The Killer Angels — A Book Review

October 18, 2012 at 10:22 am | Posted in Books and Movies | 1 Comment

I just finished reading The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  Wow – what a powerful book!  The Killer Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, is about the battle of Gettysburg presented from the thoughts of selected officers on both sides.  Shaara researched the battle for six years before writing the novel, so the story he tells is accurate concerning battles, places and people.  The history is very interesting, but the inner thoughts of the men he highlights are what make the story so utterly fascinating.

Shaara presents the reasons for the US Civil War in the thoughts and discussions of his characters.  Being raised outside the South and in an environment where slavery was considered just plain wrong, I never understood why the Confederates were so adamant about fighting for it.  But Shaara’s Southern officers were not fighting to keep slaves, they were fighting to maintain a way of life handed down for generations – they couldn’t imagine freedom working without their way of life.  However, the people in the North believed it was for freedom of slaves that they fought.  My favorite character in the book is Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine; at one point he motivates his men, speaking about the cause of the war,

“This is a different kind of army.  If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some kind of loot.  They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing.  But we’re here for something new.  . . .  We’re an army going out to set other men free.” (p. 30)

These words came from Colonel Chamberlain not long after his thinking, “the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.” (p. 27)

Apart from this book, I never would have thought about the nearness of the officers on opposite sides of the battle line, and the inner struggles it produced.  Many men were leading armies against those who, a few months before, were their friends or close associates.  Many of the officers were in school at West Point together, or had shared meals and social times together, and that affected they way they looked at the war.  They struggled over fighting people they loved for a cause which was supposedly higher; and they wrestled with breaking their vows to protect the land and people they now fought against.  One good example of this is Brigadier General Lewis Armistead of the South, who, just before the war, swore an oath to Major General Winfield Hancock not to fight against him.

“Well, the man was like a brother to me.  You remember.  Toward the end of the evening . . . it got rough.  We all began . . . well, you know, there were a lot of tears.”  Armistead’s voice wavered; he took a deep breath. “Well, I was crying, and I went up to Win and I took him by the shoulder and I said, ‘Win, so help me, if I ever lift a hand against you, may God strike me dead.’” (p. 258)

Going into the battle at Gettysburg was hard on Armistead because of that vow.  He said, “I thought about sitting this one out.  But, I don’t think I can do that.  I don’t think that would be right either.” (ibid).

According to Wikipedia, “The Killer Angels has been required reading, at various times, at the US Army Officer Candidate School, . . . and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point,” besides numerous other military training institutions.  The article also reveals that, because of this book, the most popular monument at the Gettysburg battlefield is the 20th Maine memorial.  If these things are true, this book has had quite an impact.  I can understand why.

Well written, good story, powerful emotions, challenging and thought provoking too.  This one is a great read, deserving the accolades it has received.

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  1. I sent an email about this post to my nephew who is a war movie fan:
    You probably already know this, because this book was the basis of the movie Gettysburg, but I just finished reading it. I think you would enjoy it a lot. It deals with the inner thoughts of many of the officers in the battle. Fascinating.

    Here was his response:
    The movie Gettysburg is still one of my favorite war movies ever – and it is my favorite for the same reason you seemed to like the book: the emotional and patriotic temperament.

    Colonel Chamberlain is one of my personal heroes, and it was Gettysburg that made him that way in my eyes. In fact, the quote from him you used is part of one of my favorite monologues of any play or movie I’ve ever seen. As for The Killer Angels, I have wanted to read it for some time now. I need to go find it, sounds like.

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