The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer for this book and justifiably so. This book examines the battle of Gettysburg from several points of view including General Lee, Longstreet, Armistead and Buford. Of most interest to me were the sections that focused on the character and actions of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the university professor turned citizen-soldier, whose heroic actions during the fight for Little Round Top saved the Union army and, quite possibly, the war itself.
Shaara's prose is highly imagistic. Pickett's charge, which was the final act in the Southern defeat, gets this description. "And then the first shell struck near him, percussion, killing a mass of men to his right rear, his own men, and from then on the shells came down increasingly, as the first fat drops of an advancing storm, but it was not truly bad. Close it up, close it up. Gaps in front, the newly dead, pile of red meant. One man down holding his stomach, blood pouring out of him like a butchered pig, young face, only a boy, a man beding over him trying to help, a sergeant screaming, 'Damn it, I said close it up.'"
What I also got from this historical novel were the various attitudes towards war in general and the Civil War in particular. Longstreet knew that the tactics were wrong and the final charge hopeless. Lee simply wanted to do right by his men and his "country" meaning Virginia. Chamberlain believed that the war was something new, people willing to fight and die for an idea, that all people should be free. Of all the characters he comes through with his ideals entact. Though he recognizes the tragedy of what is happening to the nation he loves.
Shaara's title reflects the paradox that was the Civil War. He ends the book with a quote from Winston Churchill's "A History of the English Speaking People" that calls the war the "least avoidable of all the great mass conflicts. . . ." The irrepressible conflict settled the great unsettled question of the American Revolution: do we truly mean it when we say that all humans are by nature equal and therefore equally deserving of liberty and dignity. Men like Chamberlain helped to insure that the answer was "yes".
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