Katie Cline The Killer Angels Book Review June 21, 2012 The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: The Random House Publishing Group, New York, 1974. The Killer Angels is a stunning recollection of the telltale battle of the Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg. Set from June 29 to July 3, 1863 and told from the vantage points of several soldiers and commanding officers from both sides, including Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain, Michael Shaara effectively paints a picture of the war that divided America, from the tactical planning to the emotional hardships
The book opened with a sodden Confederate spy as he blazed through the Union lines in the dead of night on June 29, 1863 toward the headquarters of Confederate general Robert E.
Lee with news of the Army of the Potomac as they converged on the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. The next few days followed the various Union and Confederate regiments as they regrouped from the previous Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and moved toward Gettysburg where, ultimately, the deciding battle of the Civil War would take place.
When the fighting began, Shaara illustrated the deeper aspects of war and soldier life by illuminating the readers on the personal lives of the otherwise hardhearted men. When light is shed on James Longstreet and Lewis Armistead’s arduous pasts, I began to see them as actual people rather than bloodthirsty soldiers. Longstreet had been thrown into battle after having just lost three of his children to fever, and the Confederate Armistead was faced with losing his best friend, Union general Winfield Scott Hancock, after already having lost his wife.
Shaara took his readers by the hand and guided us through General Chamberlain’s struggle of duty as a soldier versus duty to family as he strived to serve the Union as well as protect his younger brother, Tom, without showing favoritism. The most impactful part of The Killer Angels, to me, was that the characters were developed as real people with feelings and fears, hopes and dreams, and I got to see a different side of them as opposed to the famous military strategists depicted so stoically by history books.
The Battle of Gettysburg stretched on for three days and was composed of three distinct charges. July 1, 1863 marked the first Confederate attempt to claim the Union-occupied hills, Little Round Top and Big Round Top; surprised by the bold attack, Union forces pulled off of the smaller hill. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell is assigned to take the hill, but due possibly to psychological tribulations associated with the loss of one his legs, Ewell cannot bring himself to do so.
This failure to occupy Little Round Top is considered by many to be a key factor in the South’s losing the battle. With the Union occupying the only “good ground” on the battle site and Lee refusing to retreat, the Confederate army was forced to fight on the open field in front of the two hills. Though they put up a valiant effort time and time again, coming up with ingenious tactical maneuvers and raising extraordinary amounts of morale, whether it was the lack of provisions or the devastating losses, Lee’s Confederates could not hold the staggering Union army.
In a desperate last hurrah on July 3, 1863, Lee ordered General George Pickett to lead a charge that was intended to divide the Union army in two. Lee used all his available men and marched them almost a mile across an empty field under heavy Union fire while focusing on one regiment in the middle of the Union line as their target. The death toll was astronomical: six of Pickett’s thirteen generals had been killed, the other seven wounded; sixty percent of the troops were lost; and ammunition was virtually exhausted.
Throughout the novel, readers were given an insight to the educated mind of the Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a former professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin University in Maine. Chamberlain was consistently baffled by the point of the war; he could not understand why people were fighting to maintain such an immoral way of life, yet he always admitted to admiring their courage. During one such moment, Chamberlain is reminded of a Shakespearean speech: “What a piece of work man is…in action how like an angel! ” (page 126).
Upon hearing this, Chamberlain’s father commented, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel. ” (page 126). From this interaction, Chamberlain came up with “Man: the Killer Angels”, a thought he often revisited over the course of the Battle of Gettysburg, and from which the book acquires its title. Chamberlain acted with the intention of getting something positive out of the war. He never treated the Confederates as though they were less than him: “ Chamberlain put out a hand. ‘Sir’ he said. The Alabama man nodded slightly. His voice was so low Chamberlain could hardly hear it. Do you have some water? ’ ‘Certainly. ’ Chamberlain offered his own canteen. ” (page 243). It is even known that he had his troops salute the surrendering South at Appomattox. Overall, I found Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels an interesting book; it shed a new and different light on the Battle of Gettysburg by showing it from multiple points of view. I believe that Shaara was successful in writing in the diction of his chosen narrators; he used slang and dropped “g’s” for the Confederate soldiers and used proper grammar and British terminology for the Englishman, Freemantle.
I was also impressed by his knowledge of military terms and the effectiveness of which he used them. The terms were used enough that I was always aware of the war setting, but they were used sparingly enough that I didn’t need a dictionary beside me at all times. The other vocabulary was relatively easy, but not boring; there is not one particular point in which a word hindered me from understanding the message that was being conveyed. I believe this is because Shaara was trying to keep his characters true to life.
Officers, like Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain, could not speak to all of their men in a reformed, educated manner, for many soldiers were citizens without formal educations; therefore, commanding officers often kept their speech universal when addressing troops. This action was accurately reflected within the characters, who I found believable, likeable, and, even, dislikeable. Shaara gave each general his own personality, and, not being familiar with the personalities of every general mentioned, I found myself passing judgment on them upon their first introduction, and my opinions occasionally changed as the book went on.
For example, James Longstreet was one of my personal favorite officers because of his level headedness and the way he carried himself. After the end of the book when I read the “Afterward” section and learned that he had attempted to tarnish Robert E. Lee’s name, I lost respect for him. Having been raised in the South, Lee has always been painted as exemplary war hero and revered for his actions during the Civil War. I do not necessarily agree with all of his tactics, but I do have great respect for the man and do not believe that he deserved to have a former friend blame him for the result of the war.
The other man I admired from the very beginning was Colonel Chamberlain. Of all the officers he seemed the most real, often questioning the vehemence of the war that was pitting brother against brother. However, this book was not my cup of tea or something I would read of my own accord. Shaara’s writing style is not the usual style that I tend to read. His writing seemed almost like Faulkner’s stream of consciousness style, and I often had to reread passages because I missed many of the first person to third person transitions and could not tell when the narrator was no longer thinking.
Another factor that discouraged me in the beginning was the fact that The Killer Angels was a war novel. I did not think that I would like it, because I was afraid that it would be entirely violence and fighting and not provide any sustenance to the characters. Conversely, Shaara’s novel provided insight on the men behind the history and taught me things I had never learned in textbooks. Through Chamberlain, he presented an analytical reasoning to contrast the other, biased views. It was the Chamberlain brothers who acknowledged the most poignant fact of all: “ ‘Well, they’re all equal now. ’ ‘In the sight of God, anyways. ” (page 365). They were saying that no matter who they were fighting for, Union or Rebels, the dead men were equal in the sight of God, and I believe it was implied that they should have been equal in the sight of man, too. After having read this book, I can travel to Gettysburg, visit the battlegrounds, and fully know what happened there one hundred fifty years ago, the blood that was shed and the type of men who lived it and lost parts of themselves in it. Though this book is not a must read for everyone, it would appeal to those interested in the Civil War and American history in general.
I believe it would also appeal to those who, like me, always hoped there was more to war heroes than just their fighting style. The Killer Angels would satisfy people in both groups, because it tells a fascinating story. A twist is added when the reader realizes that this is not just a story, but that this actually happened to the people in the novel, and that the Civil War itself is a great part of who we are as Americans. This book greatly exceeded my expectations; I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I did. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara successfully marries emotion and action into a truly compelling read.
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