Michael Shaara is the author of several books including The Killer Angels, which chronicles the Battles at Gettysburg in the American Civil War. The Killer Angels, most recently published in 1990 by Ballantine Books, is a work of historical fiction. Shaara began his writing career by selling short stories to magazines, but after a family vacation to Gettysburg, discovered a new writing interest. After seven years of research, he completed The Killer Angels.

Being a work of historical fiction, it has excellent readability. The book is aimed at the general public as opposed to Civil War history buffs, and the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize only increased its popularity. In the early 1990's the book was used to create the Ted Turner movie, Gettysburg. The characters are brought to life in a way that could never be done in a work of non-fiction. This interpretive method of writing, while making the book easy and interesting to read, is also one of its major drawbacks. All of the general historical facts are present including the proper times, days, people, weather, and other essentials. However, it must be kept in mind that this is still a work of fiction, and that most of what is being read is one man's interpretation of the way things could have been. What people might have thought, said, or felt along with dozens of other details that can never be proven are present in the book. There are also historical inaccuracies included in the book such the idea that the 20th Maine helped in defending against Pickett's Charge. It is commonly believed that this was done for more dramatic effect considering the Medal of Honor recipient, Joshua Chamberlain, and his boys from the 20th Maine where some of the major heroes of the battle at Gettysburg.

The book is organized into chapters which alternately show the events of the day from the point of view of one of the major leaders of the battle. Almost one-third of the book is from the point of view of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (as explained above, some of it inaccurately portrayed). Only slightly less attention was given to General James Longstreet who was years ahead of his time in the craft of military strategy. Amazingly, General Robert E. Lee was given only four chapters, which was only one more than General John Buford received. The three remaining chapters were given to General Lewis Armistead, Fremantle the British spectator, and Harrison the southern spy. Even more amazing is the fact that General George Meade is hardly even mentioned in the book. Where he is mentioned, it is simply a reference that he will probably be indecisive and unwilling to fight. Since the chapters still follow a chronological order, and we are viewing the battles from only one man's point of view at a time, I found myself wondering what was going on with other people in other places.

Something unique about this novel is that the attention is given entirely to the leaders, and nothing is from the point of view of the common enlisted man. While the lives and even personalities of the Colonels and Generals are very well documented in our nation's history, it is still quite a bold move for an author to assume the lives of these men. Of course there are historians who strongly disagree with Shaara's portrayals of these men, though it is more widely accepted that he does an excellent job bringing them back to life.

There are several reoccurring themes in the book which seem to go against the grain of common conceptions about this time in history. First, General Lee is not portrayed as being the excellent leader and great tactician that history says he is. Rather he is depicted as being pious, sick, aging, and stubborn. It is Lee's right-hand man Longstreet who Shaara attributes the brains of the operation. The book seems to say that if Lee had listened to Longstreet, the South would have had a landslide victory on the fields of Gettysburg. Another point that is made is the idea of "The Cause". The North, and those not from the South (i.e. Fremantle) insisted that the war was all about slavery. This was not the case in the South. Any reference to The Cause by a Confederate soldier was that of fighting for their own freedom and against the laws forced on them by the Union.

It can be assumed that Shaara does his research properly in preparing to write this book, but being a work of fiction, there is no bibliography, footnote, or reference given in the entire book. He is said to have used letters, correspondences and actual documents of the time to pull his information, but nowhere is it told what these documents actually are. As stated above, this book was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1975 and is considered one of the greatest books of historical fiction ever written. Numerous experts on war and history including General Norman Schwarzkopf and James McPherson (author of the Civil War book Battle Cry of Freedom) uplift the book.

In conclusion, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels is an excellent book about the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a smooth read with an insightful look into the minds of the leaders of both the Union and Confederacy. If you want to see the human side of war with a slight freedom of interpretation then The Killer Angels is just the book, but if you are looking for straight historical facts, then you may want to grab something from the non-fiction section.

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Below is a short excerpt to give you an idea of how the book reads. It deals with two confederate leaders (Lee and Longstreet) meeting in the days before the battle in Gettysburg. They are trying to prepare themselves strategically, but more importantly, mentally for the battle they know is coming.

Lee bent toward the map. The mountains rose like a rounded wall between them and the Union Army. There was one gap east of Chambersburg and beyond that all the roads came together, weblike, at a small town. Lee put his finger on the map.

"What town is that?"

Longstreet looked. "Gettysburg," he said.

Lee nodded. "Well -" he was squinting - "I see no reason to delay. It's their army I'm after, not their towns." He followed the roads with his finger, all converging on that one small town. "I think we should concentrate in this direction. This road junction will be useful.

"Yes," Longstreet said.

Lee looked up with black diamond eyes. "We'll move at first light."

Longstreet felt a lovely thrill. Trust the old man to move. "Yes, sir."

Lee started to rise. A short while ago he had fallen from a horse onto his hands. and when he pushed himself up from the table Longstreet saw him wince. Longstreet thought: go to sleep and let me do it. Give the order and I'll do it all. He said, "I regret the need to wake you, sir."

Lee looked past him into the soft blowing dark. The rain had ended. A light wind was moving in the tops of the pines - cool sweet air, gentle and clean. Lee took a deep breath.

"A good time of night. I have always liked this time of night."

"Yes" ...

...After a while Lee said slowly, "When this is over, I shall miss it very much."

"Yes."

"I do not mean the fighting."

"No."

"Well," Lee said. He looked to the sky. "It is all in God's hands."

They said good night. Longstreet watched the old man back to his tent. Then he mounted and road alone back to his camp to begin the turning of the army, all the wagons and all the guns, down the narrow mountain road that led to Gettysburg. It was still a long dark hour till dawn. He sat alone on his horse in the night and he could feel the army asleep around him, all those young hearts beating in the dark. They would need their rest now. He sat alone to await the dawn, and let them sleep a little longer.


Written by me for an undergraduate History class
HIST 0688 American Way of War
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