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The Killer Angels ()

World Magazine Top 100 of the Century

When I was a little kid I was a pretty colossal cry baby, but now I rarely cry.  So you can imagine my consternation when I got teary eyed just reading the introduction to this great novel.  It is justifiably considered to be one of the greatest war novels ever written, indeed, I believe it is one of the great novels period.  Shaara manages several remarkable feats here:  he succeeds in that most important task of the historical novel and brings the Battle of Gettysburg to life with an immediacy that is absolutely breathtaking; he marshals the complicated tactics and strategies of the battle and makes them easy to follow;  he presents the ideas and ideals that motivated the men who fought in compelling fashion; he recaptures several American heroes and restores them to a place of honor in our memories; and most importantly, he demonstrates the terrible beauty of war.

I can not possibly do this book justice, so I'll let Shaara's own words set the scene:


    I. The Armies

    On June 15 the first troops of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee commanding, slip
    across the Potomac at Williamsport and begin the invasion of the North.

    It is an army of seventy thousand men.  They are rebels and volunteers.  They are mostly unpaid
    and usually self-equipped.  It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.  It is
    Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  Though there are many men who cannot read or write, they all speak
    English.  They share common customs and a common faith and they have been consitently
    victorious against superior numbers.  They have as solid a faith in their leader as any veteran army
    that ever marched.  They move slowly north behind the Blue Ridge, using the mountains to screen
    their movements.  Their main objective is to draw the Union Army out into the open where it can
    be destroyed.  By the end of the month they are closing on Harrisburg, having spread panic and
    rage and despair through the North.

    Late in June the Army of the Potomac, ever slow to move, turns north at last to begin the great
    pursuit which will end at Gettysburg.  It is a strange new kind of army, a polyglot mass of vastly
    dissimilar men, fighting for union.  There are strange accents and strange religions and many
    who do not speak English at all.  Nothing like this army has been seen upon the planet.  It is a
    collection of men from many different places who have seen much defeat and many commanders.
    They are volunteers: last of the great volunteer armies, for the draft is beginning that summer in
    the North.  They have lost faith in their leaders but not in themselves.  They think this will be the
    last battle, and they are glad that it is to be fought on their own home ground.  They come up from
    the South, eighty thousand men, up the narrow roads that converge toward the blue mountains.
   The country through which they march is some of the most beautiful country in the Union.

    It is the third summer of the war.

    II. The Men

    James Longstreet, Lieutenant General, forty-two.  Lee's second in command.  A large man,
    larger than Lee, full-bearded, blue-eyed, ominous, slow-talking, crude.  He is one of the first of the
    new soldiers, the cold-eyed men who have sensed the birth of the new war of machines.  He has
    invented a trench and a theory of defensive warfare, but in that courtly company few will listen.
    He is one of the few high officers in that army not from Virginia.

    That winter, in Richmond, three of his children have died within a week, of a fever.  Since that
    time he has withdrawn, no longer joins his men for the poker games he once loved, for which he
    was famous.

    They call him "Old Pete" and sometimes "The Dutchmen".  His headquarters is always near Lee,
    and men remark upon the intimacy and some are jealous of it.  He has opposed the invasion of
    Pennsylvania, but once the army is committed he no longer opposes.  Yet he will speak his mind; he
    will always speak his mind.  Lee calls him, with deep affection, "my old war horse".  Since the
    death of Stonewall Jackson he has been Lee's right hand.  He is a stubborn man.

     Lewis Armistead, Brigadier General, forty-six.  Commander of one of George Pickett's
    brigades.  They call him "Lo", which is short for Lothario, which is meant to be witty, for he is a
    shy and silent man, a widower.  descended from a martial family, he has a fighter's spirit, is known
    throughout the old army as the man who, while a cadet at the Point, was suspended for hitting
    Jubal Early in the head with a plate.  Has developed over long years of service a deep affection for
    Winfield Scott Hancock, who fights now with the Union.  Armistead looks forward to the reunion
    with Hancock, which will take place at Gettysburg.

    These men wore blue:

    Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Colonel, thirty-four.  He prefers to be called "Lawrence."  A
    professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, sometimes professor of "Natural and Revealed Religion,"
    successor to the chair of the famed Professor Stowe, husband to Harriet Beecher.   Tall and rather
    handsome, attractive to women, somewhat boyish, a clean and charming person.  An excellent
    student, Phi Beta Kappa, he speaks seven languages and has a beautiful singing voice, but he has
    wanted all his life to be a soldier.  The College will not free him for war, but in the summer of
    1862 he requests a sabbatical for study in Europe.  When it is granted he proceeds not to France but
    to the office of the Governor of Maine, where he receives a commission in the 20th Regiment of
    Infantry, Maine Volunteers, and marches off to war with a vast faith in the brotherhood of man.
    Spends the long night at Fredericksburg piling corpses in front of himself to shield him from
    bullets.  Comes to Gettysburg with that hard fragment of the Regiment which has survived.  One
    week before the battle he is given command of the Regiment.  His younger brother Thomas
    becomes his aide.  Thomas too has yearned to be a soldier.  The wishes of both men are to be
    granted on the dark rear slope of a small rocky hill called Little Round Top.

    Winfield Scott Hancock, Major General, thirty-nine.  Armistead's old friend.  A magnetic man
    with a beautiful wife.  A painter of talent, a picture-book General.  Has a tendency to gain weight,
    but at this moment is still young and slim, still a superb presence, a man who arrives on the
    battlefield in spotlessly clean linen and never keeps his head down.  In the fight to come he will be
    everywhere, and in the end he will be waiting for Lew Armistead at the top of Cemetery Hill.

The battle itself, as well as all of World War I, is foreshadowed in a speech that Longstreet makes to a British observer:

    Let me explain this.  Try to see this.  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.  That's the truth, isn't it?  In the old days they fought from
    a distance with bows and arrows and ran at each other, man to man, with swords.  But now, listen,
    now it's quite a bit different, and quite a few people don't seem to know that yet.  But we're
    learning.  Look.  Right now, take a man with a good rifle which has a good range and may even be
    a repeater.  He can kill at, oh, conservatively, two, three hundred yards shooting into the crowd
    attacking him.  Forget the cannon.  Just put one man behind a tree.  You can hardly see him from
    two hundred yards away, but he can see you.  And shoot.  And shoot again.  How many men do
    you think it will take to get to that man behind a tree, in a ditch, defended by cannon, if you have
    to cross an open field to get him?  How many men?  Well, I've figured it.  At least three.  And he'll
    kill at least two.  The way you do it is this: one man fires while one man is moving, and the other is
    loading and getting ready to move.  That's how the three men attack.  There's always one moving
    and one firing.  That way you can do it.  If you forget the cannon.  But you'll lose one man most
    probably on the way across the field, at least one, probably two, against a cannon you'll lose all
    three, no matter what you do, and that's across the field.  Now if you are attacking uphill...

    He broke it off.  No point in talking this way to a foreigner.  Might have to fight him sometime.
    But  the man would not see.  Longstreet had spoken to his own officers.  They found what he said
    vaguely shameful.  Defense? When Lee dug trenches around Richmond they called him, derisively,
    the King of Spades.

And so Lee insists on attacking the Union forces, even as Longstreet urges him to withdraw and keep his Army intact.

The most remarkable part of the book is the realism and excitement that Shaara brings to scenes of battle.  Here is his description of the action at Little Round Top, where Chamberlain and the 20th Maine held the extreme left of the Union line (note the terse, staccato sentences, urging the action forward):

    He (Chamberlain) limped along the line.  Signs of exhaustion.  Men down, everywhere.  He
    thought: we cannot hold.

    Looked up toward the crest.  Fire still hot there, still hot everywhere.  Down into the dark.  They
    are damned good men, those Rebs.  Rebs, I salute you.  I don't think we can hold you.

    He gathered with Spear and Kilrain back behind the line.  He saw another long gap, sent Ruel
    Thomas to this one.  Spear made a count.

    "We've lost a third of the men, Colonel.  Over a hundred down.  The left is too thin."

    "How's the ammunition?"

    "I'm checking."

    A new face, dirt-stained, bloody: Homan Melcher, Lieutenant, Company F, a gaunt boy with buck

    "Colonel? Request permission to go pick up some of our wounded.  We left a few boys out there."

    "Wait," Chamberlain said.

    Spear came back, shaking his head.  "We're out." Alarm stained his face, a grayness in his cheeks.

     "Some of the boys have nothing at all."

    "Nothing," Chamberlain said.

    Officers were coming from the right.  Down to a round or two per man.  And now there was a
    silence around him.  No man spoke.  They stood and looked at him, and then looked down into the
    dark and then looked back at Chamberlain.  One man said, "Sir, I guess we ought to pull out."

    Chamberlain said, "Can't do that."

    Spear: "We won't hold 'em again.  Colonel, you know we can't hold 'em again."

    Chamberlain: "If we don't hold, they go right on by and over the hill and the whole flank caves in."

    He looked from face to face.  The enormity of it, the weight of the line, was a mass to great to
    express.  But he could see it as clearly as in a broad wide vision, a Biblical dream: If the line broke
    here, then the hill was gone, all these boys from Pennsylvania, New York, hit from behind, above.
    Once the hill went, the flank of the army went.  Good God!  he could see troops running; he could
    see the blue flood, the bloody tide.

    Kilrain: "Colonel, they're coming."

    Chamberlain marveled.  But we're not so bad ourselves.  One recourse: can't go back.  Can't stay
    where we are.  Results: inevitable.

    The idea formed.

    "Let's fix bayonets," Chamberlain said.

And so begins a bayonet charge that saved the day, the battle and perhaps the Union.  It is impossible to read this section of the book (or watch the corresponding scenes in the movie) and not have your pulse quicken and your scalp tingle--and if you're like me, have a tear come to your eye.  It is here that Shaara most fully captures the awful fact that for all its horrors, we love war--the heroism, the camaraderie, the sacrifice, the brutal beauty of men facing down their fears, all have a visceral appeal.  As Chamberlain walks the battlefield afterwards:

    He moved forward and began to climb the big hill in the dark.  As he walked he forgot his pain; his
    heart began to beat quickly, and he felt incredible joy.  He looked at himself, wonderingly, at the
    beloved men around him, and he said to himself: Lawrence, old son, treasure this moment.  Because
    you feel as good as a man can feel.

The book moves on to the courageous folly of Picket's Charge and to the Union's ultimate victory, a victory that Meade squandered by not pursuing the retreating Lee.  Shaara provides an afterward that charts the subsequent careers of the remarkable commanders who met at Gettysburg, here are my two heroes, two men who must be reckoned great Americans in any accounting:

    That winter he requests relief from command, on the ground that he no longer believes the South
    can win the war.  Lee prevails upon him to stay.  he is wounded severely in the Wilderness, 1864,
    but returns to be Lee's most dependable soldier, his right hand until the end at Appomattox.

    After the war he makes two great mistakes.  First, he becomes a Republican, attempts to join with
    old comrade Grant in rebuilding the South.  For this he is branded a turncoat, within two years of
    the end of the war is being referred to by Southern newspapers as "the most hated man in the

    Second, as time passes and it becomes slowly apparent that the war was lost at Gettysburg,
    Longstreet gives as his opinion what he believes to be true:  that the battle was lost by Robert E.
    Lee.  This occurs long after Lee's death, when Lee has become the symbol of all that is fine and
    noble in the Southern cause.  The South does not forgive Longstreet the insult to Lee's name.  At
    the great reunion, years later, of the Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet is not even invited, but
    he comes anyway, stubborn to the end, walks down the aisle in his old gray uniform, stars of a
    general on his collar, and is received by an enormous ovation by the men, with tears and an
    embrace from Jefferson Davis.

    His theories on defensive warfare are generations ahead of his time.  the generals of Europe are still
    ordering massed assaults against fortified positions long after his death, in 1904, at the age of


    In August he is given a brigade.  Shortly thereafter he is so badly wounded, shot through both hips,
    that he is not expected to live.  But he returns to become one of the most remarkable soldiers in
    American history.  Wounded six times.  Cited for bravery in action four times.  Promoted to
    Brigadier General by special order of Ulysses Grant for heroism at Petersburg.  Breveted Major
    General for heroism at Five Forks.  He is the officer chosen by Grant from all other Northern
    officers to have the honor of receiving the Southern surrender at Appomatox, where he startles the
    world by calling his troops to attention to salute the defeated South.  He is given first place in the
    last Grand Review in Washington.  For his day at Little Round Top he is to receive the
    Congressional Medal of Honor.

    In Maine he is elected Governor by the largest majority in the history of the state and returned to
    office three times, where he alienates political friends by refusing to agree to the impeachment of
    Andrew Johnson.

    In 1876, elected President of Bowdoin College, where he attempts to modernize the school,
    introducing courses in science, de-emphasizing religion, and becomes involved in student
    demonstrations over the question of ROTC.  Receives medal of honor from France for
    distinguished efforts in international education.  When he retires from Bowdoin he has taught every
    subject in the curriculum exce


Grade: (A+)


Michael Shaara Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: MIchael Shaara
    -BIO: Michael Shaara (Jeff Shaara)
-ESSAY: ‘For Love of the Game’:: A family saga, a rediscovered manuscript and an unlikely movie (Cody Stavenhagen, Jan 9, 2023, The Athletic)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Dan Schafer Review: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara A Great Book Indeed
    -Father/son trilogy didn't come easily, success is sweet (Elisabeth Sherwin)
    -ESSAY: James Longstreet’s Lessons in Leadership: How a Confederate general who turned on the South helps distinguish leaders from wannabe figureheads. (Thomas Koenig, May 25, 2024, The Dispatch)

A Film Review by James Berardinelli

CHAMBERLAIN (1828-1914):
    -Official Home Page  of  Joshua L. Chamberlain
    -Soul of the Lion Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1828-1914
    -Maineiac's Joshua Chamberlain Home Page
    -The Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum (Brunswick, ME)
    -20th Reg't. Maine Volunteer Infantry, Company F
    -Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
    -Bowdoin College Office of the President administrative records, 1871-1883

 LONGSTREET (1821-1904):
    -Longstreet, Gen. James - From Manassas to Appomattox (War Times Journal)
    -The Longstreet Chronicles


    -Brig. General Lewis A. Armistead, C.S.A.

    - Major General George E. Pickett, CSA

    -Military History Online - Battle of Gettysburg
    -The American Civil War Overview CHAPTER IX: THE GETTYSBURG CAMPAIGN
    -Gettysburg: The Turning Point in the Civil War.
    -Gettysburg National Military Park Home Page
    -I CORPS Publishing Company presents: THE BATTLEFIELD OF GETTYSBURG MAP
    -Geology and the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 (maps, etc.)

    -American Civil War Homepage
    -Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War
    -Civil War Book News
    -Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)

JEFF SHAARA (1952-):
    -BOOK PAGE: for THE LAST FULL MEASURE by Jeff Shaara (Random House)
    -BookPage Interview June 1998: Jeff Shaara
    -q&a:  war gods and jeff shaara (George Jr.)
    -REVIEW : of Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara (Noel Perrin, Washington Post)

Other recommended books by Michael Shaara:
    -For Love of the Game

If you liked Killer Angels, try:
Foote, Shelby
    -Stars in Their Courses : The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863 (Modern Library)

Trulock, Alice Rains
     -In the Hands of Providence : Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War

Shaara, Jeff
    -Gods and Generals

and the FILM:
    -Gettysburg (1993)
    -REVIEW: of ‘JAMES LONGSTREET AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR’ BY HAROLD M. KNUDSEN: Was Longstreet the Confederacy's first modern warrior? (GORDON BERG, 1/23/2023, HistoryNet)
    -ESSAY: This Son of Maine Was Much More Than a Civil War Hero (HistoryNet, Oct. 16th, 2023)
    -REVIEW: of Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South By Elizabeth R. Varon (Eugene L. Meyer, washington Independent Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Gettysburg tells the story of more than a battle ? the military park shows what national ‘reconciliation’ looked like for decades after the Civil War (Katrina Stack and Rebecca Sheehan, November 17, 2023, The Conversation)