One year after its publication, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Shaara’s character-driven story of the battle of Gettysburg told from the perspective of some of the most important officers who fought there, is a powerful retelling of one of the most important single events in American history.
In this thoughtful book, the author takes his readers into the minds and experiences of men such as James Longstreet, Robert E, Lee, John Buford, Lewis Armistead, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Each of these men fulfilled a critical duty at Gettysburg and their characters are well served in this compelling fictional retelling of those three terrible days in the summer of 1863.
Shaara uses each character to delve into vital thought processes that shaped the battle.
For John Buford, his arrival in Gettysburg the day before the battle begins allows him to survey the ground, reflect on past failures his army has experienced, and make a bold determination to fight a delaying action in the hope that Union infantry will arrive on the scene before his cavalrymen are driven off.
James Longstreet, Lee’s most reliable warhorse, is determined to guide his commanding officer into fighting a defensive campaign only to see those hopes dashed to pieces when he is commanded to lead futile head-on attacks of the Federal lines on days two and three of the battle.
For Lee, who is suffering from health issues that are precursors to his death by heart attack seven years later, the Pennsylvania Campaign is a last gasp effort to win a battle and end the war which is costing his nation so much blood.
In Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Shaara presents a man who by profession is a scholar but at Gettysburg is a war hawk whose actions on Little Round Top save the Army of Potomac from utter destruction.
These characters, and several others, bring the monumental struggle at Gettysburg to light in such a way that readers of this book will understand that such historical events were not just dusty facts but rather the cumulative actions of real people.
Men such as Longstreet, Pickett, Lee, and Chamberlain were not just vague images from the past devoid of human feelings, insecurities, and dreams. They were flesh and blood people whose stories are so very well told in Shaara’s award winning novel.
Shaara himself was a veteran of the 82nd Airborne where he served as a sergeant just prior to the Korean War. Born into an Italian-American family, in his youth Shaara attended Rutgers University, worked as a policeman, fought as an amateur boxer, and wrote dozens of primarily science fiction short stories in the 1950s and 60s.
Shaara also worked at Florida State University as a professor of literature and had a heart attack at age 36 due to stress. The stories in The Killer Angels come from these experiences as well as Shaara’s longstanding interest in military history.
This book was identified by General Norman Schwarzkopf as “the best and most realistic historical novel about war I have ever read.”
The Killer Angels has also been required reading at institutions such as the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and West Point.
In 1993, Shaara’s book was brought to the silver screen in the movie Gettysburg.
Much of the dialog in this Turner Production was either directly drawn from or inspired by Shaara’s words. Anyone who was involved in Civil War reenacting or living history at the time Gettysburg was released will remember lines from the film being bandied about camp in ways that pay homage to the power of Shaara’s words.
The Killer Angels remains a forceful depiction of some of the sacrifices made by the people who fought the Civil War and is a book that will remind its readers of just how steep the cost of partisan division in American society can be.