As the anniversary of the date South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, April 12 marked the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War. In Virginia, where many of the best-known generals served, and where many of the highest profile battles were fought, it’s a pretty big deal. And around here, where so many firsts took place, we are gearing up for a sequence of programs to revisit our role in the War. Whether ordinary people will sustain interest across the next four years to continue learning about the bloodiest affair in US history remains to be seen, but certainly several battles will be highlighted. One of them is Gettysburg, and one of the best accounts of that pivotal battle is found in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.
General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, is tired, misses Stonewall Jackson (killed only two months before), and is stuck in a battle he doesn’t want with wayward generals he cannot control. Unable to manage events to his satisfaction, he finally gambles on a disastrous attack that breaks on the Union defenses and achieves nothing.
General James Longstreet, known as “Old Pete,” is Lee’s most trusted officer. Longstreet and Lee disagree on a major point—Lee favors bringing the fight to the enemy through the maneuvering that Jackson performed so well. Longstreet has learned from the battles of the past two years that armies dug into strong defenses can inflict horrible damage on attackers. But Lee orders him to attack, and Longstreet reluctantly does his duty.
The final principal character is a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College in Maine—Joshua Chamberlain. Self-taught in the “art” of war, he has risen to command the 20th Maine Regiment, and on the second day of battle finds himself defending two small hills at the very end of the Union line. If he fails, the Federal army will not be able to hold position and will almost certainly suffer defeat. Chamberlain is determined not to fail and must hold his command together in the face of superior numbers and intense attacks.
Shaara’s prose is simple and clear, making us privy to both the conversations and the musings of each character—including memories and regrets that are not found in official histories. Simple maps accompany the text and illustrate the movements of each army without overwhelming or interrupting the story’s flow. That also makes it a good read for young adults who need or want to read historical fiction set during the Civil War.
As fiction, The Killer Angels does not pretend to cover every aspect of the battle, nor does it present itself as history. But Shaara does penetrate right to the heart of the loneliness of command at every rank, from the general who orders tens of thousands down to the colonel who commands hundreds in fierce fighting, and does it in an unforgettable setting.
Search the WRL catalog for The Killer Angels