Friday, April 2, 2010

The Killer Angels Essay

The Killer Angels Essay


The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is an outstanding fictional depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, the day leading up to it, and the people involved in it during July of 1863. Shaara tells the book in third person through the usage of each of the main characters’ personal experiences and descriptive emotions before and during the tragic event. This allows the reader to grasp the situation unlike in any other Civil War book; that is, through the eyes of those who experienced it.

It is no surprise that at the beginning of the novel the confederate army is content with the direction they are going. Up to this point they have completely beaten back the North by beating them in battles fought on their land (in the South).

With Robert E. Lee as their general, the South is confident that they are invincible. When Lee receives news of the Union army’s plans from a spy, he quickly devises a plan to strike his opposing side at Gettysburg: a town on the northern side in South Pennsylvania. This will mark the first time his army fights offensively in the North. There is however, opposition to his decision.

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Immediately, due to Shaara's detailed description of each character at the beginning of the book, it is understood who will oppose Lee and why. James Longstreet, second in command, is a sad, overly cautious man, grieving over the deaths of his three children who died the winter previous due to fever. From the moment Lee makes the decision to attack the offensive side Longstreet opposes Lee. Longstreet is concerned with the well being of his men and feels that attacking the Union's army on their ground is a huge mistake.

Without Shaara's brilliant description it would not be apparent why Longstreet would oppose Lee so much. They are both men seemingly fighting for the same cause. It would only seem natural that they agree on everything. Shaara steps in and puts us into the mind frame of each character by giving us information on their past and explaining their inner most thoughts. This makes the book far more apprehensible and insightful than any simple civil war book or history textbook.

As the book continues, the battle of Gettysburg begins and the reader is given detailed explanations of the events that occurred there going back and forth between the people of each side continuously so as not to show bias toward the Rebels or the Yankees. Before delving into this book I had always sided with the Yankees no matter what. After all, according to today’s society their beliefs are the only politically correct ones in the Civil War. Over the course of reading this book I understood that it is not fair to judge the South based on today’s standards. Shaara presents an equal interpretation of both sides positions and a message is revealed: both sides were fighting for freedom-the freedom to be who they were.

On the first day of battle, both armies plan their positioning and tactics. Shaara’s maps and visuals through out the entire book really helped me to comprehend where everything was and how each section of each army planned to attack the other. The maps generally were placed in the book in such a way that the reader could look at them as a summary of what was going on in the battle at the location they are specifically placed. For example, a map is placed directly after the first day’s battles are fought. On it, it says largely “SITUATION AT CLOSE OF First Day.” (p.159) This is another helpful addition from the author that makes this book so unique.

The second day Lee tries to split up the Union and succeeds, yet he and his army fail to take the land the Yankees are on. By the third day, Lee, frustrated, wants to send another one of his generals, General George E. Pickett (under Longstreet), directly into the center of the Union troops. This is perhaps the most crucial moment of the entire Civil War. Desperately seeking some sort of victory Pickett leads his men up the slopes of Cemetery Ridge into the Union army. As they reach the ridge, knowing this is a battle that can no longer be won, Lee withdraws his troops to Virginia. The emotion put into this part of the book is extremely powerful. When Longstreet realizes that his troops are going to be withdrawn he raises his hands and says, “I don’t know if I can go on leading them. To die. For nothing (P.360).” In my opinion, this was the most emotional and powerful moment in the entire book. Shaara describes the grief and doubt of Longstreet so well that my heart wrenched reading this quotation. The battle leaves thousands dead on both sides. For the confederates, however, it is simply a loss they cannot afford, and they are never the same again after.

Possibly the most puzzling and poignant thing to me in this book was the deep meaning of the title of the book, which I discovered through my reading. The title is The Killer Angels, which almost could be an oxymoron. How is it that creatures, which we as humans depict as kind or as holy, could become cold murderers? This is precisely what Shaara tries to explain throughout the book by the use of his unique writing style. We know by the way that each character is described and portrayed in their chapters that the men involved in this gory battle were by no means evil creatures. They began as men wanting to be heard, as any human wants to be. With morals and guidelines as to how far they would actually go to be heard. However, soon after the war began they became people with ideals of which they would go to any degree to protect, even as far as fighting their own sides.

At one point in the story Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the Union is told by George C. Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, that he can shoot anyone in his regiment who refuses to fight. These men were bound to the army by a three-year contract, which had concluded but were nevertheless still forced into serving in the military. At that point Chamberlain realizes what the war had done to the men and says, “We’re an army going out to set other men free… what we’re all fighting for in the end is each other (p.30).” Shaara makes the greatest point learned in American history by this one quote. We cannot succeed unless we are together.

I was so impressed by Shaara’s amazing ability to use character personality and personal situations to tell the story of the horrific battle at Gettysburg accurately. Not only did it give insight into the battle itself, but it allowed the reader to connect with the characters on a more direct level while leaving enough room for interpretation because he did not focus on any single story or side in the battle.

I cannot say that there weren’t times where the book seemed boring and lengthy. The author’s detailed description and constant changing of sides were at a time tedious and confusing, but it would be unfair to take away the greatness of Shaara’s unmatched writing style by looking at those moments. What kept me able and willing to read more constantly was the mere fact that through reading the book I felt as though I understood thoroughly what each person felt, consequently allowing me to learn so much more about what occurred at Gettysburg. For example, when Lee proclaims at the beginning of the book, “I once swore to defend this ground… (P.84)” as he looks onto the North I sympathized with him understanding t for that brief moment the emotional struggle that less must have gone through. This is exactly the kind of little comment that makes the entire book extremely well written.

There is no doubt in my mind that upon educating yourself, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, is the best book to read in order to get a clear and precise understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg. It is not only an accurate informational source, but also a wonderful story covering the many different opinions and emotions of those that were involved in the battle. This allows the readers to connect to something that happened so long ago in such an emotional and captivating way.

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