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The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
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Nov 23, 11

bookshelves: historical-fiction, audiobook, 1970-1979, military-fiction, history-usa
Read from November 19 to 22, 2011

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Michael Shaara's passion gave life to something unique and singularly extraordinary in this Pullitzer Prize winning novel. With high-charged, emotive prose, lush descriptions and fully-fleshed characters, he transforms the The Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War, into a gorgeously rendered and deeply personal story populated by flawed, ordinary men caught in an extraordinary concatenation of circumstances by the machinations of Fate. Shaara’s reduction of this momentous event into a tapestry woven of a myriad of individual observations and subjective accounts so seamlessly alternates between heart-swelling and heart-wrenchingthat your own blood-pumper may need an overhaul by the time your finished.

Shaara’s approach for this story was so revolutionary at the time that he couldn’t even find a publisher willing to distribute his novel. Recounting the period of June 30-July 3, 1863 (the day before and the 3 days of the Battle of Gettysburg), Shaara’s narrative filters the events surrounding the battle through the subjective lens of the leaders of the two armies. Today, his approach has been mimicked so often by those inspired by his achievement that it’s likely to feel familiar to those reading it for the first time (see reference to Ken Burn’s Civil War below). However, back in 1975, it was fresh and daring and unique.

Shaara jumps back and forth between dozens of viewpoints, each serving an important function and providing a unique perspective on the events surrounding the conflict. The most notable players in Shaara’s epic play are: For the South: Commanding General Robert E. Lee, General George Pickett, General James Longstreet, and British Col. Arthur Freemantle; and For the North: Commanding General George Meade, General John Buford andCol. Josh Chamberlain. Through these soldiers and many others, Shaara emphasizes the motivations, decisions and actions of these men and how each of their unique and very human perspectives along with the ever present “fog of war” resulted in the final outcome at Gettysburg.

Not being a Civil War buff, there was one part early in the story that I found fascinating to read. According to Shaara (and many historians I have come to find), but for one ambiguous order on the part of General Lee to his conservative cream-puff of a subordinate General, Richard Ewell, the South may very well have won the Battle of Gettysburg and drastically changed the outcome of the Civil War. Here is the order by General Lee as recounted by Shaara:
Tell General Ewell the Federal troops are retreating in confusion. It is only necessary to push those people to get possession of those heights. Of course, I do not know his situation, and I do not want him to engage a superior force, but I do want him to take that hill, if he thinks practicable. (Emphasis added)

Four simple words, “if he thinks practicable” were enough “wiggle room” to permit Ewell to justify ignoring Lee’s order and deciding against taking Cemetery Hill. This inaction allowed the Union to entrench themselves on the higher, well defended ground. Shaara goes on to make it clear (through Lee’s own personal musings) that if hard-charging, BSD Gen. Stonewall Jackson had not been killed weeks earlier, Cemetery Hill would’ve been taken and the outcome of the battle, and possibly of history, dramatically altered.

Another moment of the novel that I found simply breath-stealing was the description of the battle of Little Round Top. A single regiment of Union soldiers (the 20th Maine), held off a superior force of confederate charges for well over an hour until they finally ran out of ammunition. With the confederate soldiers still advancing and no retreat possible:
Chamberlain raised his saber, let loose the shout that was the greatest sound he could make, boiling the yell up from his chest: Fix bayonets! Charge! Fix bayonets! Charge! Fix bayonets! Charge! He leaped down from the boulder, still screaming, his voice beginning to crack and give, and all around him his men were roaring animal screams, and he saw the whole Regiment rising and pouring over the wall and beginning to bound down through the dark bushes, over the dead and dying and wounded....
The result was that the soldiers from the South broke in the face of the furious charge and the Union held Little Round Top. The fact that Chamberlain was a citizen solider (being a college professor before volunteering for the army) and yet acted so competently and with such courage was amazing to experience.

Quite simply, this is an extraordinary novel. However, for two completely subjective (and probably unfair) reasons, I have elected to only rate this as a very strong 4 stars. Reason #1: is that the Civil War is not favorite period of American history and so my juices don’t flow as strongly when reading stories from this time as others more smitten with the events. Reason #2: goes by the name of Ken Burns and his brilliant mini-series, The Civil War. That masterpiece has ruined me for all other depictions of the conflict.

The great irony is that Shaara’s novel was a major influence on Burns’s decision to create his mini-series in the first place and Burns adopted to a great degree the tone and style employed by Shaara. Alas, Ken Burns got to me first and his more expansive description of the war and the causes thereof keep him firmly dug in at the top of the charts.

Still, a strong, strong, strong 4.5 stars and my HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!
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Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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Kevin Xu I just love this book. One of the best historical fiction of all time. You should read the two written by his son, just as good.


Stephen I finished it yesterday and thought it was terrific. Reminded me a lot of Ken Burns Civil War mini-series which I understand was one of the inspirations for that series.


Benjamin Thomas When i was a young Lieutenant in the Air Force, my Wing Commander gave an inspitational talk and read the same quote you provided about Little Round Top. That inspired me to not only read the book but launched my enthusiasm for historical novels. A marvelous scene.


message 4: by Shawn (new) - added it

Shawn Camp Sounds great. I noticed this was part of a trilogy. Would you recommend starting with the Gods & Generals or could it stand alone on itself? I'lll have to add this to my list.


Stephen Benjamin -

It is nice to hear from someone else who found that scene so stirring. It was a wonderful moment in the story and I went back a read it several times.


Stephen Shawn wrote: "Sounds great. I noticed this was part of a trilogy. Would you recommend starting with the Gods & Generals or could it stand alone on itself? I'lll have to add this to my list."

Shawn, I have not read the other books in the trilogy and this definitely stands on its own. I believe Shaara's son wrote the other books after the fact and tied them into the series.


message 7: by Rogier (new)

Rogier stephen you read great books and write great reviews aswell good job


message 8: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark I am british and therefore have not really read anything of import about the american civil war but you make it sound fascinating not least for the ' if only ' or 'what might have happened ' aspects that resound for me through every good history


Stephen Thanks, Mark. It is a wonderful read and if you are a fan of history and historical fiction, I think you would enjoy this.


message 10: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark cheers; I think I will add it to the ever growing ziggurat in my ' intended library '


message 11: by Kemper (last edited Nov 22, 2011 03:30PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kemper Loved this one too. Did you ever watch the movie Gettysburg based on it? Pretty decent and the best part was Jeff Daniels playing Chamberlain.


Stephen No, I haven't seen the movie but I want to check it out now that I have read this. Not sure if you listened to the audio for this one, but it was very good and there was a great intro by Jeff Shaara about the difficulty his dad had getting this published.


Kemper Haven't done the audio version. I might have to check that out since I'm due for a reread. The movie is kind of odd because it takes a lot of the thoughts that Shaara wrote out and gives the characters long monologues that spell them.


Kevin Xu Kemper wrote: "Loved this one too. Did you ever watch the movie Gettysburg based on it? Pretty decent and the best part was Jeff Daniels playing Chamberlain."

I think he played the same role in the prequel.


Stephen Kemper wrote: "The movie is kind of odd because it takes a lot of the thoughts that Shaara wrote out and gives the characters long monologues that spell them."

I was wondering about that since so much of the book is inner monologue. I'll see if this is available for download.


Stephen Kevin wrote: "I think he played the same role in the prequel."

Are the prequels worth watching as well and how are the books?


Kevin Xu Stephen wrote: "Kevin wrote: "I think he played the same role in the prequel."

Are the prequels worth watching as well and how are the books?"


There is only a prequel and the sequel, I never watched the movies, but I loved the two other books. I think they are good in their own way, it could never be better than the original.


Stephen Thanks, Kevin. I will definitely look them up.


message 19: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Great review. Looks like a fascinating book although the title made it seem like some super amazing sci-fi fantasy or like something out of Doctor Who haha. Killer Angels instantly sounds like angels on the loose around every corner with tons of suspense and people dying...


message 20: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Great review. The charge of the 20th Maine is one of the great moments in military leadership. The other 2 books by the son are very good. The movie not so much.


Stephen Jonathan wrote: "Great review. Looks like a fascinating book although the title made it seem like some super amazing sci-fi fantasy or like something out of Doctor Who haha. Killer Angels instantly sounds like ange..."

I know, the title threw me the first time I saw it as well. I think the title refers to an early scene in the book when General Lee refers to man as having a "divine spark" like an angel, but his capacity for violence makes him a killer angel.


Stephen Mike wrote: "Great review. The charge of the 20th Maine is one of the great moments in military leadership. The other 2 books by the son are very good. The movie not so much."

Thanks, Mike. I plan on getting the prequel and te sequel by Jeff Shaara.


message 23: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Hmmm not as exciting as my version of the title. Good thing titles can not be copy-written hmmm. Killer Angels: a suspenseful, supernatural thriller, here we come!


Kemper Stephen wrote: "Kevin wrote: "I think he played the same role in the prequel."

Are the prequels worth watching as well and how are the books?"


Yeah, Daniels plays Chamberlain again in Gods and Generals but has a smaller part. That one focuses a lot on Stonewall Jackson. It had a really slow pace, and I didn't like it as much as Gettysburg.


message 25: by Kerrie (new)

Kerrie I much preferred this book to the 2 that Jeff Shaara wrote - I found his prose rather dry but enjoyed them anyway because I'm fascinated with the Civil War. Having read Killer Angels and watched Gettysburg several times, it really enhanced my 3-day trip to Gettysburg where I left my car at the visitor center and hiked the whole battlefield during a mid-June heatwave. Walking through Devil's Den really put perspective to the horror that I had read about. (Same thing with walking along Bloody Lane at Antietam.)


message 26: by Shawn (new) - added it

Shawn Camp Kerrie wrote: "I much preferred this book to the 2 that Jeff Shaara wrote - I found his prose rather dry but enjoyed them anyway because I'm fascinated with the Civil War. Having read Killer Angels and watched Ge..."

That sounds like such an excellent idea. I've been wanting to take a trip to Gettsburg for the longest time.


Stephen Jonathan wrote: "Hmmm not as exciting as my version of the title. Good thing titles can not be copy-written hmmm. Killer Angels: a suspenseful, supernatural thriller, here we come!"

Sounds good, Jonathan. You write it and I will buy the first copy.


Stephen Kerrie wrote: "Having read Killer Angels and watched Gettysburg several times, it really enhanced my 3-day trip to Gettysburg where I left my car at the visitor center and hiked the whole battlefield during a mid-June heatwave. Walking through Devil's Den really put perspective to the horror that I had read about. (Same thing with walking along Bloody Lane at Antietam.) "

That sounds like an amazing experience, Kerrie. I have never been but I think I would really enjoy it.


message 29: by Lea (new) - added it

Lea Now you've got me reading about the Civil War?! Where will it all end, Stephen??


Stephen Lea wrote: "Now you've got me reading about the Civil War?! Where will it all end, Stephen??"

Once all the good books have been read...I think we still have a ways to go.


message 31: by Elaine (new) - added it

Elaine steven, you've got to stop writing such brilliant reviews. My to read list is getting longer every day! LOL
No seriously, thankyou; for inspiring me to read such great books


Stephen Elaine wrote: "steven, you've got to stop writing such brilliant reviews. My to read list is getting longer every day! LOL
No seriously, thankyou; for inspiring me to read such great books"


That is very nice of you to say, Elaine. I'm very happy you like the review and I hope you have a great experience with this book. It really is a special.


message 33: by Dgm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dgm I agree that Shaara did an incredible job of depicting The Battle of Gettysburg, but I thought that the beginning of the book was boring and I felt like I was reading an American History textbook instead of a historical fiction novel


message 34: by A. (new) - rated it 4 stars

A. S. I also really enjoyed the book, and the way Shara depicts the characters as ordinary men.


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