The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

One of my favorite places to visit and vacation in is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of one of the most defining moments in American History. This is for a myriad of reasons. First off it’s a beautiful city and surrounding area, with amazing buildings, a rolling countryside, and the monuments are amazing to behold. Another reason is, of course, the rich history of the town. There are few places in the US where, in only three days, so much history, raw fury, and passion have come together.

As any American high school student can tell you, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863) was the major turning point of the American Civil War. Up until that battle the Union was facing major defeats against the upstart Confederacy. The battle marked the farthest northern point that the Confederacy ever go into the US. A Union loss there would have left the population hub of Harrisburg and the great population center of Philadelphia open to Confederate occupation and some historians believe that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg would have meant an inevitable Confederate victory for the entire war. Thankfully this was not the case.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is an amazing account of the battle told from the viewpoints of some of the key fighters in the battle. I enjoyed this much better than having the battle told from the viewpoints of a fictional soldier or two as it helps to humanize the historical giants such as Robert E. Lee or Joshua Chamberlain who stand like immovable marble statues in the text books of schools across the American Republic. I find that it is often hard to identify with historical figures as we often put both the heroes and villains of history on high pedestals, where they feel more like inhuman demigods rather than the human beings with both morals and defects like the rest of us that they truly were.

Much of the events in the story are also accompanied by maps of the battlefield along with the positions of the two feuding armies. This was also an enjoyable aspect of the book for me for two reasons. The first is that when studying battles in any context, I find it hard to picture where everything is. With the accompanying maps it was easier to picture where all the characters were and their movements throughout the story. The second reason I enjoyed the maps so much is due to the fact that because I’ve been to the actual site of the battle several times the places and the actions that took place there were more perfectly formed in my mind. At several points in my reading I shivered with excitement due to the fact that I’ve been in the exact spot Robert E. Lee once stood or have walked along the roads where great armies once made their march to destiny.

I feel that one of the shining moments in this story is the feelings and emotions that many of the characters felt as the fought or planned to fight. While we will never know the true thoughts and feelings of the proud warriors who fought at that battle, what Shaara did in this story in regards to thoughts and feelings is nothing short of amazing. It is almost as if he brought the mentality of the 19th century into our time through books form. The gentile mentality of honor and sacrifice for ones beliefs are no strangers to us today, but how the people of the 19th century took such feelings and beliefs seriously is in sharp contrast to how we see them today. Back then honor was everything to a man, while today only a small minority still even attempts to follow a code. The fact that Shaara was able to pull this off while still writing in the modern style and language we use today was also quite impressive.

If you are a fan or military fiction or American History and its accompanying drama is the is definitely the book for you.