Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels.

NY: Random House, 1974.

Shaara had been a professional fiction writer for two decades, and he made a decent living at it, but he never hit the big time until a family vacation visit to the Gettysburg battlefield inspired him to begin researching and writing this book. After he finally finished it seven years later, it took him another two years to sell it. And then it won the Pulitzer Prize. The first time I read it, I was already a history librarian and I knew immediately it was a great piece of work. I know now that it’s not only a great historical novel, it’s very likely the greatest piece of fiction ever written about the American Civil War — not excepting The Red Badge of Courage.

The plot, of course, follows the six days in June and July 1863 when the eventual outcome of the war between the North and the South was decided — as many of the officers involved recognized at the time. And it’s much less a story of war itself than of the men involved on both sides, who they were and why they thought the way they did.

If you’ve read much actual history about the war, you will quickly realize that Shaara’s portraits of the personalities of the principal players in the great drama of Gettysburg are spot-on. Lee, the charismatic leader whose struggle to make the right decisions isn’t helped by his growing untouchableness. And he made more than one disastrous decision during these three days for which other senior officers took the blame. Longstreet, a military genius in the area of defensive war, a man with a modern mind whose well-earned dourness and inability to articulate his ideas to more than one listener at a time made him a target for the blame-casters. Chamberlain, the professor from Maine, a militia officer given a regiment, who discovers in himself the ability to lead men, to make the right choices in battle, and who became one of the most inspirational true heroes in American history without ever losing his natural humanity.

These three are the POV characters of the story, but all the others are painted with equal skill. Dick Ewell, who was a talented division commander but was quite unable to handle a corps. Stuart, out joyriding for days with his troopers, leaving the Army of Virginia blind, ignorant, and vulnerable. “Lo” Armistead, aging Confederate brigade commander and very close friend of Win Hancock, who is fighting for the Union. A. P. Hill, who is moody, ill-tempered, often sick, and hates to take orders, but is sometimes an excellent soldier. John Buford, a western cavalry commander who feels restless in the crowded east, but who knows good ground for a fight when he sees it. George Pickett, the ill-fated swash-buckler with the long, curly hair. And George Meade, in command of the Union army for two whole days, also bad-tempered, indecisive, posturing, and feeling sorry for himself. That the North won at Gettysburg with him in charge is remarkable in itself.

Shaara follows the action in great detail, sometimes minute by minute, which could have been confusing and even boring. But his narrative style is so simple and unadorned and uncomplicated in his descriptions, you’ll be caught up and swept long without even realizing it. It’s also a little unsettling how very young the senior men all were. Lee, the “old man,” was the oldest, at fifty-seven, but Longsgtreet, the second in command, was forty-two. Chamberlain was thirty-two. Jeb Stuart, a lieutenant general, was barely thirty.

Over the years, I’ve recommended this amazing book to a number of readers who had no knowledge of military affairs and no particular interest in the Civil War, and nearly all of them were enthusiastic in their praise — and generally went off to find some “real” histories of the war. I cannot recommend this book too strongly.

Published in: on 19 January 2017 at 4:14 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Ha, this is kind of funny.

    Based off your recs on r/52 I’ve read a handful of books I’ve really enjoyed, so every now and then I stop by here to see if there any of the books you’ve read catch my eye (hence my current visit as I’m off to the library shortly).

    I read The Killer Angels last year and it was easily easily the best book I read in all of 2016. I thought about posting about this book in r/52 (I stopped posting last year for a variety of reasons) just to praise it/see what other people think of it. I never did, but I’m glad I got to see somebody from there talk/ruminate on it.

    Beautiful, brilliant novel. The way Shaara walks you through the action is so well done that not only do you understand what is happening, but you can see the mistakes that are being made before they actually happen.

    Bought it immediately after I returned it to the library.

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