The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am not really a fan of books about war. I have trouble envisioning the action and the maneuvers of the troops, and I find that I get lost in the details and just don’t really care about the characters.
Because of this, I didn’t have high hopes for The Killer Angels, but it was this month’s selection for my book club and I decided to give it a try.
This book was incredible. I did have some trouble keeping track of the characters. I ended up making myself a cheat-sheet with things like, “Longstreet – Confederate general. Lee’s second-in-command. Nickname: Pete.” Actually, Longstreet I could keep track of. It was Pettigrew and Pender and Sykes and Sedgewick that kept tripping me up. The maps were very helpful as I tried to visualize the action, but they were less helpful when I couldn’t remember which names were Union and which were Confederate.
This is a novel, so it’s a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg, but Shaara clearly did his research. Written from the shifting perspective of the main players in the battle and drawn from the personal correspondence of these men as well as the historic record and Shaara’s own embellishments and best guesses, this book explained the nuances of the battle and of the war more clearly than I’ve read before. I’ve been taught the Civil War from the perspective that there was a clear side to root for. I’ve known for a long while that the reality was murkier than this, but Shaara helped make this murkiness more apparent to me (or perhaps I’m just now of an age where I can embrace murkiness better than I could in high school and college). There is a distinction here between the Cause and the people doing the fighting. I don’t think that’s a distinction I’ve often seen.
Shaara puts the reader in Gettysburg, not only in the location but in the minds of the people who were there. All of the things people say about the Civil War—the idea of brothers fighting against brothers, the internal conflict and sense of near heresy of killing one’s own countrymen, the ambivalence of Northerners to the people the slaves were even as they disagreed with the institution of slavery—Shaara illustrates clearly here.
The book was peppered with lyrical, powerful passages, but two stood out for me as particularly moving.
One was a speech Chamberlain gives to a group of would-be deserters handed over as prisoners to his brigade to try and convince a few of them to fight rather than just ride out the battle as prisoners.
“This is a different kind of army,” Chamberlain explains. “If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other 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. I don’t…this hasn’t happened in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”
The other passage that really struck me was when Longstreet and Hood were saying goodbye to one another before a fight. Longstreet puts out his hand for Hood to shake.
“Hood took the hand, held it for a moment. Sometimes you touched a man like this and it was the last time, and the next time you saw him he was cold and white and bloodless, and the warmth was gone forever.”
I just found the way Shaara used language to be powerful, poignant, but not overdone at all. He has a light touch which let the scenes shine through. The writing was easy to read, the story rather less so.
I think I can at blame this book at least in part for the gloomy mood I’ve been in the past few days. It’s an incredible book about an infamously dark battle in our country’s darkest war.
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