Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1993) gives a detailed account of the Battle of Gettysburg -- the war that lured the dueling North and South to the tiny town of Gettysburg and was the first step in splitting the Union. Shaara gives his readers a view of the Battle of Gettysburg as seen by generals and men who were at the heart of the battle. "The Killer Angels" is a historical tale that goes beyond the factual accounts of history textbooks, adding a personal touch that makes its readers feel like they are a part of the story.
The story takes place in Gettysburg, a small town near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from both Northern and Southern perspectives, which serves as an excellent way to make the reader listen to and sympathize with both sides. Neither side is completely antagonized.
The main characters on both sides used to be comrades but were forced to take different sides according to their political views. In the end, both sides understood that the war had accomplished nothing but the deaths of many soldiers and friends. Shaara refers to the "Killer Angels" as those who killed with compassion. These men apparently went to war against their opponents and not necessarily their enemies.
Both sides desperately wanted to kill their opponents, yet many times those opponents were their family members and friends. Shaara's main thesis in "Killer Angels" was that the war accomplished nothing but death. Many men have considered before this theory in the past, especially after a war. In the Battle of Gettysburg thousands of men died for no good reason. However, at the end of the war, slavery was abolished.
Generals Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain, James Longstreet, and John Buford are the focus of Shaara's story, which discusses the feelings and innermost thoughts of each of the men. Rather than present his readers with the opinions of historians, Shaama shows them the letters, words and documents of each of these men during the three-day battle.
The historical account of the Battle of Gettysburg expresses the general attitude toward war, opinions on the Civil War, and the reasons for fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee is famous for his leadership of the South during the Civil War, but many people do not understand the emotions he felt and reasons that he fought the war.
According to Shaara, Lee was not interested in war for the sake of war, and did not want to kill people. He was actually compassionate towards the Union. Shaara writes, "He was not only to serve in it but he was to lead it, to make the plans, and issue the orders to kill and burn and ruin...he could not do that" (Shaara 263). Still, he felt obligated to take part in the war to protect his people. Shaara writes, "He found that he had no choice...Lee could not raise his hand against his own. And so what then? To stand by and do nothing? It had nothing to do with causes; it was no longer a matter of vows" (Shaara 263).
Shaara presents Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain in a similar light, describing him as a man of good ideals and great honor. Chamberlain's higher education led him to despise slavery and fueled his desire to fight against it, although he is strongly against the Civil War and the death and despair it brought.
A used my brother to plug a hole. Did it automatically as if he were expendable," says Chamberlain (Shaara 304). The fact that men, including his brother, were dying in the fight against slavery, deeply disturbed Chamberlain. However, he knew that if the North did not fight against the South, there would be no justice. Like Smith, his opponent, Chamberlain was against war and killing, but fought for his people anyway. Chamberlain wrote "Man: The Killer Angel."
Chamberlain felt that the Civil War was the only war that was justified, as it was "a different kind of war." According to Chamberlain, "This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you'll see men fight for pay, or women, or some kind of loot.... They fight because a king makes them. But we're here for something new....We're an army going to set other men free" (Shaara 30). He simply felt the need to fight for freedom.
Shaara presents James Longstreet as a General who is under-appreciated for his great talents and strategies regarding war. Longstreet loved the glory of war. However, he is strongly against the Civil War, and hates the fact that many of his opponents are men that he commanded and served with in the past. "It came to him in the night sometimes with a sudden appalling shock that the boys he was fighting were boys he had grown up with," writes Shaara.
Still, Longstreet is a professional man and sets out to win the war, despite his personal feelings. He does not understand the meaning of the war but knows he must choose a side. He chose the South. "You choose your nightmare side. Once chosen, you put your head down and went on to win," said Longstreet (Shaara, 63).
General John Buford is portrayed as a stoic, gentle man, who is very professional on the battlefield. His reason for fighting the war is his duty to his country. According to Shaara, "Buford did not hate. He was a professional" (Shaara 45).
However, Buford is against the idea of the Civil War, saying, "The appalling sick stupidity that was so bad you thought sometimes you would go suddenly, violently, completely insane" (Shaara 46).
Shaara stresses how Lee and Longstreet were dedicated to their friends, saying that the two men would betray their country before their friends, while Chamberlain and Buford put their country first. Lee was especially dedicated to his friends and family. Shaara writes, "He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were... And so he took up arms willfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his own sacred oath and stood upon alien ground he had once sworn to defend." (Shaara 263).
On the other hand, Chamberlain felt that his country was far more important than friends and was willing to kill to protect the Union. "He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God," writes Shaara 265).
By constantly discussing the negative aspects of the war and showing how all of the men were consumed with emotion about all of the killings and despair involved in the battle, Shaara seems to be trying to show his readers that there was little glory in this battle. Lee and Chamberlain continually grieve over the comrades and officers they lose in the battle, and Shaara paints a picture of absolute hell during the battle.
Shaara also aims to show Lee for who he really was -- a real man. According to Shaara, people of the South viewed him as a great leader and hero who could do no wrong. Shaara shows how this heroic view was actually a myth through the eyes of Longstreet, who doubted Lee's abilities. Longstreet believed that Lee was too powerful and people were afraid to tell him that he may have been wrong.
The men shield from blaming Lee. The Old Man is becoming untouchable," says Longstreet (Shaara 240). Longstreet believed that this image of Lee led to many wrong decisions during the war. Shaara points out that Lee was an untouchable leader to most but that insiders knew that he was an ordinary man.