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Analysis Of The Killer Angels Essay, Research Paper

In a letter to the reader, Michael Shaara states that his purpose is similar to Stephen Crane’s in The Red Badge of Courage. He wishes to display history not as cold facts, but rather in such a way that the reader can live the history. This is to be accomplished through extensive detail of the emotions of the men, the atmosphere of the battle, and strategies of the commanding officers. Accepting this as Shaara’s intent, it can be justifiably stated that he succeeds in his objective. The Killer Angels does not merely relate what assaults and defenses where made by which colonels and generals. Instead, the book delves into the emotions of the major figures of the battle and what they endured physically and mentally as they planned for assault, defense, or mere preservation of life. In this way, The Killer Angels aids the reader in understanding the causes for the Battle of Gettysburg and the incidents that took place from June 29 to July 4 of 1863.

Most history textbooks relate that, during the Battle of Gettysburg, General George Gordon Meade led the Army of the Potomac against General Robert Edward Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. If the text goes further in depth, it mentions Major General George Pickett who, under Lee, leads a doomed charge up Cemetery Hill. The history text will not further discuss the other officers who were instrumental in the Battle of Gettysburg, and this is precisely what Shaara concentrates on. The structure of the book itself is set up in sections, each following the point of view of one particular officer. Shaara assigns the sections as necessary, sometimes alternating between two opposing officers to give a clear understanding of how the Union and Confederate forces planned their tactics in response to one another. This is most evident in the third day, when Shaara alternates between Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the Union and James Longstreet of the Confederacy with one section focusing on Lewis Armistead. Chamberlain and Longstreet are the two major opposing officers, and we see the events from both perspectives. During Pickett’s charge from Longstreet’s view, it is conceivable to imagine that the Union forces are easily routing the charging Confederates. However, when the book looks at Chamberlain’s side, we see that the Union forces are being hit fairly hard by Confederate artillery. By showing us the different characters’ viewpoints, Shaara also shows us their personal feelings. For example, we learn of the deep friendship between Armistead and the Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. This changes the reader’s view of Armistead’s role in Pickett’s charge. There is now a poignant touch of pathos in seeing Armistead falter with emotion and die at the top of the hill with apologies to Hancock. When the readers can look at the characters of history as human, it becomes easier to grasp not only what they have done, but also why they have done so. This is invaluable to understanding history.

Shaara conveys the overall emotion of the armies as well as the personal feelings of the major characters. In one scene, Pickett’s men are discussing what the war is being fought over with Fremantle. Later, Tom Chamberlain relates an incident with confederate prisoners to his brother in which the prisoners don’t seem to fully understand what they’re fighting for. Both Longstreet and Chamberlain think of the Cause, that which they are fighting for. After Pickett’s charge, Chamberlain is alarmed to realize that during the battle, he forgot about the cause. This leads him to ponder why they are all fighting. Some say they are fighting over slavery, while many confederates claim they are fighting for their rights. Pickett believes that the North pushed their way into the South’s personal business and the South has the right to leave the union at any time it chooses. Others echo his sentiment. This is an extremely important point that all textbooks attempt to communicate. The war was not fought over just slavery. For the reader, seeing different people debate the issue makes the ideas more plausible, especially when we are seeing them in context.

In addition to bringing history’s players to life, Shaara puts the atmosphere of the battle into comprehensible form. Once again, it is Shaara’s description that makes the battles realistic enough that we as readers feel we are living through them. During Pickett’s charge, the description of the attack lends much to the reader’s understanding. Shaara describes the artillery wreaking havoc on both sides and the soldiers falling to bullets or getting literally blown to pieces by the canisters. These images help us to envision the battle and feel as though we are witnessing it rather than reading about it. The use of detail to better convey what is happening is also shown during Chamberlain’s defense of the Union’s left flank on Little Round Top. Chamberlain is told that under no circumstances may he withdraw for this would leave the flank open and allow the confederates to come around and attack the rear. As the confederate officer, Hood, begins his attack, Chamberlain understands that he must hold firm no matter the cost. The division facing them, led by McLaws, succeeds in climbing the hill with much difficulty. Here Shaara shows us the frenzied atmosphere as Chamberlain must pull out his pistol and shoot incoming soldiers as they attempt to break through holes in the Union lines. The situation is so desperate that he motions for his brother, Tom, to plug a hole in the line unarmed. Later throughout the book, Chamberlain recalls the moment incredulously and arrives at the conclusion that he had to do what needed to be done. As the confederates mount a charge, Chamberlain is distraught with the lack of ammunition. He orders his troops to fix bayonets and charge down the hill, using the higher ground to their advantage. Chamberlain himself follows his men and is nearly killed. This technique of Shaara’s that allows us to envision the battle is beneficial to understanding history. It leaves an impression of the battle in our mind and forces us to think about the thoughts of the soldiers and commanders. This is something an ordinary textbook cannot accomplish.

A final note on Shaara’s work is that he effectively displays the strategies taken by both sides. A textbook can print the same maps used in this book and outline the strategies, but, once again, reading about how the characters arrive at their decisions greatly helps us understand the why part of the strategies. For example, many historians have criticized Lee for ordering Pickett’s charge. However, it is often difficult to see why he was wrong. Shaara shows the plans of Longstreet and Armistead’s views on what should be done. He shows Lee’s stubborn resolve to go on with the charge. Whereas a history book can state that he blundered, The Killer Angels can show us enough details surrounding the incident so that we may formulate our own theories. Perhaps Lee wasn’t just being stubborn. Perhaps he did see the alternatives, but he overestimated his troops’ skill rather than underestimating the Union and the ground his troops would have to cross. After reading about the charge, the readers know all the contributing factors to the charge and we can freely think about why the charge failed and what realistic alternative could have found victory. We can do this because we have a working knowledge of Lee’s subordinate commanding officers and his opposition as well as the terrain. In a way, we can be commanding officers as we plan what would have worked and what wouldn’t have. From this, we gain a sound knowledge of the history of the Battle of Gettysburg.

As shown Michael Shaara’s use of detail provides the reader with enough information to look beyond the facts. The reader gains an intimate knowledge of the commanding officers and the emotions that caused the soldiers to fight. The reader also understands what the soldiers faced in the heat of battle: the excitement, the danger, the hopelessness of defeat, and the joy of victory. The Killer Angels takes the raw facts of the battle and blends them with details and emotions to recreate the Battle of Gettysburg.


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