The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and the Cultural Civil War
The definition of culture is as follows. The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. Every place has its own culture. For instance, some of the customs, and values that we hold true in America today, are vastly different than they were in 1865. However we do see examples of cultures that are very similar. For instance, America and Canada are very close together geographically, and the traditions and ways of living, are very similar. We also see examples of this in South America, where two countries that are very close together geographically may share a lot of the same cultural values. However, this was not the case in the Civil War. The North and the South were truly completely separate in not only their culture, but separate in their morals as well. We know that in the Killer Angels we are given the opportunity to see both sides of the spectrum, and with that opportunity comes a way to compare and contrast the cultures of the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America. The Civil War was much more than just a war of battle, death, and hardship. The Civil War was a battle of wills, a battle of beliefs, and overall a clash of two cultures that would ultimately lead to the death of 620,000 men. The rest of my essay, is going to be dedicated to the examples of culture, and the cultural contrasts that we are able to find throughout the book.
Multiple times throughout the book the phrase of a “englishlike” is used to describe the overall nature of the South. A lot of this has to do with a sort of class structure, that of which is mainly referred to as aristocratic. This is something that is easily comparable to the nature of the English, and we see examples of this throughout the book. Such as when Freemantle, an outsider, as well as an Englishman himself, sees the uncanny resemblance of the customs in the South and in his country of origin. The reason I took this as an example of Southern culture and especially how it is resembled in this particular situation, is because if anybody would know what an Englishlike culture would be, it would most likely be an Englishman. To see an Englishman himself compare the culture, traditions, and customs of a place he’s foreign to, to the place he comes from, shows a lot about the similarity between the two culturally. The North is less accepting and comfortable with these Englishlike customs, and instead attempt to stray away from it in a way. As a matter of fact, a lot of the North consists of mostly immigrants, especially those that are seemingly trying to remove themselves from the class structure system in their country. These immigrants take up a decent chunk of the Union army, and a decent chunk of the North in general, Seemingly, we can already see examples of cultural clashes in the Civil War, that are being portrayed throughout The Killer Angels.
Speaking of the class structure, and aristocratic nature of the Southern culture. Some of the dialogue and passages from the novel, show that some of the Southerners really took a lot of pride in the respect that was given to them by the people surrounding them, you may even call that, honor. However, would it be this very “pride” and “honor” that seemed to have plagued the culture of the South, that would end up ultimately losing the Confederates this battle. We know that Lee himself had many opportunities to turn this battle around for the better of the Confederate army. No matter how right Longstreet was about taking a defensive approach to the battle, General Lee seemed to be completely unmoved by the matter, this is because he believes that no man of honor turns his back to his enemy. To be proud of your accomplishments is never a bad thing; after all, they’re called accomplishments for a reason, they deserve to be respected and you deserve to be content with your accomplishments. However, to be prideful, or to be so filled with this idea that your accomplishments make you who you are, or that you as a person are nothing without your accomplishments, is the very reason that the South would ultimately fall in this war, mainly because pride is not logic. And even more importantly, honor will not win you the battle. Within the book we get dialogue of Fremantle and Longstreet. Longstreet recapitulates that, “So now Garnett will have to die bravely to erase the stain.” he is referring to the loss of Garnetts honor, and claiming that in order for his honor to be restored, he will have to die bravely. This just emphasizes my point, that Southern culture was still stuck in the mud on Old World ideas, traditions, and values.
Now that we’ve talked a bit on the culture of the South, and the Old World and somewhat Englishlike nature of the land just below the Mason and Dixon line, we should talk a bit about the beliefs, customs, and values of the North. Colonel Josh Chamberlain of the Union Army, seems to believe that the war is more of a struggle for what the future of America really was. The North seem to be at ease with the New World traditions and values, however the South still seems to be accustomed to these Old World, aristocratic ways. Afterall it was that very aristocratic belief, and wanting to make a new name for yourself that brought these people to the New World in the first place. Chamberlain believes that America is a place that, “a man could stand up free of his past.” something that probably wouldn’t stand too well in the South, afterall we just heard that a man would ultimately have to give his life in a brave manner in order to remove the stain off of his legacy. That is two vastly different extremes, one being that a man was not defined on his previous actions, and one being that a man would have to lose his life to restore his notability. This only goes to show that the North and South were two vastly different places, however with the idea of contrasting the two, also comes the idea of comparing the two. Throughout The Killer Angels we get an idea of how horrible the war can be, even for somebody who is experienced in battle. Afterall the war was one of the most deadly wars that the United States, or even that the world had ever seen. We get this dialogue on page 118, “… lay there all night in the dark, in the cold among the wounded and dying. Piled-up bodies in front of you to catch bullets, using the dead for a shield; remember the sound? Of bullets in dead bodies? Like a shot into a rotten leg, a wet thick leg. All a man is: wet leg of blood. Remember the flap of a torn curtain in a blasted window, fragment-whispering in that awful breeze: never, forever, never, forever.” in my opinion this shows that all the men, North and South, were thrown into a terrible, and easily preventable battle, that would take the lives of one too many of our own citizens. Before the war, Leeroy Pope Walker stated that all the blood spilt could be wiped up with a single handkerchief. We now know that this was one of the most traumatic and awful wars that the United States ever experienced, and not only was it on our own soil, but it was on our own people. With this I conclude my comparisons of the cultural and moral values of the North and South.
Throughout my writing and research throughout the book, I’ve realized that this truly was a cultural divide just as much as it was a geographical divide. Going into reading this book with no prior knowledge of the Civil War whatsoever, I came out of it with what I think to be a good grasp on retained information, and throughout reading, and searching for examples of the cultural divide throughout my reading, helped my overall understanding of the Civil War exponentially. I am more than certain now, that no matter how close two places are geographically, even if they’re in the same country, city, or even street, everybody has a different culture. We see these examples of cultural differences in The Killer Angels on multiple occasions, but it’s not until you look deeper that you will truly be able to compare and contrast the war culturally, and be able to tell that this battle was more than just a war of arms, death, and horror; it was also the clash of two cultures, that would ultimately decide the future fate of the American values.
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