The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. I don’t … this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
The position of all the troops on July 3rd, 1863. The last day of battle. You can see the famous fishhook deployment of the Union troops in blue.
I hadn’t really thought about how unusual it is in the history of the world for men to be fighting for the freedom of others. It was one of many times while reading this book that Michael Shaara crystallized some thoughts for me. I love those moments when I read something, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that another tumbler has clicked into place. With every click I have come one step closer to understanding everything. ( a mad thought that doesn’t last long) So the North was preserving the Union and freeing the slaves, but what exactly where the boys in butternut fighting for.
”They kept on insistin’ they wasn’t fightin’ for no slaves, they were fightin’ for their ‘rats.’ It finally dawned on me that what the feller meant was their ‘rights,’ only, the way they talk, it came out ‘rats.’... Then after that I asked this fella what rights he had that we were offendin’, and he said, well, he didn’t know, but he must have some rights he didn’t know nothin’ about. Now, aint that something?”
33% of Southerners owned slaves. Mississippi and South Carolina had much higher percentages at 49% and 46%. So why did all those Southern boys rich and poor fight for the ‘rats to keep slaves? Most Southern Americans, as do most Americans today, had an expectation that they would be rich someday, the eternal optimists. Those poor white sharecropper farmers aspired to be slave owners. It is the same reason why I hear people who live below the poverty line saying they didn’t believe it was ‘rat that the government was taxing the one percenters more than the rest of us. It doesn’t make sense, but then they...might...just win the lottery...someday.
General Robert E. Lee on Traveller. Lee said, “Well, we have left nothing undone. It is all in the hands of God.” Longstreet thought : it isn’t God that is sending those men up that hill. But he said nothing. Lee rode away.
This book is centered around the three days of the battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Robert E. Lee, overall commander of the Confederate army and GOD to many, is trying to make a final thrust North to force the Union to seek terms. His men loved him unconditionally.
”The secret of General Lee is that men love him and follow him with faith in him. That’s one secret. The next secret is that General Lee makes a decision and he moves, with guts, and he’s been up against a lot of sickly generals who don’t know how to make decisions, although some of them have guts but whose men don’t love them.”
He is a different man than he was at the start of the war. Some would say he is a brilliant tactician, but if you walk the grounds of the battle of Gettysburg which I have not had that opportunity physically, you will discover that Lee gave his generals an impossible task. The battle smells of desperation. Shaara makes the case that Lee was already suffering from the heart condition that would eventually kill him.
”But it was not the pain that troubled him; it was a sick gray emptiness he knew too well, that sense of a hole clear through him like the blasted vacancy in the air behind a shell burst, an enormous emptiness.”
General James Longstreet loyal despite his fervent disagreements with Lee on tactics.
Lee was feeling weak and mortal at Gettysburg. He wanted the war ended now. It certainly clouded his judgement. He was a man of faith and honor. In Pennsylvania he put too much faith in God finding his cause righteous and he depending too heavily on the honor of his troops to make it to that grove of trees at the top of the hill. He had a brilliant commander in Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet argued to slide around the enemy and to fight another day. If truth be known he disagreed with this whole thrusting North business. He wanted to build trenches and fight a defensive war. You don’t win glorious honorable battles fighting a defensive war and Lee was addicted to winning battles. There is a whiff of Shakespearean tragedy around Longstreet.
”It was Longstreet’s curse to see the thing clearly. He was a brilliant man who was slow in speech and slow to move and silent-faced as stone. He had not the power to convince.”
He was a strong, commanding figure until he got around Lee.
”Longstreet felt an extraordinary confusion. He had a moment without confidence, windblown and blasted, vacant as an exploded shell. There was a grandness in Lee that shadowed him, silenced him.”
He was an eccentric as well. He was living more in his mind than in his body.
”Longstreet touched his cap, came heavily down from the horse. He was taller than Lee, head like a boulder, full-bearded, long-haired, always a bit sloppy, gloomy, shocked his staff by going into battle once wearing carpet slippers.”
Lee counted on him, but unfortunately he would have traded Longstreet for Stonewall Jackson every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
General John Buford died a few months after Gettysburg from Typhoid Fever. He was a huge loss to the Union side.
Shaara also takes us into the minds of Union men like General John Buford who arrived at Gettysburg and realized the importance of deploying troops on the high ground against a superior Confederate force. He knew he had to hold out until reinforcements arrived. He’d done this before.
”He had thrown away the book of cavalry doctrine and they loved him for it. At Thoroughfare Gap he had held against Longstreet, 3,000 men against 25,000, for six hours, sending off appeal after appeal for help which never came.”
What impressed me about Buford was his ability to think out of the box and adapt to any situation. Unfortunately for the Union he didn’t have long to live or his name may have been further immortalized in Civil War history books.
General John Bell Hood
There was also Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded the 20th Maine. He was a school teacher by trade, a professor at Bowdoin before the war broke out. He and the Maine troops were positioned at the far left of the Federal line. He was on Little Round Top facing the seasoned veteran General John B. Hood. Hood was a Longstreet man and firmly believed in the concept of a defensive war. Despite their objections to Lee’s tactics Hood and Longstreet did everything they could to obtain the objectives.
The 20th Maine’s bayonet charge.
Chamberlain’s men fired until they ran out of bullets and then Chamberlain in an act of desperation yelled:
”Let’s fix bayonets.”
Chamberlain and his remaining men charged down the hill in the face of enemy fire and because of the ferocity of their attack Hood’s men turned and retreated.
There are descriptions of battles so elegantly told that the horror is somewhat mitigated by the eloquence of Shaara’s writing. Bravery is not just for Custeresque men like General Winfield Scott Hancock who inspired such loyalty from his acquaintances, even those dressed in gray, such as his best friend General Lewis Armistead. Shaara describes the true crisis of consciousness these officers were facing. Most of them had fought together in the Mexican-American war, went to West Point together, drank together, and had been united as one before this war where politics forced them to choose sides against the friends they had once fought with.
”They’re never quite the enemy, those boys in blue.”
“I know,” Lee said.
“I used to command those boys,” Longstreet said.
“Difficult thing to fight men you used to command.”
Lee said nothing.”
By the end of this book I felt I knew all these men as intimately as I know friends I’ve known for decades. It is as if Shaara raised them from the dead, one by one. They are talking skeletons with nothing but truth rattling through their teeth. Their souls are showing through their pale gray ribcages enscrolled with their most intimate thoughts. They hid nothing from Shaara not their fears or their desires. The war has never been more real to me. Highly recommended!
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