Civil War in The Killer Angels Novel
Summary of Contents: In The Killer Angels, Shaara sought to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, a critical turning point in the American Civil War. While most everyone is aware that the Union army was victorious, few are familiar with all the various intricacies of the historic North-South battle – and it is precisely these intricacies that Shaara aimed to expose. In the words of Civil War historian James McPherson, The Killer Angels informs its readers what the “war was about, and what it meant.” The book carefully traces the battle between the Army of Northern Virginia (the Confederates) and the Army of the Potomac (the Union army), basing all of its characters on actual historical figures.
One unique aspect of Shaara’s work is that, in Shaara’s own words, “this is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there.” Rather than inserting his own historical opinions, Shaara went “back primarily to the words of the men themselves, their letters and other documents. [He has] not consciously changed any fact.” In fact, the novel’s only real historical divergence is placing the Twentieth Maine in the center of the Union line rather than on Big Round Top, where it actually occurred. And yet despite sticking relatively close to historical facts, The Killer Angel reads not like a history textbook, but like an adventure novel. The book’s overall writing style was clearly one of excitement. Thus, the infusion of historical accuracy with adventure is The Killer Angels’ main theme.
More specifically, The Killer Angels follows the Battle of Gettysburg from the preparation that began on June 29, 1863, to its end on July 3 of the same year. Nearly every detail of the confrontation has been included in all its bloody glory. It includes descriptions of each day of battle – on the first day, Confederates marched on Gettysburg, and several important officials (including Union General Reynolds) were killed; on the second, faulty battle plans failed to help the Confederates advance their cause; and on the third day, the Confederates suffered a crushing defeat on multiple fronts, including Culp’s Hill and Pickett’s Charge. However, the book also goes beyond the battlefield to examine how each side readied itself for the conflict – Shaara scrutinized everything from the description of military strategies to the information obtained from spies. Even conversations between military leaders are included; in fact, it is through discussions between Confederate military leaders Longstreet and Lee that another of the book’s core themes – the evolution of war tactics during the Civil War – emerges.
Body of the review: The Killer Angels’ first theme is that history can be both educational and exciting. This becomes evident right from the start of the book – for instance, when the Confederate spy Henry Thomas Harrison is at work, the following picture is painted:
“He rode into the dark of the woods and dismounted” … “They were coming very fast” … “He thought: there’ll be some of them die of the heat today. But they are coming faster than they ever came before” (Shaara 3-4).
Shaara’s vivid, passionate descriptions of historic events continue throughout the novel. Whether the novel is recounting Union Colonel Chamberlain’s speech to his regiment or Longstreet’s preparation for the inevitable Union assault, the tone is one of adventure. If there were any lingering doubt about this in the mind of the reader, one ought simply to revisit Shaara’s account of Pickett’s charge:
“Longstreet sat on a rail fence, hugging his chest with both arms. He suspended thinking; his mind was a bloody vacancy, like a room in which there has been a butchering. He tried once formally to pray, but there was no one there and no words came, and over and over he said to himself, Heavenly Father, Heavenly Father. He watched the battle dissolve to nightmare: the neat military lines beginning to come apart as they crossed the road and no order beyond that but black struggling clots and a few flags in the smoke, tilting like sails above a white sea, going down one by one. A shell burst near Longstreet and he felt the hot brutal breath, and then the sounds of battle were softer, the smoke began to blanket the field. But there was still a few flags moving toward the top of the hill. Longstreet put glasses to his eyes, saw ghost figures stumbling in white smoke, yellow blaze of cannon, black flakes of men spattering upward into a white sky, and then the smoke was too thick and he could not see anything and it was like going blind. A paralysis came over him. He sat staring off into the white sea where the guns still flashed and boomed softly, at a great distance, until he saw the first men beginning to come back out of the smoke. They came slowly up the long green slope, a ragged crowd of men. No one was running. They were moving with slow set stubborn unstoppable looks on their faces, eyes down, guns dragging the ground, and they were moving slowly but steadily, even though the Union guns had elevated and shells were still falling on them as they came back up the field. The smoke parted for a vision: the green field dirtied a vast mile with lumped bodies, white and red, and far across the field the whole army falling back in a speckled flood across the road to the safety of the woods, and there at the top of the hill one flag erect near the center of the Union line. Then that flag was down in the smoke, and Longstreet could no longer see, and the retreat began to flood by him” (Shaara 350-351).
The use of vivid adjectives such as “tilting” and “lumped” as well as the combination of intense verb phrases (e.g. “dissolve to nightmare” and “smoke parted for a vision”) with short, meaningful sentences like “a paralysis came over him” make it more than clear that the novel was written in an adventure style. This style is also present in the authentic-sounding dialogue between characters, which is clearly not purely historical but rather is valuable for the entertainment and character development it offers.
In this way, the writing style of The Killer Angels makes clear that it is no history textbook; it truly is a history novel. This implies the inclusion of several dramatic aspects to the novel for reading pleasure, which is significant because it opens the book up to a much broader audience. As a direct result of its more exciting descriptions and relatable characters, The Killer Angels is accessible to an entirely different audience than that of a history textbook. Whereas the latter would probably be read mainly by history students and professors, The Killer Angels is likely to be picked up by pleasure readers looking for an adventure in addition to the history buffs. Consequently, a new demographic is taught the details of an important part of American history.
A second major theme of The Killer Angels is the evolution of war tactics and technology during the Civil War. Throughout the novel, there is a clear clash between old and new military strategies. This is perhaps most evident in Shaara’s depiction of Pickett’s Charge, where over sixty percent of Pickett’s men due to the Pickett’s overreliance on soldiers. Soon, infantry would lose its foothold in military strategy to more advanced technology such as cannons, grenades, and even tanks.
The tension between the old and new military planning is also exemplified in several conversations between Confederates Lee and Longstreet. While Longstreet argues in favor of more defensive strategies, such as utilizing stone walls as hiding spots, Lee prefers fighting out in the open. Longstreet is clearly the more modern of the too – while Lee’s approach was considered more honorable, it simply ceased to be feasible once long-distance weapons like rifles became commonplace. This is another instance of the Civil War’s historic shift away from ancient styles of fighting.
Conclusion: Michael Shaara researched a great deal about the Civil War before writing The Killer Angels. This shows in the novel’s painstaking attention to detail – countless battles and historical facts are covered. However, The Killer Angels is a novel rather than a textbook, as it was written for entertainment as well as education. This opens it up to an entirely new audience, which is arguably highly educationally valuable. Moreover, The Killer Angels emphasizes the Civil War’s overall transition from outdated military strategies to newer planning and technology. Shaara’s historical novel covers both the Civil War and its surrounding factors.
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Summary of Contents: In The Killer Angels, Shaara sought to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, a critical turning point in the American Civil War. While most everyone […]