Charles McNair on the 150th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge

July 3, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee ordered more than 12,000 men to challenge the center of the Union line. The unsuccessful attack, led by George Pickett, became known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Author Charles McNair named his soon-to-be-released novel after the costly Confederate defeat at Gettysburg.

McNair talks about the fictional PICKETT’S CHARGE (which will be published on September 20, 2013 by Livingston Press) and the Civil War’s influence on literature and the cultural landscape in the following Q&A.

1.     What inspired you to write your novel Pickett’s Charge?

When I grew up in the South, the climactic battle of the Civil War – Gettysburg – and the climactic event in that battle – Pickett’s Charge – held high ground in the collective memory of many southern families, especially those with ancestors who served … and were lost … in the Civil War. For many Americans, Gettysburg holds a place in history like Waterloo, for Europeans, or the Battle of Hastings for the English.

If you want to truly understand the South of the last 150 years, you have to understand Gettysburg.

I wrote Pickett’s Charge to guide readers on a journey through Southern consciousness, to probe the personality and problems of the region most deeply affected by war and its aftermath.

2.     What came first–the title of the book or the name or your protagonist, Threadgill Pickett? 

I grew up in the Wiregrass region of Alabama, where Florida, Georgia, and Alabama meet. I remember many unique family names from down home: The Turnipseeds. The Quattlebaums. And, yes, the Threadgills.

That unique name stayed in my head for years – it felt colorful, memorable. The surname Pickett, of course, resonates for an audience having any familiarity with the Deep South. So Pickett’s Charge seemed the right title for a story of this quest by an old Confederate who heads north to fight the last Yankee.

3.     What, if anything, does your novel have in common with the real-life Pickett’s Charge that took place on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg?

Everything, in a word.

Everything the South became for the next 150 years goes back to a failed Napoleonic-style Confederate attack at 3 p.m. on July 3, 1863. The actual Pickett’s Charge – the massed assault – really isn’t referenced until the last pages of my novel … but every word in the book can be written today because of what actually happened at Gettysburg. The battle shaped the subsequent history of the South … a history my novel explores through a unique character with a personal history that mirrors the South’s.

4.     What are your “Tops” in the following categories, and why?

Top Civil War novels

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Andersonville by MacKinley Kantor

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Top Civil War nonfiction

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote

The Civil War by Bruce Catton

5.     Are the Civil War and its many battles still fertile ground for fiction writers? Why? 

One of the fundamentals of fiction writing? Conflict.

War is the ultimate conflict. War and how war affects those who fight and those left behind, will always compel writers. In this country, even with our changing demographics and evolving notions, millions of families still carry stories of the Civil War – white families, black families, rich families, poor families. Those stories will continue to surface and be told.

6.     Why is it important for our country to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg?

Fifty-one thousand human beings were killed, maimed, or lost in the three days of battle at Gettysburg. Modern warfare began that day, with the failed massed charge by Lee’s forces on ranks of precision weaponry. The armies on that battlefield fought for causes and cohorts. Those lives and this conflict go for nothing without commemoration – remembrance by another word. Americans still fight Gettysburg today, in our legislatures, personal interactions, town squares, sports events … sometimes even our bedrooms.

7.     In your opinion, are Civil War reenactors living historians or novelists in action? Why?

Reenactors come with as many motivations as moustache styles.

Many dress up and go to battlefields to serve the muse of history. Among reenactors, you’ll find deeply learned experts who simply enjoy gathering on battlefields and immersing themselves in the minutiae of the period. These men deeply value the knowledge they gain from taking part in living history events.

Others come along more lightly, less for history and more for the thrill, for being part of a spectacle.

You will also find mossbacks and secessionists in reenactor ranks. But even among these, who can hold their opinions in our democracy thanks to moments like Gettysburg, I often find thoughtful men. They choose not to give up beliefs from a bygone day, but some do not shut themselves off from discussion and ideas contrary to their own.

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