Random House: New York
Jim Lehrer (yes, that Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour) has written a fascinating mystery that follows the efforts of National Park Service archaeologist, Dr. Don Spaniel, to discover the identity of an Army of the Potomac officer unearthed by Civil War relic hunters on the battlefield at Antietam. With the aid of a Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist, Spaniel finds that the unidentified remains are those of a murder victim; the evidence clearly shows that he was executed at close range by a bullet through the back of his head after his hands had been tied behind his back. Despite the incredible brutality and bloodshed witnessed during the War Between the States, this would have been a grave departure from the strict rules of engagement and “gentlemanly” warfare of that era. It becomes almost an obsession with the Park Service archaeologist to solve this murder committed more than 130 years earlier—especially when it begins to dawn on him that the victim may actually have been a member of the Connecticut Eleventh Volunteer Regiment– a young, brave and handsome lieutenant named Kenneth Allbritten. The problem with that discovery is that Allbritten was buried back in his Connecticut hometown, after being cut down by a Rebel bullet on September 17, 1862, at the bloody Battle of Antietam!
Jim Lehrer spins an engaging tale as history and mystery converge in the life of Don Spaniel. His hero is likeable, albeit a bit on the geeky side. His friends refer to him from time to time as “Harrison” or “Indy,” and it’s probably because he doesn’t bare much resemblance to that other intrepid fictional archaeologist. But the real center or focus of the story is the Civil War – and particularly the Battle of Antietam. This battle could have been a decisive victory for the Union and might have brought an end to the Secessionist effort two years early, thus saving untold thousands of lives, had it not been for the incredible incompetence of the Union military leadership.
Jim Lehrer is a devoted student of Civil War history and it shines through on every page, especially in the lovingly rendered fictional journal entries of one of the story’s man Civil War characters. His love for the study of this tragic yet seminal era in our nation’s history is especially evident in the character of Col. Gary Doleman, history professor and U.S. Army, Retired, who is the leading authority on Antietam and takes Don on a guided walking tour of the Burnside Bridge battle site, where the tragedy of Lieutenant Allbritten’s murder took place, along with the slaughter of many brave young Union soldiers. The reader, thanks to the passionate words Jim Lehrer puts in Colonel Doleman’s mouth, can see, smell and hear the carnage that this battle wrought—and for the first time I was able to understand why some students of this war become so compelled to learn all they can about its details and intricacies.
I was captivated by this slender volume, but I must admit suffering a real letdown at the somewhat bizarre and disturbing denouement. Suffice it to say that I thought it an unnecessary ending to a brilliant and touching novel. Because of that ending, three trowels overall, but a four trowel read for the first 202 pages.