Review: “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara (1974)

Finished June 8, 2011

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

The Killer Angels, written in 1974 and awarded the Pultizer Prize for fiction the next year, is Michael Shaara’s classic novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. This may be as good as historical fiction gets, written with tight, poetic prose that steers away from the massive causes and effects surrounding the battle, focusing instead on the thoughts of some of the battle’s key players. This is not a war novel per se, even though it is touted as one. Rather, it is a very human novel, a series of interlocking stories about faith, belief, and the struggle of men finding themselves displaced by the sudden evolution of progress.

Almost everyone knows at least something about the Battle of Gettysburg. Rather than simply retell the history through the eyes of the commanders of both armies, Shaara instead opts for a ground-level approach, dropping the reader directly into the minds of these men in the day before the battle starts. You’re struck both by the similarities and differences, in the absolute belief that each man begins with, and how each is shaken is his own way by the time the battle is over.

The story is told primarily through the eyes of four commanders – Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet on the Confederacy, and Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford on the Union side. Shaara makes these men very real; Lee, a larger-than-life figure in modern history, is a tired old man, searching his heart from guidance from God whether or not to wage a full frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge that fateful day. Longstreet reveres the man but is a thinker outside of his own time. He understands the reality of what warfare had become by 1863, and knew he would be sending thousands of men to their deaths by ordering a frontal assault on the elevated, fortified position. Longstreet’s private and ultimately resigned despair is a powerful theme in the book, as Shaara takes us through his process of first understanding that what he was ordered to do was hopeless, and then, ultimately, why he goes along with it.

It would be unfair to paint either side in this tale as the villain or the victor. Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric who volunteered to fight for the Union, seems most of all awed by the enormity of what is happening and his place in something so important and yet so senseless. His is a disembodied account, dreamlike. Shaara opts to present the details of the battle not in graphic detail but as the smoke, screaming, death and confusion that it surely presented itself as to the people who were there. Through this Pickett’s Charge isn’t even a specific event, but a wave in an ongoing sea, and then it is all over.

I was surprised at how beautiful this book is. Given its subject matter I was afraid that it would moralize too much on one side or the other, and that didn’t interest me; nor would I have been compelled to read if it was just a minute-to-minute blow-by-blow of the battle. Shaara zeroed in on the personal struggles that these men faced in this battle, which I think gives the reader the greatest understanding of why these events happened. Nothing as complex as the Civil War can be boiled down to a straightforward cause and effect chart, not when men on both sides carried the same faith and in many ways fought for a variation on the same cause. How Shaara presents the battle is compelling and devastating because he makes it possible to understand, as senseless as it was. This is surely why the book is as good as it is and remains one of the best in its genre.

Thanks to Dee for this book.

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