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The Battle of Gettysburg seen through the eyes of generals
Posted by Lawrance M. Bernabo on 2/21/2005
I am one of those people who first read Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" after seeing the film "Gettysburg." Consequently the book's novel idea of telling the story of the Battle of Gettysburg by focusing on five key participants--General John Buford and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain for the Union, along with Generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Lewis Armistead for the Confederates--was not a new idea to me. Through the eyes of these five men the crucial points of the battle--preventing the Confederates from taking the high ground on July 1, stopping Hood's division from sweeping the Federal left flank on Little Round Top on July 2, and the high water mark of the Confederacy with Pickett's Charge on July 3--are crystallized as desperate actions agonized over by the leaders who have to make the crucial decisions. Even though these five men are battlefield commanders, they still manage to personalize the battle in which more Americans were killed than were lost in the entire Vietnam War.
Shaara's son Jeff has published a Civil War prequel and sequel to his father's book, but those volumes cover more than a single battle and the focus on a limited number of characters does not work as well. Still, I appreciate that the rest of Chamberlain's story is developed, since it is the college professor from Maine who emerges from both "The Killer Angels" and the Ken Burns PBS documentary on "The Civil War" as the idealized citizen-soldier of the war. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of both this novel and its film, are that they make the defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine the high point of the Battle of Gettysburg rather than Pickett's Charge, and that it is the name of Armistead rather than Pickett that we will not forget from that most famous charge. It also serves as a poignant reminder of what Buford did on the first day, before the big names and the rest of the two armies arrived at Gettysburg.
"The Killer Angels" deserves its reputation as the finest Civil War battle novel because it gives us more of a look at the psychology of these leaders than we can get from a history book. While Armistead did not really survive the battle and Buford would be dead by the end of the year, the other three lived long enough to leave behind their versions of what happened those fateful days in July 1863. Shaara goes along with Longstreet's view that Pickett's Charge was a mistake, but in terms of the book's narrative that logic gives way to the charisma of Lee's leadership, just as it did that fateful day. But that is valid since the great tragedy of the American Civil War is that the emotions that fueled the Southern Confederacy were ground down by the inevitable logic of the Union's advantages in terms of population, industry, and everything else. Even if the Army of Northern Virginia had won at Gettysburg it never could have taken Washington, Grant would have still come East to take command of the Union Armies, and all that would have changed was the time and place of Lee's inevitable surrender. What Shaara accomplishes in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel is to allow us to understand why the Rebel troops who marched towards the clump of trees at the Angle would have thought otherwise and believed it with all their hearts, minds and souls.
Posted by Jackie Tritt on 3/17/2009
My sixteen year old son read this and was awed by the book. They read it aloud in JROTC.