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.