrition what the battles have not: reduce Lee’s army until it can no longer make war.
As the final days of the war unfold, all three men understand that wars will never be the same. It is no longer a gentlemen’s fight, but a brutal, bloody and dehumanizing experience for both sides. As Lee’s army collapses, he begins a final attempt to save his men and their cause. With Grant closely in pursuit, the war reaches its dramatic conclusion at a small rail-town of Appomattox. Here, Grant and Lee will meet, and bring to a conclusion the nation’s most horrific chapter. From his entire army, Grant chooses a young officer for the singular honor of receiving the surrender of Lee’s army. In one of the most poignant moments in American history, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain orders his men to salute their beaten enemy.
As a conclusion to not just this story but the entire trilogy as well, each of the three characters is visited late in their lives, Lee in 1870, Grant in 1885 and Chamberlain in 1913. Each man has his place in history, but each man reaches his own conclusion about his role. It is Chamberlain who optimistically believes that Mankind has surely learned the great lesson, and would never go down that awful road again. He does not survive to see the dawning of World War I.