by Ayleen Gontz | Photography by Kelly Heck
New York Times best-selling author Jeff Shaara first visited the Gettysburg battlefield with his family in 1964. That visit inspired his father, Michael Shaara, to write The Killer Angels — the novel on which the 1993 movie Gettysburg is based — and led Jeff to write Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, the prequel and sequel to his father’s book. Jeff and his wife, Stephanie, currently live in Gettysburg.
Gettysburg is an interesting mix of tourist mecca and small-town charm. When friends and family come to visit, do you have favorite spots — a sort of “tour of Gettysburg” — that you like to share with them?
I generally offer them a brief tour of what I consider the “high points” from my father’s novel, The Killer Angels, which includes Little Round Top and the High-Water Mark. Not everyone of course comes here for the battlefield, so I’m careful not to assume they want a history lesson. I also make a point of showing off the incredible beauty of the surrounding areas — the orchard country that makes up so much of Adams County.
Many Gettysburg visitors come to trace their ancestry. Do you have tips from your own experiences that will help others to find their own stories and stories of their heritage?
It is not always logical, but researching places like archives or the Visitor Center might not be the most useful. These days, I am able to find so much good information online, whether specifics about a certain character, or a good many memoirs, diaries and historical accounts that years ago would have been considered “rare.” There is a [National Park Service] database, for example, on Civil War soldiers, which actually is more useful than any kind of database for veterans of World War II. (An enormous warehouse of records was destroyed by a fire in St. Louis about 40 years ago, thus families have a very difficult time finding out about their relatives from the 1940s — truly a shame). I also recommend local historical societies in a town where the relative might have lived. Sometimes you can get lucky and find census info, property ownership info, etc.
Is there a place on the Gettysburg battlefield that holds a deep meaning for you, either personally or in terms of your writing?
In 1964, when my family visited Gettysburg for the first time, my father and I walked across the ground where Pickett’s Charge took place. As we crossed that mile of open fields, from the Lee monument on the Southern side, to the High-Water Mark, he told me the story of what happened there, primarily through the eyes of Confederate General Lewis Armistead, who was leading his men into the guns of his best friend, Union General Winfield Hancock. When we reached the Union lines, and stepped over the low stone wall there, we noticed the small squat concrete marker that indicates the place where Armistead fell. My father began to weep. I was 12. I had never seen my father cry before. That moment changed his life and started his obsession with creating what became The Killer Angels. Little did I know how that would change my life as well.
What is the most inspirational place you’ve visited because of your writing? Is there a place that keeps you awake at night because it was so disturbing? How has your time at those places shaped you and/or your writing?
Omaha Beach in France. Valley Forge, Pa. The battlefield at Shiloh, Tenn. The Old South Meeting House in Boston. And many more. One lesson I learned from my father when he walked the ground at Gettysburg is to GO there. Walk in the footsteps. It’s not always a mystical experience — I’m not looking for ghosts. But seeing it, getting a sense of what it felt like — that’s a key part of what I try to do in every book.
To date, you have 15 published novels and 15 consecutive New York Times best-sellers. What’s next? Do you have a book in progress that you’d like to tell us about?
I’m working now on a story surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not “combat-oriented,” as some of my books can be. Rather, the extraordinary manipulations and care that ultimately prevented World War III. Most young people today have no idea how close we came to nuclear war with the Russians. I lived through that utter terror, combined with the ridiculous absurdity that every schoolchild had to endure: “duck and cover,” as though hiding under our desks at school would protect us from nuclear holocaust. The voices aren’t fully formed yet — certainly, Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, and a couple of others. I hope to complete the book so it will be published late spring 2019.
Learn more about Jeff Shaara and his work at his website, www.jeffshaara.com.