Book Reviews: The Killer Angels

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Killer Angels
by Michael Shaara

Most Americans know at least a little bit about the Civil War. I may know a bit more than some, because when I was 12, my history buff parents took our family on a three-week tour of all the Civil War battlegrounds. Because of that I think I've always been especially fascinated by the Civil War. It was so full of contradictions, brother fighting brother, a nation turned against itself. The Killer Angels is the best book I've read on the subject. It shows how thin the lines were between the two armies. Soldiers frequently knew the people they were fighting against.

The Killer Angels deals with the battle at Gettysburg, which is considered the turning point in the war. Shaara delves into the thoughts of the men who orchestrated the battle, specifically General Lee and General Longstreet on the confederate side and Col. Chamberlain on the Union side. Each of the men made decisions they regretted or struggled with and none of them walked away completely unscathed.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the book hooked me. Colonel Chamberlain is presented with 120 men who tried to abandon their posts and head home. He is torn about how to convince them to stay. He's instructed to shoot them if they leave, but instead he stands in front of them and gives a speech about why they are fighting and the beauty and truth of his words inspire all but six of the men to fight with him.

It's no surprise this won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It's brilliantly researched and written. I understand why Shaara chose to make it a fiction book. Even though it's based on fact, making it a "fiction" book gave him the freedom to express the men's feelings and thoughts, which prevents the book from feeling dry. Shaara's main focus is on the leaders' decisions that led to the battle and the motivations behind those decisions.

It's not a quick, entertaining read, but it's one that is so important to fully understand what our nation has gone through to get to this point. It's a heartbreaking story, because it's our country, destroying itself. One of the things that stood out to me the most was the confederate soldiers feelings about the war. They didn't believe like they were fighting for slavery, they believed they were fighting for their states freedoms. They were fighting because they loved their state and were loyal to it. Even though there were wonderful things that came about because of it, it was truly a tragic war.


Jenners said...

I don't know whether to sympathize with you or envy you on your 3-week Civil War trip as a kid. I think my brothers and I would have make it unendurable!

That said, you make a good case for reading this book to get a good sense of that war.

She said...

That sounds fabulous... in a sad way of course. I've always wanted to visit the Petersburg battlefield which is about 2 hours from where I live, but I haven't had the chance. Did you visit there on your trip?

Becky Hill said...

I loved this book and his son, Jeff's, follow up books. They are such great ways to get an eyewitness view of our famous battles of war.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jenners - I'm sure my parents had to put up with a lot from us.

She - We did make it to the battlefield in Petersburg, VA. We also went to Chickamauga, Stone Mountain, Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga and Appomattox among others.

Becky - I haven't read his son's books yet. I'll have to check them out.

Bybee said...

This and Andersonville were such vivid reads, and both were Pulitzer winners.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bybee - Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't heard of Andersonville before and it looks really good.