Wednesday, September 26, 2007

1975:Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Killer Angels
Michael Shaara

Finished (reread) 9/25/2007

Winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Killer Angels is a remarkable work. Within the pages of one book, it manages to recount an excellent history of the Battle of Gettysburg with fictional 'insights' into the minds, thoughts, and actions of several of the major players on both sides.

To deal with the historical aspect: Shaara's account is mostly accurate; those inaccuracies present are unintentional and minor. One inaccuracy that probably has become fixed in the public mind as history is the charge of the 20th Maine down the slopes of Little Round Top, routing the Alabamans and Texans of the last Confederate assault and taking over 400 prisoners. Until Shaara, very little attention was given to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine--just as a part of the desperate struggle for Little Round Top, while acknowledging the incredible bayonet charge that ended the fighting for the left flank of the Union army. In his superb 3 volume narrative history of the Civil War, in the outstanding chapter on Gettysburg (published in 1963), Shelby Foote gives one paragraph to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and equal or slightly more space to his counterpart, Col. William Oates of the 15th Alabama. Chamberlain was highly articulate and wrote extensively after the war. From his writings, it is clear that in actuality, Chamberlain was probably the happiest and most "alive" in his life when he was in the thick of fighting. He wrote quite a bit about Little Round Top; as the years went by, his story changed; the movie account is taken from his last reminiscences. No one surviving the war from the 20th Maine, including the then-Captain Spears, recalls Chamberlain ordering the right wheel charge or, for that matter, ordering the charge, period. Chamberlain had ordered the men to fix their bayonets, after which the charge just more or less happened. Chamberlain was not the first to remember things differently as time went by nor would he be the last. However, the excellent movie made from the book has as one of its high points the battle for Little Round Top, and the charge of the 20th Maine as described in the book, not as it really happened, was portrayed brilliantly. It really doesn't matter; the 20th Maine deserved all the glory it received and Chamberlain, who received the Medal of Honor (30 years later!) for his part in the defense of Little Round Top deserved the recognition.

But except for this and a few other details, the history is excellent. Even the maps are among the best I've seen for the summaries of the positions of the armies during the fighting.

So much for the history. What about the characterizations, particularly of Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain?

Clearly, Shaara depended heavily on the writings of the participants themselves for material for his fictional account of their thoughts and feelings. Lee is a problem; he never wrote anything after the war in terms of memoirs. There are letters, and there are the memories of those who fought under him, and that's it.

Longstreet wrote his memoirs and other articles as well. As part of the losing team, Longstreet wasn't entirely objective about his role, particularly at Gettysburg; there were high-ranking Confederate officers who, after the war, accused Longstreet of losing the battle and thus the war. Longstreet did not help his own cause by joining the Republican Party after the war (Grant was a personal friend), and much, much worse, criticizing Lee. Longsteet's reputation fell into disrepute; Shaara's novel helped resurrect Longstreet into respectablity.

As mentioned above, Chamberlain wrote extensively and articulately. It does appear that Gettysburg in many respects was the emotional high point of his life. He attended every single reunion until the year of his death.

As for the supporting cast, Buford is problematical. A taciturn man, he wrote little. His most recent biographer admitted the difficulty in putting together such a work since Buford left almost no letters; everything has to be based on memories of friends and colleagues. The same is true for Armistead.

Given those restraints, Shaara did an incredible job of "narrating" from the different points of view of, in particular, Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain. No one knows what truly goes on in the minds and hearts of another person. Few people are so honest even in their letters and conversations, except under unusual circumstances, to let others into those particular recesses. Thus, whatever is written from a 'point of view' has to be nearly sheer speculation. This is particularly true of such public persons such as Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain. Lee wrapped himself in his reserve and retreated into being a Marble Man of history. Longstreet had axes to grind, and Chamberlain clearly was wistful about the war.

Thus Shaara's is a remarkable achievement in making these figures of over 100 years ago come alive and in a thoroughly believable way. You feel Lee's fatigue, his profound belief in God--you're with him as he decides how to handle his subordinates, particularly Stuart-- as he makes the decision for what will be known in history as Pickett's Charge. You're right there with Dutch Longstreet, one of the two modern generals in that war (the other was Sherman) as he agonizes over being asked to throw away his men in impossible attacks when winning alternatives were available. You fight right along with Chamberlain as he assesses his position, thinks about his orders to defend to the last (a question of rhetoric--last man? last bullet? last Reb?), feel his horror when he realizes he has used his younger brother Tom to "plug" a hole in the 20th Maine lines on Little Round Top. These people are no longer just names in a history book but living human beings participating in the bloodiest struggle in American history.

Shaara takes both these aspects--the historical and the personal--and weaves them into a story that is written vividly in a totally compelling manner and that never stops, never even pauses, but keeps on driving to the bitter climax of Pickett's Charge and the brief aftermath.

As a result, he has made the Civil War, once just the province of buffs and re-enactors, easily accessible to everyone. All history should be as well presented as this novel presents the Battle of Gettysburg, a crucial turning point in the climactic power struggle between North and South known as the Civil War.


Jill said...

Great review, Joyce! Welcome to book challenges and blogs!

=) Jill

Art said...

I love this book. It is one of my all-time favorites! I'm glad to see you enjoyed it too!