Book Review: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Civil War is one of the most fascinating periods in American history. It largely shaped many facets about the kind of country we have today: The relationship between blacks and whites, the States and the Federal Government, and the various regions of the country. As the U.S. expanded in size and influence over the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, the fallout from the Civil War loomed over it all. 

Unfortunately, my understanding of the Civil War is very general. I don’t know much about the individual battles or the people involved. And so a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading a book my mother recommended to me years ago, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. 

This review is about the book and not the man. All I am going to say about Mr. Shaara is that he can write his ass off. 

The Killer Angels is a fictional, though historically accurate, account of the the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.  The book picks up in the third year of the war on June 29, 1863, two day before the battle, which lasted from July 1 to July 3, began.  The battle turned the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg into a charnel house and marked the beginning of the end for the Confederates. 

The timing of this review is no accident. For whatever reason, this was the book I decided to pick from my to-read like a few weeks ago. Like I’ve said before, I used to believe in coincidences. 

Shaara writes battle scenes with such force and tension that you will get chills. But what makes this book so riveting is that the actual fighting is almost incidental to the story. The Killer Angels is about the men who fought.

Men of honor, men of contradictions, good and evil men, strong and weak men, men fighting their brothers-in-arms and their brothers-by-blood. 

Men like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Meade, John Buford, Lewis Armistead, Win Hancock, George Pickett, and my new favorite American hero and arguably the man who saved the Union army at the Battle of Little Round Top on the second day of fighting, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Spoiler alert: The Union won the battle. Basically, Robert E. Lee screwed up. But the fighting was fierce, the stakes were high, and the outcome was never certain. 

If you ever wanted to know what makes the Civil War so complex and fascinating an event in American history, I cannot recommend The Killer Angels highly enough. 

Thanks mom, for letting me “borrow” your copy 20 years ago. 

My Five Favorite Insights into Human Nature from The Killer Angels:

Like all good art, The Killer Angels is more than just a story; it speaks to the human condition. Here are a few of my favorite insights: 

On belief in causes:

…[c]leverness did not win victories; the bright combinations rarely worked. You won because the men thought they would win, attacked with courage, attacked with faith, and it was the faith more than anything else you had to protect; that was  one thing that was in your hands…

On the idea of America:

He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was a land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually all over the earth. But it had begun here. The fact of slavery upon this incredibly beautiful new clean earth was appalling, but more even than that was the horror of old Europe, the curse of nobility, which the South was transplanting to new soil. They were forming a new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men, and Chamberlain had come to crush it. 

On race:

You saw very few black men in New England…Chamberlain’s curiosity was natural and friendly, but there was a reserve in it, an unexpected caution. The man was really very black. Chamberlain felt an oddness, a crawly hesitation, not wanting to touch him. He shook his head, amazed at himself. He saw: palm of the hand almost white; blood dries normally, skin seems dusty. But he could not tell whether it was truly dust or only a natural sheen of light on hair above black skin. But he felt it again: a flutter of unmistakable revulsion. Fat lips, brute jaw, red-veined eyeballs. Chamberlain stood up. He had not expected this feeling. He had not even known this feeling was there. 

On hypocrisy:

“I don’t understand it. Never have. The more I think on it the more it horrifies me. How can they look in the eyes of a man and make a slave of him and then quote the Bible?”

On leadership:

“To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. This is…a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.”

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