Michael Shaara: The Killer Angels (1974) Literature and War Readalong February 2014

The Killer Angels

Books are not always the way we expect them to be. Still, I’ve only rarely been this wrong. I was afraid Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winner would be dry, heavy on tactics and military jargon. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if it had been like that, after all, Shaara tells the story of the three-day battle at Gettysburg. But The Killer Angels is anything but dry or heavy. It’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, which focusses much more on the moods and emotions of the main characters than on tactics.

I liked the way this was told. We have seven different POVs, each chapter told by another person. That way the narrative constantly  switches from the Confederate Army to the Union Army. On the Union side we have Chamberlain and Buford, on the Confederate side we have the POVs of Lee, Longstreet, Fremantle, Armistead and a spy.

Gettysburg is said to have been the decisive battle. It was lost by the Confederate Army who had been mostly victorious so far. The way Shaara tells this, I got the impression that the defeat was due to a large extent to General Lee’s unfortunate belief in assault warfare. His second in command, Longstreet, cautions against it, but to no avail. It seemed that while Lee was one of the most beloved Generals, he was very old-school in his tactics. Longstreet wanted to be defensive and was proven right in the end. The battle cost the lives of numerous soldiers, many officers and many, many horses.

The amazing thing in this novel is that Shaara writes so well about moods and emotions. We see the men mostly before or after the battle. The way they experience life in the army, the apprehension and exhilaration before the fight. How they experience the weather, the other men. Politics are present but in the background. Everyone on both sides thinks it’s about slavery but we come to realize that it’s not. Slavery is a symbol for a way of life. In a way it’s a battle of change versus tradition. I never really saw it that way. And the book made me understand why the South fought. They were scared to lose their way of life. If they had known how to stay the way they were – big plantations, old money, traditions – without slavery, maybe they wouldn’t have minded so much. And they certainly didn’t like being told how to live. Fremantle is an interesting character, because he’s a British journalist and the way he compares the South to Britain is interesting and sheds light on many aspects.

I’m certainly no expert on tactics but I was wondering whether the terrain wasn’t to some extent responsible for the defeat.

While I liked this book a geat deal, I have one reservation. I had to check up on Shaara because the way this was written, how it glorifies some aspects, made me think that, while familiar with life in the military, Shaara doesn’t sound like someone who has seen action. And I was right. He served before the war in Korea but not during the war.

I will leave you with three quotes, which capture the mood of this book.

Chamberlain on his own

Isn’t that amazing? Long marches and no rest, up very early in the morning and asleep late in the rain, and there’s a marvelous excitement to it, a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee . . .

Lee on his own

The night air was soft and warm. Across the road there were still many fires in the field but no more bands, no more singing. Men sat in quiet groups, talking the long slow talk of night in camp at war; many had gone to sleep: There were stars in the sky and a gorgeous white moon. The moon shone on the white cupola of the seminary across the road – lovely view, good place to see the fight.

Chamberlain again – in a crucial scene that explains the title of the book.

Once Chamberlain had a speech memorized from Shakespeare and gave it proudly, the old man listening but not looking, and Chamberlain remembered it still: “What a piece of work is man . . . in action how like an angel!” And the old man, grinning, had scratched his head and then said stiffly, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” And Chamberlain had gone on to school to make an oration on the subject: Man, the Killer Angel.

I don’t know what other books the year will bring, but I have a feeling this one could make it on the Best of List. I love books which are rich in atmosphere, capture quiet, introspective moods and manage to bring the most different characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect to find all that in a war novel. The Killer Angels is a gorgeous book on an awful subject, reading it felt like seeing all the major participants of the battle during their most intimate moments. I’m grateful to Kevin who said I would be missing out, if I didn’t read it. He was right.

Other reviews

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The Killer Angels is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the American Civil War novel  March by Geraldine Brooks. Discussion starts on Monday 31 March, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

37 thoughts on “Michael Shaara: The Killer Angels (1974) Literature and War Readalong February 2014

  1. Great commentary Caroline.

    I really want to get around to reading this. The seven different POVs do sound like it could get confusing but also sounds unique. American Civil War buffs will forever be discussing and debating Lee’s choices at Gettysburg. Though not my biggest area of historical interest or knowledge, I think that he was brilliant general who made some big mistakes in that battle.

    • It certainly sounds as if he made a mistake here, but the afterword alos mentions that some belived it was Longstreet who made the mistake.
      I’d love to know what you thin k of this. After having read rhapsodyinbooks’ comment, I’d say it’s a bit more problematic than I thought.

  2. I just finished The Good Lord Bird, which is about the events that lead up to the Civil War. I recommend it. This sounds like a book I would like -thanks for the review!

  3. The Killer Angels is only *mostly* accurate, but its biggest problem, in my opinion, is how it whitewashes the causes for the war and General Lee’s (and other southerners’) attitudes toward slavery. The war was *about* keeping slavery, not about just having, e.g., plantations (which would have been impossible in any event without slavery). You can see just how much The South minded losing slavery *after* the war, when they did whatever they could to continue exploiting labor of blacks and negating their freedom by arresting them on every trumped up charge they could (such as “standing around”) and then sending them into mines and sweat shops or for road work. And of course, lynching them if they tried to protest or exercise any rights or even just not show deference to whites. It wasn’t so much being told how to live that bothered southern whites; it was being told that blacks were “equal” to them. Southerners have worked mightily to change historical memory so that the war seemed to be about “states rights” but it just wasn’t true at all.

    The terrain definitely played a factor. The area is full of little hills and culverts and areas for snipers to hide. It’s actually quite lovely. The field of Pickett’s Charge however is just barely a slope – not a hill like the one responsible for the slaughter at Fredericksburg. But I suppose when one side has artillery and the other doesn’t, just a slope is adequate! Today, that field is full of a very vicious poison ivy. I suppose soldiers were well-covered but it’s interesting how few accounts of battles, especially during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, mention problems like that!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the American Civil War. Before reading it I thought, like most Europeans, that it was only about slavery. Reading this, I thought that it ceratinyl was about slavery but nt only. I must have forgotten about Jim Crow and other awful things that came much later and are contrary to the points made by Shaara. I’m glad for the clarifications. Indeed, reading this we even think it wass never about the slaves.
      He mentions the weather very often, but not the vegetation and the terrain is described but that it was crucial is implied. It’s not said explicitly.

  4. I bet the different points of view really enhanced the book. Just one POV would have been limited and after all, there’s so much going on in a battlefield. I doubt I’ll read this but I’m still glad that you found a book you liked so much early in the year.

    • I thought it was a great idea to tell the story from so many different POVs. I never thought he was telling just one side’s story.
      I could actually imagine you’d like it and I thought it was much. mcuh better than the TV adaptation.

  5. Michael Shaara’s son Jeff is carrying on his father’s work on the US Civil War. I’ve read one of Jeff’s books, ‘Gods and Generals’. It didn’t quite have the impact for me of ‘The Killer Angels’. Another good Civil War novelist is Shelby Foote.

  6. Wonderful review, Caroline. Interesting to know that you expected the book to be one way, but the book pleasantly surprised you by being different in a nice way. It is fascinating that Michael Shaara writes less about the battle but more about the moods and emotions of the characters. It must be a unique war book. I enjoyed reading the three passages you have quoted, describing things from three different points of view.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I loved the way he told the story. Maybe he did gloss thin gs ver but I still enjoyed it and could relate to most of it thanks to the approach.
      I think you’d like it. If you ever want to read a book on the American Civil War.

  7. It’s always good to be wrong like that, isn’t it? I love books that really enrich my understanding of a historical moment. Sounds like this one has a great deal to recommend it!

  8. The problem with going the audio route with this book is that I only managed to get to one audio this month. I still plan to get to it, but I will just be a little late. :)

  9. Glad you liked it. I was unsure about how you would react until I started rereading it (I have read it at least five times and even assigned it to an American History Honors class once – a bad decision by the way) and realized that you would probably enjoy it. I envy you having read it for the first time mainly because you probably had little knowledge of the battle other than which side won. You probably had some suspense in what was going to happen. Here are a few thoughts:

    1. The book deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize. Shaara does an amazing job getting into the heads of his protagonists. He must have done an immense amount of research. I loved the way he would slip into first person occasionally.

    2. The book is one of the most accurate works of historical fiction ever written and yet that does not detract from its entertainment value. There are no major changes in the events in the battle and in fact, readers get a very clear picture of the battle from this work of fiction. In some ways it is superior to many nonfiction renditions of the battle because you understand better why things happened. e takes you into the minds of the decision makers.

    3. The use of maps to orient the reader is crucial. There are many nonfiction books on the battle (and other battles) that do not provide enough maps. Without the maps, the battle would have been much more confusing.

    4. It is true that the terrain was a huge factor in the battle. As the book correctly points out the battle turned on two geographical events. First, the failure of the South to capture Cemetery Hill at the end of the first day thus preventing the arriving Union army of a strong defensive position centered on Cemetery Ridge. Second, Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top may have won the war for the North as loss of the hill would have made possession of Cemetery Ridge untenable. You could argue that the defense of the hill that the book covers so strongly were the most important hours in the history of the U.S. The book clearly makes the case that control of the high ground is a key factor in battles. Pickett’s Charge, on the other hand, was not effected by terrain factors. The slope is inconsequential. BTW I have never read any reference to poison ivy in the many sources I have read on the battle.

    5. The book is decidedly pro-Southern possibly because the “Lost Cause” is more romantic. Notice there are only two major Northern characters (Chamberlain and Buford). The take on slavery is a little problematical. You could make a case that Shaara is an apologist. Even Chamberlain is unsure about the role of slavery in the war. By far the most questionable passage in the book is Chamberlain’s reaction to the runaway slave. Chamberlain’s character should have been more strongly in favor of abolition to balance the Southern point of view. I am a bit upset that a reader like you could come away from the book downplaying the role of slavery as a cause of the war. I am a multi-causal historian so I am not arguing slavery was the only cause, but it was absolutely crucial and there would have been no war without it. Shaara presents the “states’ rights” (or “rats” as he amusingly has the Rebel soldier accent it) argument through the Southern generals around the camp fire, but it is unclear if he is portraying them as excusing slavery or if he believes their bull shit. I side with Rhapsody on this (and I’m a Southerner).

    6. The book makes a strong case for the importance of historical fiction. Few non-fiction renderings of the battle emphasize the role Lee’s heart disease had on the battle. Shaara is brilliant in his interpretation that Lee made bad decisions based on his health and the desire to end the war as soon as possible.

    7. The book is a bit too lenient with Longstreet. He comes off as something of a saint when he has been criticized by many for being slow in carrying out Lee’s orders, especially on the second day. The book gives the impression that Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s tactics (which is accurate), but downplays how his disagreement caused him to basically pout and drag his feet. The book also makes it seem that Longstreet was clearly correct in his strategic vision. His main argument in favor of maneuvering to get to a defensive position that would force the Union to attack Lee’s army (similar to what the North lucked into) made sense going into the battle, but once the battle began Lee was right to fight there. Lee was more right than Longstreet until the terrible decision to launch Pickett’s Charge.

    8. Chamberlain is such an outstanding character and tailor made for a novel like this. And then Shaara creates Kilrain – brilliant!

    9. Spoiler alert: Anyone who does not want to read the book can watch the movie. I have never seen a movie that more closely follows the book than “Gettysburg” does. Almost all the dialogue comes directly from the novel.

    10. It was a literary tragedy that Shaara died before he could follow up on this masterpiece. His son is an average novelist who makes up for it in prolificness.

    Sorry about the length.

    • Interesting, comments, thanks Kevin. My slavery comment wasn’t exactly carefully worded, I realize. As you say, you are a multi-causal historian and that points to the problem. They way we were taught in school or the way it’s perceived from a European point of view it was ONLY about slavery. This book tries to show that there might have been other reasons as well, all tied together, but still. On a conscious level, it might not have been as much about slavery as we think now. Before reading this book I never ever sympathized with the Southerners but I did, while reading this. I do condemn slavery but I can – from a purely psychlogical point of view understand – how they felt and I did pity them a bit.
      I did get the impression that Longstreet was dragging his feet but not that it was of any negative consequence. I was wondering how pro-Southern it really was because Chamberlain and Longstreet are equally praised.
      Yes, the maps were extremely helpful. It diificult to visualize terrain like that without.
      The poison ivy comment is interesting. One could speculate why it’s not mentioned. I suppose the officers were not wearing rags, at least not before the battles and were well covered, while we don’t know about the soldiers.
      Btw -Is there a ssimple oldier’s account, diary or anything like that available?
      I was also wondering, why this wasn’t a good choice in class?
      Although I’ve seen the movie, I found it confusing and didn’t remember much but I’m looking forward to watch it again.

      • I do not see in the book where Shaara makes a clear case that the most important factor bringing on the war was slavery. This should have been done by the Chamberlain character. Instead we get Chamberlain being unsure of his feelings about slavery. Shaara makes a case for states’ rights as the main reason why the South seceded. This is simply not true. It was okay for him to put this argument in the mouths of the Southern generals, but there needed to be a counterpoint. Shaara comes off as a Southern apologist. I may be multi-causal but the most important cause was slavery and without the South’s attempts to retain the system, there would have been no war.

        I just do not believe poison ivy played a role. There is no evidence for this. Plus after what Lee’s soldiers had gone through, it would not have affected them.

        The most famous soldier’s account of the battle is probably Frank Haskell’s. Go to:
        http://www.bartleby.com/43/3501.html

        If you want a novel that tells the story from a lower rank point of view I highly recommend a young adult novel entitled Slopes of War by Perez. I substituted this book for Killer Angels in my class and got much better results. Killer Angels is too adult for eleventh graders. Slopes has characters their age and has a romance. It is one of my favorite books. It is in my trio of great young adult war novels along with “Fallen Angels” and “April Morning”.

        You’ll certainly enjoy the movie more the next time. If you like the book, you have to like the movie because it could not be more faithful to the novel.

        BTW I have been to the battlefield twice. It is an amazing place and I would argue is the best battlefield park in the world.

        • Thanks for your suggestions. Unfortunately Slopes of War is out of print.
          I don’t know about the battlefield park being the best in the world. One would have to have visisted a great many. But since you call it a “park” I suppose there’s something more than just the field as such.
          In Europe there are not a lot of battlefield parks. There’s Waterloo but I don’t think there’s one at Passchendaele.
          I think when you say that Shaara’s novel is accurate, you should be more explicit, because the way I see it now, it’s only accurate as far as the battle goes. With regards to reasons and politics he seems to take huge liberties.

          • I could send you a copy of Slopes. I have a class set that is just lying around unused since I don’t tech the Civil War anymore.

            As far as the claim of it being the best battlefield. I have been to several – Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg. I am making the assumption that America has the best preserved battlefields of any country. I hope that does not sound chauvinistic. It’s a cultural priority with us I suppose. With that said, there is no debate in this country that it is the best park. BTW there are web sites where you can take virtual tours of the park.

            I was referring to the accuracy of the battle, of course. The references to the cause is accurate in that Southern generals would have argued that it was not about slavery. Shaara got that right. My criticism is that he appears to agree with them and does not balance it with the Northern generals’ views. The book could have used a chapter featuring Hancock.

            You mentioned Waterloo so let me add that the reason why Gettysburg was so devastating to the soldiers (especially those in Pickett’s Charge) was the generals were still using Napoleonic tactics (as they had been taught at West Point – every country teaches the previous war), but the weapons had evolved to make those tactics obsolete. The Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge had rifled muskets, not smoothbore muskets, so they were more accurate with greater range. They also could be fired more rapidly. Lee was an old school general who thought Napoleonic ideas like elan and “toujours l’audace” would overcome technology. You saw the consequences in this battle. It took a while for Longstreet to get the trench warfare that he desired. Both sides were incredibly stubborn on this. BTW just to show American generals were not the only butchering pigheads, the French are still going to be using these tactics 5 years later in the Franco-Prussian War where they send lines of men against breech-loading rifles and cannons.

            • Sure, I’d like to have it if you think I would like it.
              I got that in terms of warfare it was a bit old tactics versus new tactics. At least that’s how he showed the difference between Lee and Longstreet.
              A third Union POV would have been nice.

  10. I tend to avoid books on the Civil War, but this one has me intrigued, Caroline. The war was definitely about slavery, although people try to say otherwise all the time, even nowadays. I want to watch the movie Gettysburg too. We visited the area on the way back to Maryland and I was struck by how peaceful it looked. What a waste of human lives.

    • Yes, what a terrible waste and that is something Shaara conveys very, very well. He does give an idealized version, but he still captures the pain and sorrow of it all.

  11. I don’t know details about the American Civil War but like you I’ve always thought it was about slavery and two different ways of life colliding. However, having read the comment below, I wonder if it’s a way to smooth reality, just like refusing to see the word nigger in its historical context is a way to deny it was used.

    An anecdote: you know I’ve seen that play about the Lehman brothers. They started with a fabric store in Alabama. Then they started to sell fabric to industrials from the North. Then they switched from selling fabric to buying it before it was done and acting as middlemen between the plantations owners and the industrials. They were in New Orleans then. Do you know what I thought ? I thought that these men from the South, with their French heritage couldn’t take interest in business and care about selling their products themselves and let people from Anglosaxon cultural background snatch a business opportunity right under their nose. Typical from French way of thinking, great at inventing and producing but lousy at marketing.
    That different way of thinking might have played a role, but that’s just my opinion. I’m not a historian after all. But I know a bit about French culture.

    • I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I always thought it was mostly about slavery bit now that I’ve read this, I see, yes, it was, but in the perception of those from the South it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean they were not for slavery, it just means that’s not what hurt so much. I think our outrage does cloud our judgement to some extent. Maybe that’s what you meant as well. I just wanted to say it might have been rather more complicated than we assumed.
      If you consider this a French trait, then I’m afraid, I’m guilty of that too. It really sounds like it was an amazing play.

  12. Although the quotes are really good but 7 POVs is just too much. I have tried reading sonething like that where different chapter belongs to another POV…tho I like the story but I don’t like that kind of writing.

    But I am glad to know you enjoy the book.

  13. I think this is a book that deserves more careful attention than I have been giving it–so I am finding it a little hard to get into. I think it’s a matter of keeping all the different voices straight. When I am reading and read a nice chunk of it I very much enjoy it (like the section where Chamberlain tries to get the Maine men to keep fighting), but I often find myself reaching for something else when I know I need to be reading this (if you know what I mean….). I’m only about a third of the way in, so we’ll see if I can finish by the end of the week. I’m glad you really liked it–for that reason I am going to persevere! :)

    • I read it pretty quickly. I liked the tone and the descriptions of the weather. It was far less complicated than I thought it would be.
      I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

  14. I found this a riveting read although I didn’t want to reach the end as it became obvious there was going to be carnage. I knew nothing about the Battle of Gettysburg when I started reading and want to delve more into the history now. Thanks for the link to the contemporary account Kevin.

    It also made me want to visit the battlefield site although as I live in the UK that would take some organising. One of the strengths of the book with the inclusion of the maps and the descriptions of the terrain was it gave the reader a clear idea of the ground they were fighting over.

    I can understand the comments about the politics and that Shaara could have done more to highlight that the war was fundamentally about slavery. Whilst I was reading the book it struck me as being fairly typical of how most ordinary soldiers must feel and that they are mostly fighting for the sake of the men around them.

    The eerie part about reading this book from a European perspective was that it kept making me think of the first day of the Battle of the Somme with men being told to advance into enfilade fire. So American generals are definitely not the only butchering pigheads Kevin. I was nearly in tears with Longstreet at the moment in which he realises there is nothing he can do.

    “But they will mostly all die. We will lose it here. Even if they get to the hill, what will they have left, what will we have left, all ammunition gone, our best men gone? And the thing is, I cannot even refuse, I cannot even back away. I cannot leave him to fight alone, they’re my people, my boys. God help me, I can’t even quit.”

    • I’m very much with you on this. I would alos like to visit Gettysburg but I’m not sure it will happen any day soon. I’m more likely to go to Gallipoli.
      It had heartbreaking moments and my reactions were far more emotional than my post says. The passage you quote, when Longstreet realizes they will all die . . .
      I don’t think that the American Civil War was all that well known in Europe at the time of WWI. Surely they could have learned something from the mistakes that had been made then.
      I’m not sure what to think about Shaara’s position about the political side. I didn’t get the feeling he tried to whitewash. Like you, I thought he wanted to show that for the men in the thick of the battle, it was secondary why the battle was fought.

      • My next battlefield trip is going to be a return visit to the Somme and Arras in the autumn of 2014. You’re probably right that the WW1 generals may well not have known anything about the tactics of the American civil war. Even if they did I suspect it won’t have prevented them from making what seem, at this considerable distance, like similar mistakes. This old fashioned idea that if only men are brave enough and committed enough then they will be able to advance through gunfire – muskets in this case and machine guns on the Somme.

        • I don’t know whether knowing about the awful Civil War battles would have made a difference. I just can’t get over the fact that as well as during the Civil War and WWI men and horses were used like ammunition. As if they could just be replaced.

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