The Killer Angels

The current controversy over the Confederate battle flag and Confederate memorials was catalyzed by the tragic mass murder of worshippers in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina last June. Referring to the entanglement of Confederate tributes with current headlines, Yale historian David Blight stated “Memory is always about the present” (Economist, 7/25/15, page 24). The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel about the battle of Gettysburg was published in 1974 as the Vietnam War was winding down. This book is the subject of the 5/31/11 edition of Slate’s Audio Book Club. Two journalists, Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, and David Plotz, host of the Slate Political Gabfest, discuss the book with David Blight. They note that the book won a Pulitzer Prize but didn’t become a best seller until two decades later. They speculate that the public was so disillusioned by the Vietnam War that there was little appetite at the time for another book about war. The Ken Burns Civil War documentary of 1990 and Gettysburg, the film version the book released in 1993, spurred the later jump in sales.

The Killer Angels is one of my favorite novels and sparked a long running fascination with the Civil War. By focusing on compelling characters, especially Confederate generals Lee and Longstreet, and Union colonel Joshua Chamberlin, Shaara tells a fascinating, historically accurate story, but necessarily glosses over other parts of the battle, including heroic contributions by Union officers besides Chamberlain. The novel is told from the point of view of several key actors in the battle. One of the interesting issues brought out is the disagreement Generals Lee and Longstreet have over defensive versus offensive strategy. This difference in strategic thinking plays out tragically in Picket’s Charge, ordered by Lee on the third and final day of the battle. Shaara portrays Longstreet trying to talk Lee out of this charge in favor of a more defensive strategy. Professor Blight points out that Shaara based this argument in part on statements made by Longstreet after the war, when he openly criticized Lee for the decision to launch the fateful charge on the third day of the battle.

Thanks in part to historian Douglas Southall Freeman, Robert E. Lee became immortalized as a great general and icon of the Civil War, second only to Lincoln in the popular imagination. Some historians referred to him as the “Marble Man” due in no small part to his portrayal in a Pulitzer-prize winning multi-volume biography of Lee written by Freeman in the mid-thirties. That biography was followed by Lee’s Lieutenants, another multi-volume work written by Freeman in the early forties. Professor Blight points out that Shaara uses Longstreet’s character as a vehicle to knock Lee off of the pedestal he rested upon and portray him as a soldier who made tragic mistakes as well as winning dramatic victories. Author Thomas L. Connelly offered a more nuanced view of General Lee around this time in his book entitled The Marble Man, published in 1977, in which he describes the construction of the Lee myth.

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