The Killer Angels

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of whom you may never have heard unless you are a student of the Civil War, was one of the pivotal figures at the Battle of Gettysburg, playing a key role in twice repulsing determined Southern assaults. He is also the most fully realized character in Michael Shaara's Killer Angels, whether he is agonizing over putting his brother in harm's way, coaxing a regiment of deserters back into action, or tending to his men while an old friend dies awaiting the surgeon's knife. But although Chamberlain plays a key role, the action is ultimately dominated by General James Longstreet and the legendary Robert E. Lee.

For this story is as much the story of the failure of the South as of the triumph of the North. And, like Tolstoy's Borodino or Hugo's Waterloo, the real protagonist is the battle itself, from the initial skirmishes at Cemetery Hill to the desperate defense of Little Round Top to the final awful and appalling calamity of Pickett's Charge. Shaara's story is compelling not so much because of the development of his characters, which is deft but not remarkable, but because he gives a thorough and lucid account of what happened during the battle and why, including the ultimate folly of hurling the infantry across an open field against fortified artillery on high ground. Shaara, himself a soldier, muses in the epilogue over why the lessons of Gettysburg seem not to have been learned by European generals in the twentieth century.

I strongly recommend this book not so much as high art but as living history, a crucial explication of one of the most significant events in American history, whose repercussions are felt to the present day.

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