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...