The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara

TheKillerAngelsIn this Pulitzer winning classic, Michael Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War from both Union and Confederate sides. This is not a history text however, since Shaara has written it as a novel. Mainly focusing on Union Colonel Chamberlain and Confederate General Longstreet, the pivotal battle and its players come alive on the page.

Beyond the very basics, I didn’t know much about the Civil War before I read this book. Certainly I had little awareness of how people thought at the time, or the deeper underlying motivations leading to  war. Certainly slavery was a big part of it, but it is made quite clear in the novel that the South and the North are societies that work in different ways. Roughly speaking, the North is “modern”, urban, industrialized and with a firm egalitarian ethic, while the South is more “old-fashioned”. The men are “gentlemen”, with notable class differences. The Southerners also believe in much stronger state independence. The North, victorious, strengthened the federal government, a development which is clearly seen in the United States of today. But they all see themselves as Americans. In fact the officers all have many friends on “the other side” (they were in the same army before after all) and there are many thoughts given to the sadness of having had to part, and then to meet on the battlefield as enemies. Are they fighting for loyalty, or for idealism, or just because they are soldiers?

Shaara went back to letters and first hand accounts for his research, and it shows. Sometimes overlong, but quite interesting internal monologues reveal the though processes of the characters. These are not our contemporaries. They are romantic and in our eyes often naive. They cry openly for lost friendship, they revel in life and companionship. They do not hide their emotions in public like we do today.

The battle scenes are excellent, and frightening. The comparative inefficiency of the rifles of the day is shown by the very short ranges and the fact that soldiers often sustain multiple wounds without notably impaired performance. It is combat up close and personal, with regimental commanders right there among their men. Logistics plays a big part, as does morale. A good commander knows not to throw troops who have marched all day straight into battle, in particular without food.

The undoing of the Confederates in this battle was an absence of strategic and tactical vision. As Longstreet remarks to himself, their tactics consist of “we find the enemy, and then we attack.” Longstreet himself is a master strategist, and strongly urges more refined tactics, making the Union army come at them instead of the other way around. It is not until the end of WWI, over fifty years later, that his defensive warfare ideas become mainstream. Lee orders a massed assault on a fortified position partly because of fear that the men will see it as weak to withdraw and attack on another flank. One romantic, glorious, useless, stupid charge that accomplished nothing but break his own army. And thus the tide of the war turned.


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