The Killer Angels

By

I am not a fan of Civil War literature; in fact, I have always thought of it as one of those weird sub-genres for obsessive types. They’re almost like Trekkies with their re-enactments and maniacal devotion to detail. It’s just not my thing (although I’m secretly jealous that they get to dress up and shoot cannons).

So for years I’ve heard The Killer Angels referenced, alluded to, and praised but I never paid much attention. Clearly, some great battle happened at Gettysburg and lots of people decided to write lots of books about it but, as I said, it has never been my thing. I vaguely remember being underwhelmed by the movie adaptation (Gettysburg) as well and that reinforced my feeling that this wasn’t a book I was in any hurry to read. At Christmas however, Andrew forced the book on me and throttled me until I promised to read it—then I beat him up (it’s what skinny, left-handed, younger brothers are good for).

I few days later I found out how nice it is to be wrong.

This book, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, shook me. It bent me over, broke me in half, and scattered me all over the ground. It is not what I imagined it would be. It is not three hundred pages of 19th century minutiae and stuffy old men arguing politics. It is not chapter after chapter of troop movements and artillery fire. It is not a novel length treatise on the glory of war or states’ rights or an essay on the evils of slavery. It is so much more, and yet it is all those things as well, and it is beautiful. The entire book is suffused with an overwhelming sadness and sense of loss, a sense that the Civil War wasn’t just fought with cannonades and cavalry but was fought in men’s souls. The generals and officers, through whose eyes we see the battle, are such heartbroken, wounded, and human characters that in the midst of the incredible horror of war, they are rendered glorious simply by being alive.

I can’t tell you how many pages of my copy are tear-stained. By the time I turned the last page, I wanted nothing more than to get in my truck and drive north to find the rocks and fields where these men poured themselves out, to sit alone and dig my hands into the earth and grieve. How accurate the book is historically, I don’t know, but I do know beyond any shadow of doubt that this is a true story. True in the sense that it is a revelation of the human soul. It is a document of shining heights and bloody, nightmarish depths.

On a precious few occasions, I have read books that so emotionally exhaust me that I cannot pick up another for weeks, and sometimes I cannot even suffer myself to read another work by the same author for fear of spoiling something so sublime. This is one of those books. Michael Shaara has written something timeless, something so unique in the world that it cannot be duplicated or improved upon. I hope his words are still read long after his Pulitzer Prize has turned to dust. Whether or not the Civil War is your thing, this book deserves a place on your bookshelf. It needs to be read.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


20 Comments

  1. Greg Sykes

    I had the same reaction to “The Killer Angels.” But, you shouldn’t stop there. Shaara’s son continued his legacy and published two additional novels about the Civil War. The second one, “The Last Full Measure,” deals with the brutal conclusion of the war, and, at least for me, invoked an even more powerful response than the one I had to “The Killer Angels.”

    He has also written a two-book series on our nation’s struggle for independence that is riveting, and he’s currently working on book two of a series on World War II. All of his novels are meticulously researched, emotionally-charged, and quite powerful.

    Give any of them a try and you won’t be disappointed.

  2. Caleb Land

    Definitely I’ll have to get this one…and if you want to have a humorous story about the civil war fanatic culture (they call themselves “hard cores”) check out Tony Horowitz “Confederates in the Attic.” It might be just the thing to lighten your mood.

  3. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Thanks for the recommendation, Pete. Until I rented the Ken Burns PBS Civil War Series, besides school, the closest I’ve come to delving into Civil War minutia is a couple of Abraham Lincoln biographies. These biographies provided detail on the guts and bolts of Lincoln’s journey during the war, but didn’t really capture the heart of the fighting men and their leaders. I thought Burns did a decent job of capturing some of that, especially in the commentary of Shelby Foote.

    In particular, I was moved by a letter written by Rhode Island volunteer Sullivan Ballou as he was about to embark with the Union Army on its first maneuver. He penned this letter to his wife Sarah in the expectation he might never have another opportunity. He did not send it, lest it worry her, placing it instead in his trunk, which would eventually find its way to his home and family:

    My very dear Sarah:

    The indications are very strong that we will move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

    Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – or it may be one of sever conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

    But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows – when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children – is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

    I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death – and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

    I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and the principles I have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

    Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains, to the battlefield.

    The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard for me it is to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar – that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

    Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

    But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night – amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

    Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

    As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell our mothers I call God’s blessing upon them.

    O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

    ____________________________________________________________________________

    If the tenor and tone of the text in The Killer Angels is anything like that contained in this letter, it will be a worthwhile read indeed.

  4. Amy

    WOW. That is an amazing recommendation. How long is it ? I’m so terribly behind in my TBR books but I feel the need to read that one immediately.

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Amy, it’s not a long book, 300 pages or so. I devoured it in a matter of just a few days, and I’m a very slow reader.

    Curt, wow, that’s an amazing letter. I read that at work and got all teared up. I was terrified one of the boys was going to walk into my office and I’d have to explain why I was crying. I’m so manly sometimes it hurts.

  6. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    This book is insanely good, even for the non-history buff(eted?). I recommended it to El Proprietor about a year ago, and he, in turn, put a copy in your hands, Pete. So, in a way, I am responsible for making you cry. You wrote a far better review than I ever could have, so thanks for spreading the word.

  7. Jen Newell

    All I can say, is that I’m going to find this book today. I’m not a freak or anything, and I don’t do reenactments, but I love American history with an emphasis on the Revolutionary War and the Civil War eras. There’s a familial story that draws me to seek out information and visit the sites where poignant events took place. I had the certain pleasure of finding and cleaning the somewhat forgotten graveyard for those killed in the Shelton Laurel massacre in Avery County, NC. My grandmother’s family is from Avery County, and she was a Shelton. We were able to trace and verify 2 family members who lost their lives on that horrific day. In a strange way, it seemed that visiting that place eased a whispering ache…nothing that you are conscious of on a daily basis, but something that creeps up upon the realization of grave human suffering. We also had the privilege of viewing a play that was written about the men who ordered the killings. The play, entitled “Beneath Shelton Laurel”, made it’s debut while we were there. Sean O’Leary is the playwright, he’s quite gifted and very personable. Look him up at http://www.olearyonstage.com. I believe the knowledge of past events and the association with them, shape even the tastes in music a person may have. Think about that for a few minutes and see what you discover, it could be interesting!

  8. Jen Newell

    Thanks so much for the info, especially since I didn’t get to the store yesterday!
    (ha,ha) My little one was in rare form, so I figured I could wait another day or two…The $3 price is excellent as well, in fact, it makes me smile!

  9. Jeremy

    This is indeed a book well worth reading. My experience with this book has an interesting origin. For those among you that have a sour taste about the actions of the US Army, you may find it interesting to know that The Killer Angles is required reading for Officer Candidate School Cadets. What struck me about this was that this book stood out in how effectively it portrayed the suffering of war. That suffering is the price that a Soldier is asked to pay for their service to the principles that are greater than any of us.

  10. Phil

    Next, If you have a few tears left, pick up Flags of Our Fathers. Different from Angels in many ways of course but extremely perspective-changing reading.

  11. Brad Gornto

    I couldn’t agree more about Killer Angels. It is a masterpiece of literature, pure and simple.

  12. Sarah

    You should check out Gods and Generals by Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff. I have read all of Jeff’s books and feel the same emotional response to each of them. The Killer Angles left me in tears, as did Gods and Generals–especially the chapters about Stonewall Jackson and the faith he had in God’s providential hand.

  13. Jennygirl

    I am like you, in that I have heard about this book here and there, found out it was Civil War based, and thought no way. But your review has changed my mind. I will definitely give this a try. Thanks.

  14. Jennifer Kennedy

    I have read The Killer Angels as well as the “sequels” by Shaara’s son Jeff…Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure. All are good reads, but Killer Angels is truly great – very compelling. (When Longstreet concludes that there must be no God after the deaths of his wife and children in Richmond from disease, I found myself yelling, “No….don’t give up on God…He’s there for you…just call to Him…” I was so relieved when I read in a biography that the ill-fated Confederate general turned back to God (or at least to church) with his second wife after the war.)

    I am a sort of CW fanatic, but not the kind who can spit out strategies, stats and casualties for every major and minor engagement. I mainly love reading about the people involved in the conflict…Lee, Grant, Lincoln, Longstreet, Chamberlain, Sherman…and many more fascinating personalities whose paths crossed (and recrossed) in the years leading up to the war and beyond. The first-person perspectives that M. Shaara lends to his depiction of the events on July 1-3, 1863 draw forth the feelings about war, loyalty, conflict and courage that these characters must have experienced, and they communicate them to the reader with strength and brevity. (Unlike my post!!) I have read that M. Shaara was an English teacher who wanted to do for the Battle of Gettysburg what Shakespeare’s Henry V did for the Battle of Agincourt, and in my opinion, Shaara certainly succeeded if not surpassed the Bard. Jeff Shaara’s books are good in that they “round out” the story before and after Gettysburg, but they are not quite as compelling (perhaps because they cover several years before and after the war instead of a single event.) The three books complement each other, but as a band of gold complements a diamond, and Angels is certainly the diamond in the setting.

    I have also read Confederates in the Attic (on the advice of a brother-in-law who knows of my CW interests) and it is a good read that reveals the effects of the war (good and bad) that linger in the South to this day. (And it is both thoughtful and funny, albeit bizarre in some cases – the anorexic re-enactors being the most memorable example of this.) All of the books I’ve mentioned would probably appeal even to non-CW fanatics, but Killer Angels would attract the broadest audience.

  15. Jennifer Kennedy

    (Aside to Rabbit Room manager- I forgot to check the “Notify” box before I clicked on “Post” so this is to correct that blunder…if possible!) 🙂

  16. Jennifer Kennedy

    BTW, I love the song “Ashokan Farewell” and had it as part of my wedding music.

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