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Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara

Sujeeth Narra

September 30, 2001

Imagine being thrust into the middle of a raging battle, a battle that lasts for 3 long days. The

book Killer Angels by Michael Shaara does just that, introducing the reader to the Battle of

Gettysburg in detail. Killer Angels elaborates upon the 5 days surrounding the Battle of

Gettysburg in the Civil War, using key points of view from both Confederate and Union sides to

show the reader the brutal nature of war. Michael Shaara also uses this book to show how some

of the generals were good friends before the war, and that this war helped to create breaches in

those friendships. Additionally, this book also shows how the generals were people as well, not

just mindless automatons portrayed by textbooks. Finally, this book also shows neither side saw

a flaw in their own thinking, both unable to see or accept that their point of view was in error.

Shaara shows how war can be brutal by portraying the pain and suffering of the

thousands of men on both sides. During the battle at Little Round Top involving Chamberlain’s

20th Maine, Chamberlain sees a wounded soldier: “A few feet away he saw a man lying dead,

half his face shot away. Vaguely familiar. He turned away, turned back. Half the right jawbone

visible, above the bloody leer: face of one of the Second Maine prisoners who had volunteered

just a few moments past.” (Pg. 218) Once again after the 20th Maine is moved to the center of

the line, Chamberlain sees more of these depraved sights: “Union guns firing, men moving

among the guns, hunched, a bloody horse running eerily by, three-legged, horrible sight, running

toward the road. Another horse down with no head, like a broken toy.” (Pg. 310)

Chamberlain was not the only one affected by these atrocious sights, as the generals on

both sides of the battle were affected. For example, Lee knew the movement on the last day

would cost many lives, but still ordered it on. He blames himself for making the mistake: "No

blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. . . . I

alone am to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess and valor . . . could I have

foreseen that the attack on the last day would fail, I should certainly have tried some other course

. . . but I do not know what better course I could have pursued." (Pg. 349) He feels guilty that

he could not choose another course after having committed himself to attacking the Union head

on at Gettysburg. This example shows that the generals were actual people, not mindless

androids. Another example of a general who shows his emotions is Longstreet. “Longstreet sat

on a rail fence, hugging his chest with both arms. He suspended thinking; his mind was a bloody

vacancy, like in a room where there has been a butchering.” (Pg. 330) This quote shows how

Longstreet has fallen into a state of shock after having sent the troops to their death in the center

of the Union line.

One of the commanders Longstreet sent into the center of the Union line was Lewis

Armistead, a friend of Winfield Scott Hancock on the Union side. The war can be proven to tear

apart friendships with several examples, one of which being the aforementioned comradeship.

Armistead and Hancock became friends after fighting together in Mexico, along with Peter

Longstreet and several others. In the final day of the battle, Armistead is commanded to take his

unit and march up to the Union line, out in the open. Armistead reaches the top of the Union

post, but is hit by a bullet. He finally asks a soldier to give Hancock a message: “Will you tell

General Hancock, please, that General Armistead sends his regrets. Will you tell him … how

very sorry I am…” (Pg. 329) Another example of the war ruining a friendship is the friendship

of Chamberlain and Kilrain. Although the war had brought them together, it also separated them.

When Kilrain was to be sent off to the hospital, Chamberlain feels warmheartedness towards

Kilrain: “There was a tight long silent moment. Chamberlain felt a thickness all through his

chest. It was like coming back to your father, having done something fine, and your father

knows it, and you can see the knowledge in his eyes, and you are both too proud to speak of it.

But he knows. Kilrain looked away.” (Pg. 230)

Another conclusion that can be drawn from this book is that neither side saw a flaw in

their thinking. For example, Chamberlain reflects on a time when a Southern visitor was at his

home, he says to the minister: “I kept trying to be courteous, but this minister was so damned

wrong and moral and arrogant all at the same time that he began to get under my skin. And

finally he said, like this: ‘Look here, my good man, you don’t understand.’” Later on the same

topic: “I remember him sitting there, sipping tea. I tried to point out that a man is not a horse,

and he replied, very patiently, that that was the thing I did not understand, that a Negroe was not

a man.” (Pg. 177) Later, the professor came up to Chamberlain and had this to say, as recalled

by Chamberlain: “Then he talked to me for a while, and he was trying to get through to me, just

as I had tried with the minister. The difference was that this man was a brilliant man. He

explained that the minister was a moral man, kind to his children, and that the minister believed

every word he said, just as I did, and then he said, ‘My young friend, what if it is you who are

wrong?’” This shows that conventional thinking cannot be applied to decide who is wrong or

right in cases such as these, that a higher level of thinking must be applied for us to decide who

is correct.

Based on all this evidence presented by Shaara, his opinion seems to be that the war

didn’t achieve much of anything but deaths, and that can be supported today, based on how many

people still present prejudices towards African Americans. Although the attitude has been

changed for the most part, the KKK still exists, as it should be allowed to (freedom of speech),

and racial profiling and other types of discrimination still occurring throughout the US.

Michael Shaara’s presentation of the Battle of Gettysburg ascertains several known and

previously unknown to me features of the Civil War. Some of these are the cold brutality of the

war, the human aspect of generals, the dismantling of friendships, and as well as the fact that

each division saw itself as the correct and all-knowing group. The writing style is in prolixity,

but can be understood after all the tedious excess has been sorted out.