The Killer Angels
by Michael Shaara
Fabulous insight into the military mind, the minds of men, the minds of people dedicated to actions and ideals greater than themselves.
Kurt Vonnegut is said to have revealed the secret of fiction as, “Create characters the reader cares about, then do something terrible to them.” Mr. Shaara gives us a dozen characters worth caring about–from both armies–and then plunges them into one of the most terrible things to happen on American soil: the cataclysmic Battle of Gettysburg. The book is a model of storytelling, and beautifully written. My brother, who earned a Masters in American History just for the fun of it, warned me to start it early in the day because I would not want to put it down. Instead, I savored it for a week; thinking often during my days and nights of these men and their trials.
I read a lot of history and biography, but this is the first book I have ever read on the American Civil War, a/k/a the War Between the States, unless you count the Red Badge of Courage. I was always repulsed by the massive slaughter of Americans by Americans over human slavery. I relented after a business associate suggested that the Gettysburg Battlefield would be a perfect location for one of our sales executive coaching sessions. He recommended this novel and Gettysburg, the movie it inspired, as the first steps in my personal research. He assured me that The Killer Angels, though written in the style of a novel, was a highly accurate portrayal of the action and the command challenges at Gettysburg. Since my colleague had taught Civil War history at West Point, I took his advice. The first words of the book are: “This is the story of the battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there. … I have not consciously changed any fact.”
Authors historical and especially military often find it tempting to display their research and learning by filling each paragraph with jargon and arcana. Michael Shaara stays with concretes and vivid emotions. The writing is so clear that I stopped noticing the style. I was there in the camps, under the artillery, behind the stone wall. I marched, I bled, I prayed that Lee would not order the charge. Michael Shaara takes you there, as soldiers saw the war and army life, with its comradely and outdoorsy appeal as well as its sorrow and terror.
Yet you learn to love it. Isn’t that amazing? Long marches and no rest, up very early in the morning and asleep late in the rain, and there’s a marvelous excitement to it, a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee…
Leadership in those days, as it is today, was all about character, competence, and conduct. As Shaara wrote of Gen. Armistead: “He was one of the men who would hold ground if it could be held; he would die for a word. He was a man to depend on, and there was this truth about war: it taught you the men you could depend on.”
Other aspects of war are not so clear, such as the reason for the conflict and the motivation of the men who volunteered to fight. Shaara does a masterful job of bringing the complex and unresolvable issues to the reader through the thoughts and arguments of the participants. The conversation on causes and conscience between a Union Colonel and his master Sargent fills the best two pages of the book and explains the title, too. [See pp. 188-9] There’s no better summary of their relationship than when the proud and practical Sergeant says, “Colonel, you’re a lovely man. I see at last a great difference between us, and yet I admire ye, lad. You’re an idealist, praise be.” It takes both kinds to make an army.
The Killer Angels offers many such insights to the minds of the men who were there, their agonized choices and their loss of choice to duty and circumstance. As when Longstreet was ordered by Lee to command his men into a charge sure to end in carnage and defeat: “What was needed now was control, absolute control. Lee was right about that: a man who could not control himself had no right to command an army. They must not know my doubts, they must not. So I will send them all forward and say nothing, except what must be said. But he looked down at his hands. They were trembling. Control took a few moments. He was not sure he could do it.” Shaara gives us not just heroes, but humanity: raw and real.
I would add to Vonnegut’s recipe one requirement to elevate a good story into a classic text: “Show us people and circumstances which illuminate our own lives.” The Killer Angels also excels in that, with insights for all of us, though mainly in safer careers and seeming to compete for lower stakes. Death seldom visits us in our jobs, yet don’t doubt that you are giving your life for it, if only by the hour. The end is the same for us as it was for them; though glory is now harder to find. As Shaara has Lee say, “And does it matter after all who wins? Was that ever really the question? Will God ask that question, in the end?” [p. 360]
Forgive me, please, my trespass into profundity. The Killer Angels spawns such thoughts. Therein lies its value.
Page references are to the soft cover edition.[Items in brackets are paraphrases or commentary by Tony Mayo.]
p. vii This is the story of the battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there. … I have not consciously changed any fact.
p. 67 [of Gen. Armistead:] He was one of the men who would hold ground if it could be held; he would die for a word. He was a man to depend on, and there was this truth about war: it taught you the men you could depend on.
p. 90 [Gen Lee:] He closed his eyes. Blessed be the Lord of my strength, which teacheth my fingers to fight and my hands to war. Amen.
p. 105 …it was a brutal military truth that there were men who were marvelous with a regiment but could not handle a brigade, and men who were superb with a division but incapable of leading a corps. No way of predicting it. One could only have faith in character.
p. 125 [Chamberlain, on war] Yet you learn to love it. Isn’t that amazing? Long marches and no rest, up very early in the morning and asleep late in the rain, and there’s a marvelous excitement to it, a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee …
p. 132 The Rebs loved Lee, no doubt of that. And we loved Mac. Chamberlain thought: two things an officer must do, to lead men. This from old Ames, who never cared about love: You must care for your men’s welfare. You must show physical courage.
p. 188 They sat for a long while in silence. Then Kilrain said, softly smiling, “Colonel, you’re a lovely man.” He shook his head. “I see at last a great difference between us, and yet I admire ye, lad. You’re an idealist, praise be.”
Kilrain rubbed his nose, brooding. Then he said, “The truth is, Colonel, that there’s no divine spark, bless you. There’s many a man alive no more value than a dead dog. Believe me, when you’ve seen them hang each other. Equality? Christ in Heaven. What I’m fighting for is the right to prove I’m a better man than many. Where have you seen this divine spark in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? The Great White Joker in the Sky dooms us all to stupidity or poverty from birth. No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree. There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice. ‘Tis why I’m here. I’ll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I’m Kilrain, and I God-damn all gentlemen. I don’t know who me father was and I don’t give a damn. There’s only one aristocracy, and that’s right here–” he tapped his white skull with a thick finger–“and you Colonel laddie, are a member of it and don’t even know it. You are damned good at everything I’ve seen you do, a lovely soldier, an honest man, and you got a good heart on you too, which is rare in clever men. Strange thing, I’m not a clever man meself, but I know it when I run across it. The strange and marvelous thing about you, Colonel darlin’, is that you believe in mankind, even preachers, whereas when you’ve got my great experience of the world you will have learned that good men are rare, much rarer than you think. Ah,” he raised his hands, smiling, “don’t you worry about ministers. The more you kill, the more you do the world a service.” He chuckled, rubbing his face. His nose was fat and soft, rippling under his fingers.
Chamberlain said, “What has been done to the black is a terrible thing.”
“True. From any point of view. But your freed black will turn out no better than many the white that’s fighting to free him. The point is that we have a country here where the past cannot keep a good man in chains, and that’s the nature of the war. It’s the aristocracy I’m after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a cockroach, ah.” His face twitched to stark bitterness. “I tell you, Colonel, we got to win this war.” He brooded. “What will happen, do you think, if we lose? Do you think the country will ever get back together again?”
“Doubt it. Wound is too deep. The differences… If they win there’ll be two countries, like France and Germany in Europe, and the border will be armed. Then there’ll be a third country in the West, and that one will be the balance of power.”
Kilrain sat moodily munching on a blade of grass. More cannon thumped; the dull sound rolled among the hills. Kilrain said, “They used to have signs on tavern doors: Dogs and Irishmen keep out. You ever see them signs, Colonel?”
“They burned a Catholic church up your way not long ago. With some nuns in it.”
“There was a divine spark.”
p. 244 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.
p. 311 Longstreet rode off to summon his staff.
What was needed now was control, absolute control. Lee was right about that: a man who could not control himself had no right to command an army. They must not know my doubts, they must not. So I will send them all forward and say nothing, except what must be said. But he looked down at his hands. They were trembling. Control took a few moments. He was not sure he could do it.
p. [Armistead, waiting for Pickett’s Charge, anticipating imminent death.] But I loved her. And loved much else. Always loved music. And good friends, and some moments together. Had much joy in the weather. So very rarely shared. I should have shared more. The way Pickett does, the way so many do.
p. 360 [Gen. Lee to Longstreet] “Each man has his own reason to die. But if they go on, I will go on.” He paused. “It is only another defeat.” He looked up at Longstreet, lifted his hands, palms out, folded them softly, slowly. “If the war goes on – and it will, it will – what else can we do but go on? It is the same question forever, what else can we do but go on? If they fight, we will fight with them. And does it matter after all who wins? Was that ever really the question? Will God ask that question, in the end?”
Gettysburg, the excellent film version of the book is also available, as are the prequel, Gods & Generals, and the sequel, The Last Full Measure are also available.
by Michael Shaara
© 2009 Tony Mayo