Sunday, April 13, 2014

K is for The Killer Angels

One of the classes I took my very first semester of college was American History to the Civil War.  Of all the things I got from the class, the most important was my introduction to
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara,
the book that was the basis for the film "Gettysburg".
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975, it has become
required reading for many history classes.
Before Shaara's time, war novels usually inserted a fictional character into a factual event, as in The Red Badge of Courage. But Shaara tells the story  from the perspective of a number of participants in the battle: including Confederates Robert E Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett, Lewis Armistead, a spy named Harrison, and a British observer  Arthur Freemantle. The northern perspective is provided by such men as John Buford, John Reynolds, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
  Outside of his native Maine, Chamberlain was little known before the book's publication, but Shaara saw him as an example of the Citizen Soldier, the man who has plenty to lose (Chamberlain was a college professor, with a wife and children)
but goes to war because it is the right thing to do.
Since the publication of the book both historians and tourists have paid far more attention to Chamberlain and the battle of Little Round Top. (Some historians would say too much.) But Chamberlain was heroic figure in many battles besides Gettysburg, and after the war as well, so I think he is merely being give his due.
Another historic figure who has his reputation enhanced by the book is James Longstreet. Long condemned in the South because he was critical of Lee after the war, and supported Grant as president, Shaara sees him as a visionary who recognized the changing nature of war, arguing in favor of trench warfare and against charges upon defended positions. 
Three main events dominate the battle: The successful attempt of Bufford to hold off advancing Confederates until reinforcements can be brought up on the first day.
Then on Day 2 the defense of Little Round Top, followed by Pickett's Charge on the third day.  Even if you know how it all turns out the story is gripping and dramatic.  Shaara successfully puts the reader in the shoes of soldiers from both side. The book is illustrated with maps, which give a clear picture where everyone is at any given time, and Shaara often has characters explain, for the audience and the soldiers, the maneuvers they are about to make.    Because he tells each segment of the battle from an individual point of view, only allowing us to know what they know,
a well known story becomes suspenseful again.
I have returned a number of times to re-read this book. Michael Shaara died in 1988. His son Jeff Shaara wrote 2 novels to bookend The Killer Angels, and tell the complete story of the Civil War.  Gods and Generals & The Last Full Measure are good books, but they have too much story to tell and can't match the focus of the three days in July of 1863.
Another person who was greatly influenced by this book was documentarian Ken Burns. He once said that he went to Gettysburg for the first time after he read the book-and felt like he had already been there.
I can attest from my own experience that this is true. 
My son is now away at college, and had to read the book this semester. He called me one night and said "I'm going to be up late tonight." "Why is that," I asked. "Colonel Vincent just told Colonel Chamberlain to take his men to the top of the hill and hold it at all costs. I won't be putting this down till at least the end of Day 2"
That is the magic of The Killer Angels.
This post is part of the A-Z challenge, blogging a book
a day for the month of April.
For more info please click on the link.

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