- Analysis of the Author The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War is a historical fiction piece of writing by Michael Shaara, an American Born Italian immigrant, who has received Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this book in 1975. The book is based upon the battle of Gettysburg of American Civil War in 1863. It describes the events that took place during the war from the perspectives of troop leaders of both Confederacy and Union; how they have made their planning, took decisions and then implemented them during the war. Michael was able to understand all those military statistics and motivational aspects as he himself had served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne division, and thus produced the book with the eye of a military person. Also, he was a teacher of literature at Florida State University and a fiction writer since 1950. Hence his military background, along with a twenty years experience of writing fiction stories helped him to produce a good piece of historical fiction that is associated with civil war of America.
According to Michael, his sole purpose of writing the book was to put light on that particular part of American history which contains the greatest number of casualties than any other war. Also he wanted to know what actually happened at the battle field, how the moral of the men was and what the atmosphere at there was. To make the story more effective, Michael used the real names and characters of the leaders of both Union and Confederacy and showed their military strategies which they used during the entire war. He used the direct primary historical facts gathered from the letters and journals about the battle of Gettysburg, so that it looks like an actual war that is being fought between the supporters of Union and Confederacy, which resulted in the eventual victory of Union side.
The catalyst of Michael’s attention towards writing historical fiction was old letters from his great grandfather, who participated in the civil war of Gettysburg. Then in 1966, Michael went on a family vacation to Gettysburg to explore more about the site and particularly what happened there, a piece of American soil that contained mixed elements of emotions, love and war within it. He has provided fair and accurate information without changing any of the event or fact consciously, so that the information and knowledge which he had gathered from the history would be transferred as it is to the reader. For this purpose to fully satisfy, he did not include his own personal opinions regarding the war or the two sides, evenly presenting the aspects of each of them and their generals. He hired the services of Confederacy’s spy Harrison as a narrator of the story; to describe the entire happenings and planning by both Confederacy and Union without any element of bias or one-sidedness. Hence he get succeeded in producing a historical book that is based on actual facts gained from primary sources, became able to understand them because of his own military background, and wrote it in an appraising literary style for which he got mastered for twenty years.
- Analysis of the Content
- Focus of the book
The book focuses on the battle of Gettysburg and upon those entire emotional experiences through which the troops and their leaders were going. How the plans were made and changed during the battle, how the troops men explain their problems to each other, what was the climate right at the place, and the events were unfolding are described on a momentous basis. What else can be expected from a battle-field? Spying on the enemy so that the counter strategies can be prepared, and how the individuals react on these military strategies band decisions are some of those main points which are discussed in the book deeply. As according to Michael, he wrote the book to get indulged into battle-field of Gettysburg as if he himself was present there, he described each and every movement in detail, on a day-by-day basis. This enables the reader to catch the exact details which Michael is trying to depict using scenes that are related with communication and military transportation. But the most important theme of the book is the outcomes of battles; tragedies, loss of lives, broken emotions, strengthen motivations and all those characteristics that are associated with the reality of war. Indeed, what Michael has presented is not only a piece of information gathered from the historical sources, it is an understanding of the human emotions associated with a civil war.
- Synopsis The book is comprised of twenty three chapters in all, including a foreword and an after-word. The reason for this large number of chapters is that Michael presented the perspective of four of his main characters in the book, in each different chapter, starting from June 29 1863 which is the day just before the battle; July 1, when confederates attacked on Union and July 2 and 3 with full and final day of battle respectively. The foreword set the scene for the battle and is described in present tense. It is narrative and descriptive in contrast to the entire book. The climate is discussed, along with the size of both the militaries, their leaders and their motivations and morals are described, so as to ease the reader as he/she approaches to the chapters of the book.
Although the chapters are named with the date and name of the corresponding commander whose perspective is to be discussed in the chapter; Michael also provides insight into the thinking of other characters of each scene. This makes even more sense when the reader becomes aware of stark contrasts between both armies. Those personalities who are selected to describe each chapter have been fully identified with their social and cultural backgrounds, beliefs and motivations and their external effects over their men. The impacts of military spying are also discussed in an efficient way, and the scenarios are set up with the eyes of a confederate spy over the union army. In the end of the book, the afterword describes what happened to important characters of the war, and to those who fought for their dignity and unification of their country, the eventual win of the Union army.
- Key Characters
Michael described the entire scheming, planning and implementation through the perspective of four main characters. Although both of the armies were against each other, Michael did not show any of the character as protagonist or antagonist, rather he simply put what he gathered from the sources in an efficient way, with no element of bias. He discussed four main characters, namely General Lee and General Longstreet from the Confederates and General Buford and Colonel Chamberlain from the Union Army. The first chapter is solely dedicated to the perspective of Confederate’s Spy Harrison. Also, two of the chapters are written according to the views of General Armistead and Colonel Fremantle. The character sketches are as accurate as they actually were during the war time. The disagreements between Lee and Longstreet about the military tactics have also been presented in each person’s perspective.
- Key Passages
The entire book is composed of either thoughts or dialogues between the persons involved in the war; which depict their intentions, motivations and their way of pursuing their men to fight for their freedom and to make their dreams come true. Further, the book also shows the aspect of loyalty and affiliation with the homeland. Many educated people from Union joined confederacy just because they prefer honor and duty towards homeland over federal issues. It can be rightly judged from General Lee’ words, “There was a higher duty to Virginia. That was the first duty. There was never any doubt about that” (p. 191). Lee was one of those men who hold a divine character with respect to religion, ethics, morals and most importantly education. Hence his intentions towards his homeland can rightly be judged from this sentence, by which he charged his men to fight for their homeland, old Virginia.
Another important aspect that has been presented in the book is war; war that brings unimaginable destruction, loss of life and bloodshed. Many times in the book people are shown talking to each other about war and its causes. For example, Union portrayed their men that they are fighting to rescue their people from slavery, and confederacy have their own motto. However, both sides knew that there could be unlimited number of deaths during the war. General Lee talked about this aspect with General Longstreet in these words, “We are afraid to die. We are prepared for our own deaths and for the deaths of comrades. We learn that at the Point. But I have seen this happen: We are not prepared for as many deaths as we have to face, inevitably as the war goes on We are never prepared for so many to die."
The battle of Gettysburg was directly related to the impacts of slavery over the society, and the issue of equality between Blacks and Whites. That is why the book has presented many dialogues between those well-educated people who were in the favor of dignity and honor of humans. In a dialogue between Colonel Chamberlain and Private Buster Kilrain, it is evident that equality of men was one of the biggest issues of that time and of the war. Kilrain says to Chamberlain, “No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree. There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice” (p. 188). Kilrain believed that each person should be judged upon his own good or bad deeds, not upon the blood or skin which he inherits. That was also the sole reason of Union’s attack over confederates on the southern side of the country.
- Analysis of the Quality of the Book
Although the book concerns with the issues such as war for equality, state’s rights over federal rights and leaders who have to fought with men rather than modern war weapons, it is readily applicable on the modern America and the new world too. Particularly the book contains many lessons and guidelines for Company commanders and army men of today’s world, since the need of implementing intelligent strategies on the right occasion of time can never be denied. The figures of General Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain can be idealized as the commanders, subordinate and most importantly the devoted ones, for their country and people. It does not matter that the book has itself been published for about forty years and describes what happens in 17th century; what matters is the themes upon which the book is based, and human characteristics and motivations which do not alter with the passage of time. Most importantly the need of good command and leadership is always required in today’s world too. Commanders do not have to save themselves only; they have to save their army and their people too, and these perspectives do not change with respect to time. Also, the book covers a wide range of human emotional themes, the throughout journey of life of a company commander, what he think of his country and about his motivations towards war, and most importantly the decisions which he take in order to survive and save his army. As the writing style is dialogic, descriptive and presents a succession of thoughts, it is clear and vivid in every manner and keeps the reader engaging till the end. Also, the book is reliable and accurate to a large extent as it contains factual representation of what happened during the entire battle. The information and knowledge provided by the author is correct and presents reality. The book is no doubt “the Classic Novel of Civil War”.
- Lessons Learnt
Civil wars have immense importance and significance in the history of countries; those who fought and die are people belonging to same land, the land that gets destructed is of the same country and thus the loss is combined. However, during these wars, one of the either sides is always at right or fight for justice, while the other on only fights for rule. The same happened at the American Civil War of1863, which eventually ended with the victory of Union on the battlefield of Gettysburg. Such wars bring a bulk of lessons that can be learnt for the future purposes and to save the people from other wars on the same issue and of the same kind. The book “The Killer Angels: the Classic Novel of Civil War” has uniquely presented the days of battle from both parties perspectives, so that one can easily understand what were the motivations and intentions of both sides, along with the lessons learnt from the war. The book contains enormous information about the battle, and provides those facts that actually occurred during the time of war, between both the parties and their respective commanding generals. Hence the leadership aspect is most prominent to discuss within the book, as it is an ever going phenomenon for the battle men and also for leadership and management belonging to any field of life.
As the book reveals, it continuously tells us about the need of planning and implementing appropriate military strategies in a battle field. Since the start of the battle on July 1 till the last day on July 3rd, the day by day changing strategies from General Lee to win the battle and to save his soldier’s lives is crucial to read and learn, since the tactics are important with respect to every military campaign. Although Lee was a good General and a better human being, with religious mind, devotion and dedication towards his country and people and the ideas of equality; yet his final decision of invading into the centre of Union army brought disaster for him. There can be many reasons for this order of him; maybe he thought that his motivated army can easily overcome the long term war that has exhausted the Union men, or he was aware of his defeat and wanted to take a last chance. Whatever the reason would be, his decision proved to be the turning point of the war, and the Union fought back so immensely that eventually marked their win over confederates. One of the main lessons that can be learnt from the book is about the relation of command and second-command. Although Longstreet has been in contrast with General Lee many a times and he knew what last order of his commander could bring for them, yet he obeyed it and commanded his soldiers to attack Union. Any military personnel of today who reads this book would strongly agree with that is written and described in it, in terms of military leadership and the use of different tactics that could bring victory.
As the book entirely comprise of historical events that took place on the battlefield of Gettysburg, any lesson learnt from the book is a direct lesson learnt from the causes and impacts of the war itself. One of the great lessons learnt from this incident is that might should not always be used in order to overcome the inferiors, not even by the ruling government just to safeguard and strengthen its position. Although named as a civil war, it was actually a war imposed from Abraham Lincoln’s government over the people of south, in the name of setting black men free from slavery. However, it was not the actual excuse since the intention was to implement unfair taxes and tariffs over the south, which clearly violates State’s Rights. As the book described, federal government must try to establish harmony and equality between all of its states, and should not provoke them against each other by implementing unequal laws. By doing so, the government can bring itself into trouble, as happened in Gettysburg, where Union clearly out-classed the Confederates, although the command of Confederates was much more dedicated and trained, yet things do not turn in their favor in the end. People of south only fought to keep their freedom, and they must not b regarded as rebellious to the state. Such historical lessons have great impact over the present, provided these are well-understood.
- Final Thoughts about the book
Overall, the book is an interesting piece of historical writing, based on the fatcs obtained from primary sources that are related with the American Civil War of 1861-1865, and particularly with the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. The reader gets indulge in the book as it keeps on presenting a day-bay-day, scene by scene moments of the war. Particualrly the roles of commanding generals of the both sides are presented in an effective way; not only the tactics they adapted during the three days of war, but also their feelings and emotions towards the war, the country and the people. As the book is historical novelization, it rarely presents author’s own ideas, however it coherently presents author’s flow in writing such fiction pieces and at the same time his ability to write historical events in an interesting and re-defined way. No doubt “The Killer Angels” is Michael Shaara’s best novels and is rightly awarded with Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a must read for everyone who enjoys history, particularly military personnel and authorities of today, so as to get lessons from the past and would not repeat the mistakes again and again.
Shaara, Michael. 1974. The killer angels; a novel. New York: McKay.