The novel I chose for the historical book review is called The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. This novel is about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, and it is written from the perspective of the people fighting while sharing their thoughts and feelings about the battle as it goes on. Although it is historical fiction, The Killer Angels centers around the Battle of Gettysburg, which, of course, really took place. While the strategy of the battle is factual, the dialogue is fictitious. The book starts with a Foreword that gives details of the armies and people involved. Four main chronological sections cover the days of Monday, June 29, 1863, through Friday, July 3, 1863, while switching between viewpoints Union and Confederate participants. An Afterword tells the reader what happens to several of the key characters. Even though a chapter is written from one commander’s perspective, the author still allows you to see what some of the other characters in those scenes are thinking. Without this way of writing the novel, the reader wouldn’t truly be able to understand thoughts and opinions of the soldiers, so some of the choices wouldn’t have made as much sense. Shaara included the arguments between characters about how to go about the attack, which gives the reader much more details about how complicated the few days of the battle were.
Since 355 pages are used to cover just four days of history, Shaara’s story of the Battle of Gettysburg is extremely in depth. Considering this, it’s difficult to tell how accurate the historical content of the novel is. Yes, it’s accurate that the Union army won the battle, and yes, it’s accurate that the battle took place in 1863, but what about the small details Shaara writes about, that we can’t know for sure are true? What I found is that Michael Shaara did extensive research about the Battle of Gettysburg by reading the letters and memoirs of the soldiers and officers involved in the battle, and even taking several trips with his son Jeff to the battlefield. He studied the personalities of the characters, and how they might have acted. Even though the dialogue is fictitious, one can imagine that the conversations and small details in the book were probably very similar to the conversations and minor events that took place throughout the real battle. Shaara describes how the geography of the battlefield played a major role in the Union’s victory. With evidence he could probably see with his trip to the battlefield, Shaara describes how the Confederates marched many miles to Gettysburg to try to defeat the North on their “home turf.”
He explains how the Union army secured a point called “Little Round Top” which gave them the ability to fight from a high point, while the enemy had to trudge uphill to them. When reading “The Americans” textbook, this piece of information about the battle can be seen, justifying its accuracy. Robert E. Lee, as a fifty-seven year old Virginian, has less than a decade to live. He is having heart trouble, which eventually kills him. Some historians speculate that Lee may have suffered a mild heart attack during the Battle of Gettysburg, and Shaara works from that idea. In the chapter about the first day of the battle, Shaara describes how when Lee wakes up in the morning, he’s having heart troubles and wants to take it easy throughout the day. His physical health that day affects the way he interacts with General Longstreet, and his battle strategy. This is just one example of Shaara’s research, Lee’s heart problems in this case, which he used to shape his story.
The way Shaara describes Lee’s condition for example can’t be proven true, but it would be wrong to say it’s all “made up.” Overall, The Killer Angels is very historically accurate, but because of the dialogue and minor details like Robert E. Lee’s heart problems, the novel is still considered historical fiction. When I first started reading the book, we had just begun talking about the civil war in class. My prior knowledge of the civil war, especially the Battle of Gettysburg was limited. What I did know was how complex the civil war was, and how the war wasn’t something anyone could fully understand without lots of research. I realized that all the settlements like the Compromise of 1850 couldn’t abate the two region’s anger forever, and that a war was inevitable. I expected the anger on both sides to be strong, as the North saw slavery as immoral and the South needed it for their economy. Without this knowledge I would have been astounded by the number of soldiers fighting and the many deaths that occurred in just one day. Shaara used vivid imagery in the novels such as, “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)
I was taken back by quotes like this, but I had a feeling coming into reading how horrific the battle was. I knew how strongly both sides would fight for their cause, and this proved true in the novel. Although I didn’t know of all the military figures, I knew that Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army, and that he was a highly skilled and experienced general. Before this year, I had the impression from middle school that “The North was good, the South was bad, and the war started because the South didn’t like the blacks.” I quickly learned there was much more to it than that. Because of the way Mrs. Stark stressed the complexities of the war, I was prepared to read a very in depth, and complicated novel. Perhaps the most important knowledge I had going into the book, was the understanding that things that could be seen as immoral or just plain crazy today, were normal back then. For example, I think the reason many people assumed the south was the “Bad guy” is because they didn’t understand how important slavery was to the south. It had been a way of life for the Southerners for so many years, and one can’t blame them for not giving up slavery without a fight.
If I didn’t understand why the South felt the way they did, I’m sure that as I read, I would have had much less sympathy or understanding for Lee, and the Confederate Army. After reading the novel, I had an immensely greater understanding of what went on throughout the few days of the battle. Shaara told the story from the perspective of militants from both armies, so the reader could see the detailed perceptions of the events, through the eyes of Generals like Robert E. Lee or Joshua Chamberlain. Throughout the novel, the emotions of the soldiers of the armies change as we see the events that take place. We can see the tension build between Robert E. Lee and Commander James Longstreet as the battle continues on. With the north sending in a steady flow of reinforcements, the two disagree on how to go about fighting. Longstreet suggests that the Confederates take a defensive position, while Lee wants an ambush on John Buford’s troops. Not only did I learn the basics of the battle, like who or how many people were fighting, but I got to learn all the sadness, anger, and excitement that came along with fighting.
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) Passages like this shows how the generals were actual people, with a heavy emotional burden to carry, knowing the decisions they make can cost thousands of soldier’s lives. I truly connected with General Robert E. Lee because of quotes like these. I could truly feel for Lee as he lived his life strictly by devotion to the self-sacrificing virtues of duty and religion. He wasn’t a cruel man just because he believed in slavery, and Shaara does a tremendous job of changing the impressions associated with Lee from history textbooks or 8th grade history teachers.
Because of Shaara’s writing style, we can feel the guilt in Lee’s heart after the loss, and the emotional toll the war took on him. After Confederate Commander Richard Ewell failed to carry out an important order that would possibly change the outcome of the war, Robert E. Lee says, “Jackson is gone – not entirely gone; Jackson was there today watching, and Ewell sees his eyes – but you cannot blame him for not being Jackson. You must make do with the tools God has given for the job.” Lee was probably very frustrated with Ewell, wishing he had his General “Stonewall” Jackson, but he refuses to blame anyone but himself. Although I have a gained respect for many of the militants depicted in the novel, I really appreciate the honor and respect Robert E. Lee had.
Throughout The Killer Angels, one can see all aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of the Army leaders themselves. The reader can get an in depth look at the way people felt during the days of battle, physically and very much so emotionally. Reading this book gave me an amazing opportunity to learn about one of the most important battles in history- a battle that some historians believed won the whole war for the north. I highly recommend this book for anyone over the age of 14. For the people who don’t know or the people who think they know about the Battle of Gettysburg, this novel will give anyone a much deeper understanding of how much went on in just four days of history. I hope to read this novel again some time in my life, and I suggest that people read this book for learning, and for excitement.