Michael Shaara’s historical novel, The Killer Angels is based on the Battle of Gettysburg. Shaara?s experience as a teacher shows by breaking down the characters and events surrounding this critical turning point in the history of the United States. Shaara helps the reader understand the significance of this important battle in which two percent of the male population at that time gave their lives for a cause (Sherwin, Elizabeth). He brings to life the great leaders of the North and South, men like Lawrence Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee, and James Longstreet, their similarities and their differences, and their effect on history.
Throughout the novel, Shaara gets into the hearts, minds, and souls of the characters. A reader can experience the pain, anxiety, love or lack of love these men have for their wives, families, and the men they fight along side. Each character is personalized to a point that the reader can relate to what is going inside of minds of these men. The reader can also get an in depth feeling of the horrors of war; experience the seeds of courage and or cowardice sprouts as the clash of war heightens. For example when Chamberlain is watching the men fighting around him, one clutching his stomach, one crazily jumping up and takes a bullet, and another propelled back after being shot (217).
Lawrence Chamberlain is a person one naturally likes and one may associate with because he is so admirable and compassionate. He is a professor turned soldier because he wants to help end the fighting (xix). As he learns his new trade the reader can feel his frustration over this superior’s lack of leadership. As when he is angry when a young private inquires as to why their guns were not trade for better ones ?Sir is it true that General McClellan is in command again?? and Chamberlain forced himself to reply no (166). He is also frustrated with the leadership of others hesitation and determination to push forward and crush the South. This is demonstrated when Chamberlain is confronted with orders to shape up a company of Maine volunteers that are mutineering and just want to return home. He is instructed ?you are therefore authorized to shoot any man who refuses to do his duty? (18). One can feel his anguish just at the thought of carrying out such an order and states ?Somebody?s crazy? (18).
General Robert E. Lee struggles to contain his anger when J.E.B. Stuart fails to report enemy troop movements. Lee discusses his frustration that Stuart has sent no new word of the federals that are closing in around them (82). Lee?s age and diminishing strength become obvious when as Longstreet discusses the scout?s report with him, Longstreet thinks to himself ?His heart was beating strongly. It was bad to see the indomitable old man weak and hatless in the early morning, something soft in his eyes, pain in his face, the right hand rubbing the pain in this arm? (14). The reader can feel his self-control throughout the Battle of Gettysburg with his generals when often they recommend taking defensive measures and he desires to take an offensive approach (82).
Reading accounts of Lee?s daily actions allows the reader to actually feel his spiritual strength, which is well known and respected (130) as he prays for quick and decisive success on the battlefield. ?He believed in a Purpose as surely as he believed that the stars above him were really there. He thought himself too dull to read God?s plan, thought he was not meant to know God?s plan, a servant only. And yet sometimes there were glimpses.? (262).
James Longstreet is different from Lee in his views of which strategies should be incorporated. He wants to set up defensive lines to fight the union on his terms. He disagrees with Lee’s strategy, but fulfills the responsibilities Lee puts upon him. For example when Lee and Longstreet are discussing their strategy ?Yep. Objective was to get him out of Washington and in the open. Now he?s out. Now all we have to do is swing round between him and Washington and get astride some nice thick rocks and make him come to us, and we?ve got him in the open?, and Lee replies ?Take the defensive. Not again?. Shaking his head and pointing towards Gettysburg. They disagree again as they are going into battle Lee tells Longstreet ?I like to go into battle with the agreement of my commanders, as far as possible, as you know. We are all members of his army, in a common cause.?(183)
The deaths of Longstreet ’s family, from a fever, the pain of their deaths transposed him into a loner (127). He goes from being fun loving with family and peers to going off into himself. He does not allow his depression to diminish his prowess as a general and leader. Often time he joins, at least in listening, to war talk just so he does not think of his dead children (135).
The differences between the North and South is the complete trust the South had of its leaders because of their successes and the North having been beaten badly many times, when they should have and could have won. When Lee rides through a town the men around him yell and whoop as he passes by, taking off their hats in pride and respect for him (136). Northern leaders would almost come to a complete stop and not pursue victory while it was in their grasp. The North had more men, materials and training that the South, making them a far superior army than the South, but the South?s pride seemed to cause them to rise up and win battles they should have lost as Lee states ?Our strength is in our pride.? (264).
The greatest effect of the battle of Gettysburg was on the South. The South lost their first major battle. They also lost so many men that they could never be a strong offensive minded army again. The South is forced to retreat back into southern soil and to begin the long and bloody defensive posture that ultimately leads to their defeat. Lee relates his vision of
?his boys backing off, pulling out, looking up in wonder and rage at the Yankee troops still in possession of the high ground. If we fall back we will have fought here for two days, and we will leave knowing that we did not drive them off, and if it was no defeat, surely it was no victory. And we have never yet left the enemy in command of the field.? (264).
Shaara brings all of these things together in his novel, these great men, their armies, their similarities and differences, and their human strengths and weaknesses. He recreates the struggle that helped determine America?s future. He moves this pivotal part of history beyond the text book history we were all taught and brings the characters to life. Allowing the reader to experience what these men experienced and to live history.
Sherwin, Elizabeth. Father/son trilogy didn?t come easily, success is sweet. 24 June 1998