The Killer Angels Essay

Posted on June 22, 2010

The novel The Killer Angels, by Michael Sharra is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 1, 1863 the union army and the confederate army fought the largest battle of the American Civil War. The book is based on real life people who were a part of the Civil War. The main characters were Gen. Robert Lee from the confederate army, Gen. James Longstreet, and Col. Joshua Chamberlain from the union army. The period covered in this book is Jun. 30-Jul 3, 1863. It takes place in a small town called Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The main cause of the war was because the confederate army wanted to secede from the rest of the states. Most of the story was from the perspective of the confederate leaders, so we were able to really capture what the south was really thinking throughout this whole book. The story for the most part is told in the 3rd person. The confederates controlled Seminary Ridge and the union army controlled Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top. Shaara’s book very well tells the story of two great armies, both motivated and fighting for what each believes is a great and just cause, as they come together to fight one of the biggest battles ever fought in the world. This is a great novel of leadership, hardship, and history.

Michael Shaara was born in 1928 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He graduated from Rutgers and it was during his college years that he realized he wanted to become a writer. In his early thirties, Shaara published several award-winning science-fiction short stories in the most popular pulp magazines of the day. He then began to write straight fiction and published numerous short stories in Playboy, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan. After finding old letters from his great-grandfather, a member of the 4 th Georgia infantry who had been wounded at Gettysburg, The 1966 trip was followed by another trip in 1970 and seven years of work on the manuscript. In 1974, The Killer Angels was published. It does not make the Confederate side look bad, but instead, without being pro-south, shows the reader that the key ingredient that made the Confederate Army one of the great armies of all times was the fact that the Confederates truly believed in the justice of their cause. He also published a Korean War novel, called Broken Place, in which the main character seeks to be free of his demons and finds freedom through boxing.

This book is based on the words of the men themselves, their letters, and other documents. He said that he avoided historical opinions. He also said he condensed some of the action and cut out some of the minor characters for brevity, but has not changed any facts. He also says he changed some of the language because back then men spoke in windy phrases, so he updated it.

The story basically begins with a spy coming to Longstreet and telling him he has seen the union army nearby. Longstreet is surprised at this because J.E.B. Stuart was supposed to be keeping tabs on them. So, his plan was to go north and towards Gettysburg to cut them off. Meanwhile, union Col. Joshua Chamberlain wakes up to find out he has an extra 100 men to add to his regiment, the 20th Maine. They had caused a mutiny, so they were sent down to Chamberlain. They were really tired and hungry and they didn’t really want to fight anymore. Since Chamberlain is a very good speaker, he goes up and gives a very encouraging speech and all the soldiers except for 6 joined the 20th Maine. Gen. Buford of the union army rides into Gettysburg and sees that the confederates are nearby. He then gathers together his men to position them in the hills. The reason for that was he knew that getting the high ground was crucial because if they got the high ground it would be easier to fight the confederates than fighting them below.

On the second day Lee wakes up to realize that Stuart still hasn’t come back yet. Since Stuart isn’t there, he doesn’t know where the union army is. He then has a meeting with Longstreet saying that he thinks they should plan defensive tactics to win, but Lee want to attack them and go straight at the union army. Lee didn’t want to go into the defensive mode because if he did it would look like he was retreating and he didn’t want that. The battle begins with the confederates attacking the union army. Buford end having to hold them off until Reynolds and the rest of his troops come. Reynolds then dies and later Lee comes right in the middle of the fight. After the that 1st battle he union army retreated up to the hills and set up cannons and dug places where they could be blocked from the fighting. Longstreet starts to get scares because he knows that the union army has good defensive position in the hills. This doesn’t at all help their strategy of swinging southeast to attack the union forces. Meanwhile, Lee is mad at Ewell for not doing what he said and taking Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. On July 2, Chamberlain moves his regiment to Gettysburg. On his way they come across a slave who escaped and Chamberlain asks Kilrain what he thinks of black people. Kilrain believes u should judge the person by their action instead of judging them by their race. He says he doesn’t understand how they can look into the eyes of a man and make a slave of him and still quote the bible. Back in Gettysburg, Lee’s men want to attack the union army from their 2 flanks to try and weaken their line, but Longstreet still wants to move southeast to DC. Lee however doesn’t agree with him and Longstreet is forced to attack the flank. When Chamberlain finally arrives he and his troops are placed on Little Round Top. Him and his men hold down the hill for a long time but eventually they run out of bullets and Chamberlain orders a bayonet charge on the confederates. They used a tactic, which was to scream while they were running down the hill to scare the confederates. The union army retained control over Little Round Top, and the confederates lost a lot of men. Later on that night J.E.B. Stuart comes back, and Lee scolds him for not being there to help locate the union army. He rationalizes that since he weakened the two outer flanks the next goal was to bust through the middle of their line. If he could charge through the middle then he could split the army in two.

On July 3, Chamberlain moves all his men to the middle of the line because he thought there wouldn’t be much fighting. Longstreet then once again tries to convince Lee that it would be wise to swing southeast toward DC but he says no again. He is intent on attacking the union. So, Longstreet goes along with it and puts Pickett in charge of the assault on the union army. The confederates then shoot guns and cannons at the union to weaken the middle line. The confederated don’t do much damage though because they ended up shooting too high and the cannon balls went overtop of the line. As the confederate troops come across the field the Union fires full force with their cannons, which made big holes in the confederate line and kills many of their troops. Then they come even closer and they kill many more with their guns. Even after they get almost destroyed, Lee’s wounded men beg him to attack again. Then the confederate’s retreat and the battle ends.

I felt this was an excellent book. I like the fact that the author made it so that you could focus in on one character a chapter because it helped you to be able to get into the thoughts and moods of the central character of the chapter. Also, I felt the characters in the story were well represented, especially the characters of Lee and Chamberlain. Lee was a very good commander who made really good decisions until the end. He strongly believed in the traditional ways of fighting but he still recognized some of Longstreet’s ideas. Lee’s confidence in his army is what lead to the disaster of Pickett’s Charge. Chamberlain throughout the story is put in a bad position because his brother serves in the army and he might have to send him into battle one day. He’s also a very good public speaker and he shows this when he motivates the 2nd Maine to fight on behalf of the union army or also called the 20th Maine.

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