Drive half an hour north of Washington, D. C. and you will find verdant rolling hills and flat, rich farmland, broken here and there by granite outcroppings and dark poplar forests. A place of great beauty and serenity. Close your eyes a moment, efface the houses and stores and gas stations from your mind’s eye, and it looks pretty much as it did in July, 1863. That summer its green fields were stained red with the blood of 50,000 Americans dead and wounded. 50,000. In just three days of slaughter in Eastern Pennsylvania, fully one-third as many casualties as during the three years of the Korean War.
The Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-4, 1863, was America’s Armageddon, the single, blazing moment when the Civil War’s central issue–would we be one nation, or two? –was decided. What happened is well known: after a smashing win in May, 1863 at Chancellorsville, Virginia, Robert E. Lee became set on dealing a death blow to the Union army, now in disarray, and staked everything on winning a huge victory on northern soil. Almost by accident, the two great armies made contact at Gettysburg, a site neither side chose nor wanted, and the greatest battle ever fought in the Western hemisphere began.
The Union army was the first to reach Gettysburg, seized the high ground and, driven into the ropes by Lee’s body punches, never let it go. While what happened at Gettysburg is well-documented, why it was done as it was done remains elusive. These are the questions Michael Shaara tries to answer in his 1975 Pulitzer prize-winner The Killer Angels, a sort of American Iliad that has in abundance what many historical novels lack: believable personalities, accurate minutia, genuine pathos.
It is a dramatic work reminiscent of the best historical fiction, including William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and Gore Vidal’s Burr and Lincoln. While Stephen Crane revealed both the boredom and the horror of the Civil War through the common soldier’s eyes, Shaara follows selected officers on both sides through the four-day slaughter, taking a novelist’s imaginative liberties to go inside their heads and hearts and track the decisions that evolved there.
The best way to write about a battle is to tell it as the men who fought it saw it–and that’s just what Shaara does in this stirring, brilliantly interpretive novel in which he judges all, admiringly or with compassion for their mistakes. Through Shaara’s simple but epic prose, noble figures wearing both blue and gray move through courses that seem almost predetermined. Such as the fateful clash of wills between Confederate commander Robert E.
Lee, whom Shaara portrays as pious, aging, and gutsy, but also stubborn and dangerously confident, and his subordinate, General James Longstreet who, appalled by the reckless bravado of his comrades, favored more cautious tactics. Longstreet said again, “Sir, I’ve discovered a way south that seems promising. If we would move–” General, the enemy is THERE–” Lee lifted his arm, pointed up the ridge in a massive gesture–“and there’s where I’m going to strike him.
He turned and looked back at Longstreet for one long moment, straight into his eyes, fixing Longstreet with the black stare, the eyes of the General, and then turned away. Longstreet drew his head in, like a turtle. In scenes like this, Shaara reveals a Lee, driven by an almost chivalric pride, who ultimately ignored Longstreet’s plea to maneuver to attack the Union lines from the rear and chose instead the doomed human wave, banzai charge in butternut and gray led by fanatical General George Pickett (“… ong haired and perfumed.
Last in his class at West Point. “), against the center of the Union positions on the battle’s climactic third day. Pickett’s Charge nearly succeeded–the rebel “Stars and Bars” flag flew briefly over the Union center. But, after terrible casualties on both sides, it failed, and what remained of Lee’s once powerful Army of Northern Virginia retreated, never again to touch northern soil. In those few hours on the 3rd of July, the Confederate tide had ebbed. The Civil War was, de facto, over although it would grind on for nearly two more years.
In recounting what happened at Gettysburg, Shaara provides no broad muck and blood panoramic view of the struggle, but creates instead an apocalyptic immediacy. When the 20th Maine counterattacks as Pickett’s men breach the Union lines at Cemetery Ridge, Shaara registers the horror and bravery of the moment as well as the balance between man and technology that made Gettysburg one of the last human battles. Gaps in the front, the newly dead, piles of red meat.
One man down holding his stomach, blood pouring out of him like a butchered pig, young face, only a boy… u could see the damn black balls bouncing along like bowling balls, and here and there, in the air, tumbling over and over like a blood-spouting cartwheel, a piece of a man… he saw the whole Regiment rising and pouring over the wall, his men were roaring animal screams… hats coming off, hair flying, mouths making sounds… everything so quick he could not believe it. And now the canister, OH GOD, millions of metal balls, whirring through the air like startled quail, murderous quail, and now for the first time there was agonized screaming, very bad sounds to hear.
On the victors’ side, Shaara all but ignores the Union commander, General George Gordon Meade, and homes in instead on Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a young professor of rhetoric from Maine who finds his destiny not in a Bowdoin University classroom, but atop a hill called Little Round Top, as he rallies his outnumbered men at on the fateful third day with an eloquence and power that Mark Antony might envy (“I never saw dirt I’d die for, but I’m not asking you to fight for dirt… We’re an army out to set other men free! “)
As if to confirm Shaara’s judgment, Chamberlain, who won the Medal of Honor, was also proclaimed the unsung hero of Gettysburg 15 years later by filmmaker Ken Burns in his acclaimed 1990 PBS documentary “The Civil War”. Regardless of whose viewpoint he takes, Shaara is faithful to the zeitgeist of 1863. In evoking Lee, Longstreet, their lieutenants–or Chamberlain or tough Union cavalry commander General John Buford, a hard-edged practical counterpoint to Chamberlain’s idealism–Shaara, using the words of the men themselves drawn from their letters and documents, discloses only as much as they knew at the time.
And, as he tells it, none of them really knew very much. But, in particular, it was what Lee did not know, Shaara argues, that decided the outcome at Gettysburg–and, with it, the future course of the Republic. Things unknown and unsuspected are what this novel stresses. For example, Lee did not know until too late that the bumbling Joseph Hooker, whom he demolished at Chancellorsville, had been replaced by Meade, an unspectacular but dogged commander. He did not know, again until too late, that Meade’s army had crossed into Pennsylvania. Nor did he know the immense size of Meade’s forces.
Had Lee, the war’s one true military genius, known these things, Shaara implies, he likely would have adopted different tactics that could well have produced a different result. There may have never been a Gettysburg Address four months later. Shaara clearly shows us why the brilliant Lee was forced to flail blindly. His “eyes” (and his “right arm”), Stonewall Jackson, had been killed at Chancellorsville and his replacement, the vain and dashing J. E. B. Stuart, went off like an independent Roman candle, launching raids deep in Pennsylvania, and leaving Lee uninformed and undermanned. And the Confederate “Gray Fox” still barely lost.
Thus, for the Confederacy, “it (Gettysburg) was, like Waterloo, a near thing. ” There are flaws, albeit minor, in The Killer Angels: Shaara’s rather portentous “You Are There” beginning, the lack of a cinemascope overview of the action (in spite of nearly a dozen maps), his giving more air time to Longstreet than to Lee, and his virtual dismissal of Meade. But these shortcomings detract little from this novel’s impact. Capturing both the horror and the heartbreak that was Gettysburg, Shaara turns one of the most familiar, studied events in American history into a powerful story–a strong, spirited, sad, bloody book equal to its subject.