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Title: The Killer Angels
Author: Michael Shaara
Publication Date: 1974 (print), 2004 (audio)
Publisher: David McKay Publications (print), Random House Audio (audio)
Narrated By: Stephen Hoye
Recording Time: 13 hours, 44 minutes
The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975. It was unique for its time in a few different ways. First, it was an early pioneer of writing a work of fiction using the first hand accounts of an assortment of participants in a particular event, as its source material. Shaara told individual scenes from the perspective of those characters and put words in their mouths and thought in their minds. At the time, this was a radical treatment of history. Shaara does take literary license in some places, but the book is nonetheless also a work of history as much as it is a work of fiction. In fact, the book has been required reading at West Point occasionally since its release. Shaara is largely credited with causing a historical re-evaluation of the Confederate General James Longstreet as a tactician and a character. Shaara is also credited with recognizing a physical ailment of Robert E. Lee – a heart condition – through his careful reading of letters and memoirs, and Shaara’s recognition is now widely agreed upon in the decades since the book’s release.
This book is widely considered to be one of the finest novels written about the American Civil War.
In late June 1863, General Robert E. Lee leads his army into Pennsylvania. By threatening Washington, D.C., he hopes to draw the Union army into battle and inflict a crushing defeat, which will bring an end to the war. Harrison, a spy, tells General James Longstreet, Lee’s friend, that the Union army is drawing near. They go to Lee, who is reluctant to trust a spy, but has to, because his usual source of intelligence, Jeb Stuart‘s cavalry, is out of touch. He sets out to meet the enemy.
At the road junction of Gettysburg, Confederate infantry encounters the Union cavalry of General John Buford who seizes the high ground and holds it against a Confederate attack at dawn on July 1. Troops of General John Reynolds come to support Buford. Reynolds is killed and the Union troops are pushed back, but at nightfall they entrench on high ground while the Confederates celebrate what appears to them to be another in a long line of victories for General Lee.
Longstreet is filled with foreboding. On July 2, he tries to persuade Lee that the Union position, entrenched on steep hills and behind stone walls is too strong. He urges Lee to march away and make the fight on more favorable ground. But Lee orders a flanking attack on the Union position. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine is told by his superiors that he occupies the end of the Union line, and that he must hold at any cost. In a brilliant, costly action, Chamberlain succeeds in repulsing the Confederate attack.
On July 3, Lee, concluding that his flanking attack was repulsed due to the Union army’s focus on them, concludes that “they are weak in the center” and orders a frontal assault on the center of the Union line. Knowing it is doomed, Longstreet argues against it, as his men will be forced to march across an open field under cannon fire to assault the well-entrenched Union center. But Lee is confident and Longstreet despairs. General George Pickett leads the charge, which is turned back with heavy losses. A shaken Lee orders retreat. Chamberlain is now confident of Union victory.
The Killer Angels is a fantastic book. Stephen Hoye is a terrific narrator of the audiobook. Shaara creates a story for the readers where several of the officers in both armies are fully-fleshed out human beings, with relatable (well, some more than others) thoughts and emotions, and as a result, the Battle of Gettysburg comes to life on the page.
The book does not shy away from the discussion of why the war is being fought. The Northern officers are flummoxed as to why the Southerners would fight so ferociously to defend slavery, while being baffled that the captured Southerners – many of whom are well-known from their shared pre-War military service – are convinced they are not fighting for slavery. Chamberlain and his brother talk privately with each other about how the “Rebs” never even mention slavery. However, I thought it was a great moment in the story when Longstreet admits to himself that the war is indeed over slavery, though he knows none of his comrades are willing or able to look at it that way.
The Southerners were largely motivated by the idea of defending their states’ rights to self-govern, and their homes in general. The step that most would not take mentally is over why the conflict between their homes and the federal government was happening in the first place. It is almost as if a mass cognitive dissonance overlays their entire army and they cannot press their thoughts beyond those that serve their own interests. Longstreet, presented as a man ahead of his time in the South, is willing to take that next step mentally. His knowledge comes across as tragic. You come away from the book believing that the morality politics motivating the fight was beyond the thoughts of the people in the actual fight. If so, though, then why fight the way that they did? They do this because that is simply what soldiers do. As a result, even Chamberlain, wounded and fighting them, ends up viewing Pickett’s Charge as a beautiful moment of human courage. He still saw the other side as human, even while viewing their cause as repugnant. He also knows that their repugnant cause is such that he will kill them to stop them.
The book does not portray Robert E. Lee in a particularly good way. He seems lost in thought, constantly, about deceased comrades like Stonewall Jackson. He also has far too loose a hand regarding officer discipline – with Jeb Stuart in particular standing out in that regard. Though he is still widely regarded as a military genius, even today, in this battle he is presented as a tired old man who has lost touch with reality and who is also behind the times regarding the military. His sense of personal honor will not allow him to embrace the tactically smarter defensive approach to the war that Longstreet endorses. His honor also causes him to turn up his nose at the idea of using spies as Longstreet does. The discussion of his previous military victories implies that they were the result of a combination of decisiveness and motivated troops, rather than Lee’s uniquely brilliant tactics. When asked about Lee, in the novel, Longstreet is aghast at even the idea that Lee is devious in battle. Lee’s military mind seems to be the very last thing that should be given credit for the numerous Confederacy battle victories leading up to Gettysburg. In the book, we see that Lee is loved, almost like one might love a god. He carries himself with nobility, but he also seems like someone not quite human. His point of view chapters do not feel as connected to his inner thoughts and emotions as the other point of view characters. Yet it is also his “not quite human” characteristics, and the universal esteem in which he is held by both sides, which eventually lead to an ability for both sides to make peace after the war is over.
An interesting bit of commentary on the war, from within the novel, comes from the English character Freemantle. He notes that in many respects, the South has much more in common with England than the North does, ranging from similarities in bloodlines, temperament, and social structure. Through Freemantle we get the commentary that the South was, more or less, Europe transplanted into the Americas, whereas the North was something new and different. Freemantle implies that the South might have received assistance from Europe, but for their one key ideological divergence – slavery. In this way, and from another angle, you see that despite Southern insistence to the contrary, the war hinged on slavery.
The presentation of the battle itself was both interesting and moving. Shaara definitely points out events, which had they occurred differently, might have made a dramatic difference in the outcome. The author does not dwell on the absolute carnage at Gettysburg, but he describes it enough around the edges that a reader gets the idea. Civil War battles were almost incomprehensible by today’s standards. Nearly one-third of the participants at Gettysburg became casualties of the battle, including more than seven thousand combined fatalities and more than thirty-three thousand wounded. The novel mentions amputated limbs piled in heaps with bodies lying in the field, and a stench of death on the air. The courage is depicted as beautiful, even if wrongly placed, and the entire event is portrayed as a tragedy. Longstreet’s tears when sending men into a battle he views as doomed before it starts were particularly powerful.
If you enjoy historical fiction, or history surrounding the American Civil War, then I highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It’s a quick and easy read. The author’s prose is excellent, he excels in bringing the real men from this battle to life, he addresses many of the underlying issues related to the Civil War, more broadly, and he creates a battle wherein the reader can feel immersed in the events.