Friday, June 2, 2017

Pulitzer Project: The Killer Angels

Finally. A 10. Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels took the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1975. The premise for the book wasn't particularly promising: the battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of officers who fought there. I have never been a Civil War history buff and I knew next nothing about Gettysburg other than President Lincoln gave a brief speech there when the military cemetery was dedicated.

The Killer Angels turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I don't know if it lived up to the cover hype of being "The greatest Civil War novel ever" but it's good. Despite its grim setting, it's remarkably readable. The battle is viewed primarily through the eyes of Lt. General James Longstreet, a West Point trained career Army officer from Virginia who served in the Confederate military, and Lt. Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, a college professor from Maine. Chamberlain enlisted as a volunteer with the Maine militia, but his skills on the battlefield made him a brigadier general by the time the war ended.

Shaara reportedly did extensive research and relied heavily on the diaries and letters written by Longstreet, Chamberlain, and others. Not being a Civil War or military history buff, I have no idea how true that is. I've read quite a few political histories, e.g., biographies of Abraham Lincoln, but never really cared to know the details of which units of which armies lined up where, how they maneuvered, or any of the stuff that makes re-enactors hearts race. It's bad enough knowing that the preferred method of combat back then was to take your cannon fodder enlisted men, line them up in nice neat rows and have them march toward each other while firing guns. As far as I can tell, the only reason the mortality rates weren't higher for most battles was most of the weapons were wildly inaccurate. You still had lots and lots of gunshot wounds, but not as many as you'd expect considering how many gazillions rounds of ammunition were expended.

In any case, The Killer Angels focuses on four days at Gettysburg. The Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had marched north out of Virginia and were angling across eastern Pennsylvania. Union forces (the Army of the Potomac) under General George Meade were marching to intercept them and prevent the rebels from swinging around to attack Washington, D.C. Meade was that rarity in the early years of the Civil War: a Union officer who was actually competent. One of the things that's always struck me in the reading I have done regarding the War is that the South got lucky in its military commanders, at least for the first couple years. The Confederate military was blessed (or cursed, depending on one's perspective) with officers who knew how to command and weren't afraid to fight. The North got stuck with idiots and grandstanders like George B. McClellan. McClellan was good at organizing and training and everyone loved him (he was the very picture of a military man) but he wasn't real keen on actually fighting. He wasn't particularly good at tactics either.

McClellan gets blamed a lot for being an idiot at Antietam because he didn't pursue the Confederate army when they retreated from the battlefield. Lee had no reserve troops; McClellan did. If he hadn't been excessively cautious, the war might have ended in 1862 instead of dragging on for another three years. Antietam is one of the few Civil War battles I actually know something about, having actually been to the battlefield multiple times while working for the Park Service. In any case, McClellan's performance at Antietam led President Lincoln to fire him a few months later. Meade was McClellan's replacement.

Meade doesn't really make an appearance in The Killer Angels. He's mentioned a number of times, but it's more to note that he's nowhere near Gettysburg yet. Lee and his officers are sure Meade is still back in Washington, D.C., well removed from the impending battle scene, and the Union officers are more concerned with what's happening right in front of them than with how quickly Meade is coming up from the rear with more troops. Lee and his subordinates seem pretty thoroughly convinced that they don't need to worry about Meade. They apparently believed he'd be staying in Washington, D.C., politicking awhile longer before getting out in the field. In fact, just before the opening skirmishes of the battle, Lee doesn't believe there are any Union troops worth mentioning anywhere near them.

It turns out, of course, that Lee is wrong. Not only are there sufficient Union troops in Gettysburg to be a problem, Meade and the Army of the Potomac are a lot closer than the rebels believed. End result? A decisive battle that results in the CSA forces being considerably weakened and forced to retreat back to Virginia.

So would I recommend this book to other readers? Definitely yes. It's extremely readable. Even if you really are not particularly interested in military history or historical novels, it's easy to get sucked into The Killer Angels. According to the author's biography I found online, Shaara was surprised when the book won the Pulitzer. It didn't sell particularly well at the time of publication, and not even winning the Pulitzer was enough to boost sales. Why is a mystery because it is a good book.

The Killer Angels was made into the film Gettysburg, which had some rather improbable casting -- Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee? -- but I may go looking for it anyway. After all, the cast list does include Sam Elliott as General John Buford so how bad can it be?

Next up on the Pulitzer list? Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow. Naturally, the L'Anse Public Library does not have it in its collection. I'm either going to have to spend actual money or wait until September and the resumption of Interlibrary Loan services. I think I'll wait.


  1. Being from from the south but having moved to the north in my early twenties - I have lost my taste for the Civil War. My great-great grandfather from western Kentucky (an area of southern sympathizers) fought for the north and died at Shiloh. That is about the sum of my interest. As a matter of fact I don't care for war stories period; neither books or movies...probably Vietnam ruined me.
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. Depends on the war and the story for me. In general I avoid them, but Killer Angels surprised me. Made me want to learn more about Longstreet, the one Confederate general you never hear about because he recognized the Lost Cause as a Lost Cause and said so publicly.

  2. I will find that one and read it..but all those civil war books and movies just make me cry.

  3. Killer Angels is easily on the short list of best Civil War historical writing. And the movie Gettysburg is actually very good, with minor caveats. Martin Sheen makes a very good Lee, and Sam Elliot is the quintessential John Buford. If you watch it, be sure and see Ted Turner (the man behind the movie) take one for the confederate team during Pickett's Charge.


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