The Killer Angels

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

I just finished The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and it was a very interesting read. It’s an account of the Battle of Gettysburg , where six or seven thousand men died and more than 30,000 were wounded in three days of fighting, from the point of view of  the leaders on both sides, most of whom knew each other from West Point and fought together in the Mexican War.

With historical fiction, you’re always wondering how much the author is making up and how much their preconceived ideas are shaping their presentation. You wonder, why didn’t this guy (or gal) just present their research and let the reader construct the narrative?

But if I get a sense that the author has the same commitment to truth that I have, as with Alexander Dumas, then I’m ready to go along, and I think there is greater potential for awakening the imagination. And since this book won the Pulitzer Prize, Shaara probably didn’t take any major liberties with the facts.

And if you’re unfamiliar with the role of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the bayonet charge of the 20th Maine on Little Roundtop, that right there is worth the price of admission.

If Shaara’s account is creditable, which I think it is, it settles the question of whether Robert E. Lee was a military genius. The frontal assault he ordered on Cemetery Ridge was idiotic. General Pickett’s division suffered 60 percent casualties. The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War (cavalry vs. machine guns) resulted in a 40 percent  casualty rate, and it is cited as the epitome of military stupidity.

General James Longstreet
General James Longstreet

Then there is the tragic figure of General James Longstreet, who had to carry out the foredoomed attack although he knew it would lose the war.

Lee ordered the assault because he couldn’t retreat in the face of the enemy. It was a point of honor.

“Honor without intelligence is a disaster,” Shaara has Longstreet say to a British observer before the battle. “Honor could lose the war.”

“Listen. Let me tell you something. I appreciate honor and bravery and courage. But the point of the war is not to show how brave you are and how you can die in a manly fashion, face to the enemy. God knows its easy to die. Anybody can die.”

I think the book also shows the difference between men and women and their view of history. When the battle is over, the male historian follows the two armies south to their ensuing battles. The female historian wonders, “What happened to the tens of thousands of dead and dying men left on the field once the armies have moved off?”

For that you need to read Letters of a Civil War Nurse by Cornelia Hancock. Here are three entries about her:

Letters of a Civil War Nurse

Cornelia Hancock, Angel of Mercy

Cornelia Hancock’s Rosy Cheeks