"Once Chamberlain had a speech memorized from Shakespeare and gave it proudly, the old man listening but not looking, and Chamberlain remembered it still. 'What a piece of work is manin action how like an angel!' And the old man, grinning, had scratched his head and then said stiffly, 'Well, boy, if he's an angel, he's a murderin' angel.'"
- Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
When it was first published, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels landed with a thud. Even when it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, it did not gain a wide following. When Shaara passed away in 1988, he did so believing his novel to have underachieved (as far as Pulitzer Prize winners can ever be so considered). Then, in 1993, the film version, Gettysburg, was released in theaters. Though it did not prove a runaway box office hit, it did enough to lift The Killer Angels onto the bestseller lists.
According to Shaara's son, Jeff (who can start a bank with the books he's sold by aping his father's distinctive techniques), The Killer Angels was initially greeted with skepticism due to its release at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Maybe, or maybe not. The world, after all, is filled with great books that never found wide audiences.
Still, there is some validity in the point. The Killer Angels is decidedly old-fashioned. It has none of the cynicism or darkness of modern war novels. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a pro-war book, but it embraces martial virtues with both its arms. In the world of The Killer Angels, when the characters aren't thinking about duty, loyalty, and honor, they are giving speeches about it.
The Killer Angels begins on the eve of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, and takes us through each of the three bloody days as the Union and Confederacy clashed in the fields and hills around a small Pennsylvania crossroads village. In order to tell this story, Shaara employs viewpoint chapters in which the battle unfolds through the eyes of a limited number of characters. The characters are: the Confederate scout, Harrison; Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Lewis Armistead; the British observer Fremantle; Union General John Buford; and Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of the 20th Maine (whose posthumous reputation has spiked drastically because of this).
Though the writing is in the third-person, each of the viewpoint chapters sticks to the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the chosen character. This leads to the kind of telescoping that is familiar to anyone who has read A Song of Ice and Fire. While we are ostensibly being treated to epic events, it sometimes feels like we're viewing it through a keyhole. By focusing so rigidly on a handful of participants, you get a great sense of intimacy, at a loss of some of the scope.
It's impossible to talk about The Killer Angels without mentioning Shaara's amazing style. He has an incredible eye for detail, the weather, the terrain, the colors, the sounds. He wraps you in these details until you feel like you're present on the field. You feel like you could take this book to Gettysburg and find your way around. At times, he slips easily into a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness, punctuated by the use of the present tense, interior monologues, and his trademarked sentence fragments. (Though, if we're being technical, I think Jeff Shaara has the trademark now).
Shaara's genius is in his characterizations. He brings Buford and Chamberlain and the others to life by embodying them, by inhabiting their minds. There is Lee, suddenly very old, suffering from heart disease, struggling with the loss of Jackson, unable to control his subordinates or get them to see his vision. He is courtly, saintly, pervaded by an unfortunate fatalism he wraps in a vague theology ("It's in God's hands now," he intones repeatedly). There is Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric, questioning everything, his thoughts, his actions, a true believer in the cause of freedom and Union, though he is constantly trying to define those things. And then there is Armistead, who gets only one chapter, during Pickett's Charge, but remains perhaps the most powerful creation, a doomed romantic, mourning his broken friendship with Union General Winfield Hancock. In a novel short of female characters, the remembered bonds between Hancock and Armistead provide the love story.
The best testament to the power of Shaara's vision is that his fictionalized conception of these real life figures has gained such widespread traction. For instance, Shaara used Longstreet's memoirs in his research; as such, Longstreet arises as something of a prophet, a man who can see the trenches of World War I just over the horizon, who believes that Lee's aggressiveness will destroy the Confederacy. While effective, it is worth noting that Shaara's concept of these men is not necessarily shared by all historians.
The Killer Angels is not a graphic or gratuitous book. There are no curse words. Despite the presence of thousands of men, there is nary a dirty thought in the air. The violence is rather tame, at least relatively speaking. Yet Shaara still manages to deliver marvelous battle scenes, especially a memorable accounting of Pickett's failed assault on the Union center.
Garnett's boys had reached the road. They were slowing, taking down rails. Musket fire was beginning to reach them. The great noise increased, beating of wings in the air. More dead men: a long neat line of dead, like a shattered fence. And now the canister, oh God, [Armistead] shuddered, millions of metal balls whirring through the air like startled quail, murderous quail, and now for the first time there was screaming, very bad sounds to hear. He began to move past wounded struggling to the rear, men falling out to help, heard the sergeants ordering the men back into line, saw gray faces as he passed, eyes sick with fear, but the line moved on
The Killer Angels does have its share of flaws, though they are slight. The cast of characters, for one, is a bit imbalanced. On the Confederate side, Longstreet is a Corps commander, while Lee is in charge of the whole Army. Meanwhile, on the Union side, Buford is in charge of a cavalry division, and disappears after the first day. Chamberlain commands only a regiment. This means you get a great sense of the Confederate strategy, while the Union strategy is reduced to slandering General George Meade (who, despite Shaara's odd intransigence, was more than capable).
Then there is the handling of slavery. Shaara acknowledges - or has his characters acknowledge - slavery as the root cause of the war on several occasions. He even has Longstreet admitting this. But Shaara also includes an interaction between Chamberlain and a runaway slave that I found a bit underdeveloped. In the scene, Chamberlain, despite his high ideals, finds himself revolted by the runaway, who is described in animal-like terms. The idea of exploring racism among Northern characters is not necessarily bad; if given the proper space, it might even have been meaningful. Unfortunately, Shaara never really expounds on the notion, leaving us with the disconcerting fact that Chamberlain is the only one in the book who is remotely racist. I feel like the inclusion of this requires an obverse scene, maybe one in which Lee oversees his men kidnapping and re-enslaving the unfortunate blacks who tarried in the invasion path. (Which is a thing that actually happened).
These are really minor critiques. And yes, I understand this is a novel with a very specific storyline. Still, it bears mentioning, if only because this is a very good piece of historical fiction, and when historical fiction is really, really good, you sometimes start to forget it's fiction and believe its historical. But while heavily researched (with the inclusion of more maps than you get in typical history volume), it is, when all is said and done, a product of imagination.
The Killer Angels deserves its place in the pantheon of great American war novels. It is a fascinating study in command, so much so that it is often recommended to military officers in training. More than that, it is a touching exploration of the bonds and friendships between men, and the sentimental notion that these relationships mean more than nations. It is no surprise that Shaara chose the famous lines from E.M. Forster's essay, What I believe, as his epigraph. "I hate the idea of causes," Forster wrote, "And if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."