The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve read very few Civil War re-tellings, historical or fictionalized. Shaara gets inside the head of various military leaders on both sides. In this way he vividly describes battles, and the choices made personally that shaped the battle of Gettysburg. Shaara’s terse writing style was a bit overdone, but fits the “men-of-action-thinking” theme.
The theme in the title comes as two union soldiers consider the meaning of this warfare. Man is a killer angel. He has the dignity of being made in the image of God, yet wreaks such havoc and devastation on the earth as seen at Gettysburg. Chamberlain, the northern colonel, is a post-Christian, Enlightenment college professor, who ruminates existientially on the clash of his transcendental ideals with the combat he has seen. General Lee prays to God for his men and their families. As a good historian, Shaara doesn’t keep it simple like that, though. Another southern general has become bitter toward God after the death of his children, for example.
I enjoyed most the depictions of Lee (weary, decisive, knows his generals), and the few spots where each side says why they are fighting. Confederate prisoners tell Union soldiers they fight for their “rats.” The misunderstanding of the dialect signifies a greater misunderstanding – the north doesn’t get this at all. The south is violating black rights – how can they be concerned for their own? The north is fighting to put down rebellion, preserve the union, and to a limited point to free slaves. But the north’s treatment of a black man they come across is highly significant: they are kind and treat him medically, but then have nowhere to send him and nothing to give him - they just abandon him.
There are several themes of contrast between north and south like that. One more is how each relates to the soil. Lee reaches down and touches the ground and thinks of it as Pennsylvanian and foreign. He is now the invader. When Chamberlain considers Pennsylvania ground, it’s no different to him than Maine – war and man are the same anywhere. He is an industrial and modern man, not of the Old World, provincial and rural south.
Shaara evenly shows the strength and weakness of each side of the army. The North is strong and shows courage at times in Chamberlain’s bayonet charge. But they are inept and not as motivated as the South. The Confederacy is highly motivated to preserve their way of life from the invader, but their flamboyant generals don’t coordinate well after Stonewall Jackson passes from the scene.
Overall, an excellent read to understand both the military maneuvers and motivations of the men.
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