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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Review of The Killer Angels


It is surprising to me that I have waited so long to read Michael 
Shaara’s epic story of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1974.
I visited the battlefield a long time ago, and "The Killer Angels" is about
that land. It is a story about the actual place because topography
is the real determining factor in the battle. You can see how Sharra 
imagined the battle as he walked over it on vacation with his family,
which he says is the spark for his decision to write the book.

The story takes place over the three-day battle and is told through the eyes of a few of its participants. There is a Confederate spy named Harrison who works for General Longstreet, General Lee’s second in command. Those three and the Confederate General Armistead speak for the Confederacy in the story.

Harrison hangs around taverns and Union camps and picks up gossip about Union movements and lets Longstreet know that the North's Army of the Potomac is closing in on the Army of Northern Virginia which is invading Pennsylvania. Harrison is an actor by trade and is a fictional creation of Shaara, because he appears nowhere else in the historical record. But in fact, there was a spy who told Longstreet about the Union movements.

General Buford, a horse soldier, and Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor of “rhetoric” at Bowdoin College in Maine speak for the north. General Buford's cavalry division is the first to arrive in Gettysburg which is the nexus point of about seven or eight main roads coming from all directions. It is surrounded by ridges, whose names have come to be legendary in American history - Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, and some rocky outcroppings, Little and Big Roundtop. Buford can see the coming battle and knows the importance of land and of the relative defensibility of high ground. He knows he will soon be vastly outnumbered and that he has to hold the high ground for the Union Army behind him.

It is Chamberlain who starts off the tale by talking a company of deserters out of sitting out the coming battle. He is a silver-tongued orator, conversant in Latin, Greek and is knowledgeable of the great speeches Cicero to Shakespeare, but his talk to the deserters is very basic and down to earth and he convinces all but 4 of the 100 plus men to join his regiment. Chamberlain would then be assigned to defend the far left end of the Union line on Little Round Top. He will hold it on the second day, barely, and the 100 deserters who joined him probably made the difference. If they would have broken and the Rebs had taken the hill, they would have decimated the Union line with artillery and the battle and the War would have been lost.

These are big armies - Lee has 75,000 troops and General Meade, the newly appointed Union commander has 90,000 troops. While the enormity of the battle and casualties (one in three from both armies were killed or wounded) is hard to grasp, Shaara’s book focuses on the psychological pain and suffering of his main characters, and the real greatness of the book is the peek into the minds of the participants. It is more than just believable, it is a great insight into the mind of everyone who has had to contemplate horrible alternatives. The mental strain of General’s Lee and Longstreet is depicted with unusual detail. Shaara mixes the pain from their personal lives, (Longstreet had recently lost all three of his children to an epidemic in Richmond and is fighting to keep the blackness of that event back, away from his thoughts) with immediacy and consequences of their every minor decision. He contrasts General Lee with Longstreet, who is a taciturn, pessimistic grinder, and is years ahead of his times as a military thinker. Longstreet understands that the nature of warfare had changed since Napoleon. Lee, by contrast, believes in honor and character, and that will power and gallantry will eventually be the determining factor in the war.  But Longstreet does the math and can calculate his casualties before the fight based on the estimated firepower opposing him. Longstreet wants Lee to dig in, and let the fight come to him. Lee rejects this and he is the boss. Longstreet almost quits, but his black haunted pain of his lost children somehow makes staying on acceptable.

One of the other interesting points of the novel is that Shaara puts Lee’s heart condition into the mix. Shaara had had a heart attack a few years before he wrote “The Killer Angels” and would eventually die from heart failure. Shaara knows exactly how a failing heart weakens a person’s endurance and psychological outlook, and he makes that one of the salience aspects of Lee’s distracted thought process during the battle.

Many of the other famous participants in the battle show up and reveal themselves. General Pickett is a boy who never grew up. He is dancing and singing before leading 15,000 men up that mile long hill into the teeth of the Union cannon-canister blasts. General Reynolds, who refused Lincoln’s offer to command the entire Army of the Potomac just days before, (allowing it to go to Meade) is a powerful presence who on the first day of the battle and is in the process of helping Buford place his units on the field when he is killed by a sniper. Armistead, who briefly captures some of the Union guns at the end of "Pickett's Charge" at the “high watermark of the Confederacy” on Seminary Ridge, sees his wild attack as a last chance to see his best friend, General Hancock, who commands the Union Corp defending that ridge. But he dies before Hancock gets there.

There are discussions around campfires about what it all means. To Chamberlain the war is clearly about slavery and his explanation why is profoundly convincing. Longstreet knows the war is about slavery too, and it haunts him nearly as much as his dead children. Lee also knows, but he says “we must not think on that.” And then you hear them all think about the nature of war itself. And in spite of the horror, all of Shaara's characters, north, and south, acknowledge in one way or another that war is magnificent, that it projects great power on men's outlook and character, binding men together and its exhilaration is second to no other experience they will ever have.

For me, who avoided Vietnam in college and strongly protested its continuance, my battlefield was a campus on lockdown, under curfew, running from the National Guard in the days just after Kent State. Of course, it was nothing at all like war. But it makes me think that that exhilaration, that incomparable feeling of comradeship that soldiers feel for the man next to them is really the enemy, that feeling is really what keeps us marching off to fight. Leftist analysis says it is the capitalist arms manufacturers and their willing tools in Congress and the press who drive us to war. But I think it is that sense of phony romanticism that soldiers remember from the heat of battle, that psychological state of mind that is revealed at Gettysburg, that that is the “Devil’s Den” that really makes war a continuous inevitably.

He's the universal soldier and he really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from here and there and you and me
And brothers can't you see
This is not the way we put an end to war.

Buffy St Marie

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