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

By Caroline

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.


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