Jason Golomb's Reviews > The Killer Angels

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
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Aug 23, 11

bookshelves: historical-fiction, civil-war, favorites
Read in August, 2011

I've lived in the Washington D.C. area for most of my life and Virginia for the last 16. I love history, but the U.S. Civil War never really held my interest. I live only minutes from the great battlefields that dot the landscape surrounding D.C., and Gettysburg is only a 90-minute drive away, but it was completely off my personal radar.

One week ago, my wife who teaches sixth grade took our family north, just over the Maryland border into Pennsylvania to see the hallowed Gettysburg ground.
The experience simply blew me away. Gettysburg is peppered with monuments and misted in history. The physical location is so unique (and beautiful), buffeted by the Blue Ridge Mountains on the western horizon, and rolling hills and pastures in the east, you're able to view the entire battle site from multiple locations. One can't help but hear the whispers of cannon fire, and the scream of the Rebel yell. We toured by car and on foot, and I found myself thirsting to learn more. My wife suggested I read Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels", a superbly realistic historical novel of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, a 3-day blood bath, that served as a turning point for the North in the Civil War.

"Killer Angels" is built upon a foundation of intense and realistic characterizations. While angling his point of view from the perspective of different players in this Civil War drama, Shaara focuses on General James Longstreet from the South and Corporal James Lawrence Chamberlain from the North. As the story of this battle is meticulously exposed, the reader is deftly introduced to the landscape (both physical and cultural) and perspectives that drove the war, as well as the raw emotional mindsets of its' participants.

The Civil War started when America was less than a century old. The generals leading the campaigns were barely a generation removed from Americans who could remember that being free was not a given. Wars, battles and military technology were evolving. General Longstreet ponders how fighting had altered, "When we were all young, they fought in a simple way. They faced each other out in the open, usually across a field. One side came running. The other got one shot in, from a close distance because the rifle wasn't very good at distance, because it wasn't a rifle. Then after that one shot they hit together hand to hand, or sword to sword, and the cavalry would ride in from one angle or another." Longstreet was a man of advanced strategic thinking. A running theme for his character is his advocacy for defensive battle schemes; dig trenches, and dig in deep, and let the enemy force you out. But he points out that not everyone has actualized that times are different, and a changed environment and advanced technology requires different thinking. Thinking that he had...and, as he points out, that General Robert E. Lee didn't.

Much of Shaara's dialogue is brief with the exception of cases where he utilizes his characters to convey a particular theme. Motivations for the war are explored numerous times and from a number of viewpoints.

Was the South defending slavery? Not according to most of the Rebels in the book, but it wasn't always clear what they WERE defending. General Lee was a Virginian, but as a leader of the U.S. military, had been offered command of the Union Army. He turned it down. In one passage, Shaara reflects on Lee's decision to join the Rebels: "The war had come. He was a member of the army that would march against his home, his sons. He was not only to serve in it, but actually to lead it, to make the plans and issue the orders to kill and burn and ruin. He could not do that...Lee could not raise his hand against his own...so it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of the were, they were his own, he belonged with his own."

Shaara's writing is fluid and natural. The now famous Battle of Little Roundtop is told from the perspective of Lawrence Chamberlain who led a relatively small division of Union soldiers from Maine who were asked to hold the extreme flank of the Union battle line. Like much of Chamberlain's monologue throughout, he describes the action in short, staccato, but fluid language. The words pop like gunfire from a rifle. His descriptive monologues flow like soldiers over the Pennsylvania countryside.
Shaara describes the opening volleys in this key battle from Chamberlain's perspective: "Gray-Green-Yellow uniforms, rolling up in a mass...more and more. At least a hundred men. More. Coming up out of the green, out of the dark. They seemed to be rising out of the ground. Suddenly the terrible scream, the ripply crawly sound in your skull. A whole regiment. Dissolving in smoke and thunder. They came on. Chamberlain could see nothing but smoke, the blue mounds bobbing in front of him, clang of ramrods, grunts, a high gaunt wail. A bullet thunked into a tree near him. Chamberlain turned, saw white splintered wood. He ducked suddenly, then stood up, moved forward, crouched behind a boulder, looking."

For those enmeshed in the throes of battle, be it hand-to-hand combat or finding cover to duck and shoot, there is no honor or glory, just THE moment. The only thought is survival and trained instinct. The only sounds within the chaos are the din of battle and the voices and instruments of order.

General Longstreet discuss the concept of honor with a visiting British envoy: "I appreciate honor and bravery and courage...but the point of the war is not to show how brave you are and how you can die in a manly fashion, face to the enemy. God knows it's easy to die. Anybody can die."

Honor and form are represented by soldiers on both sides of the battle, but Shaara's subtle and poignant characterizations strip down to the core of what made these larger than life people. General Lee, for example, is not the seemingly untouchable piece of military and gentlemanly perfection that history mostly honors. He's portrayed as an aging strategist, full of warmth and as much human emotion as we can each see in ourselves. He's error prone, filled with the weight of one who feels he must carry a nation's hope entirely on his shoulders. And he's a man very aware of his own age and mortality, and potential for error.

What makes "The Killer Angels" so good and deeply affecting is the realism of the very human behaviors of these very extraordinary men. Colonel Chamberlain's younger brother serves beside him and, riding an emotional high after their victory at Little Round Top, tells his big brother that he thinks the North will win the war. Chamberlain only nods and reflects, "...but he was too tired to think about it, all those noble ideals, all true, all high and golden in the mind, but he was just too tired, and he had no need to talk about it."

"The Killer Angels" is a book about war. But it's much more than that. It's a character study dropped into an intensely fascinating place, time and circumstance, and written so well that any reader will connect with these personalities. I highly recommend "The Killer Angels".
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