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Civil War Reading: The Killer Angels

You may have heard that last week (July 1-3) marked the 150th (sesquicentennial!) anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. I don’t normally plan my reading this well, but earlier this summer I enjoyed Michael Shaara’s classic civil war novel The Killer Angels.

Full disclosure: I read it because it’s been sitting on our shelf since two Christmases ago when I bought it for my husband Israel, who hardly ever reads fiction, but loves Civil War history. I thought this could be the book that would entice him over to The Lightside. (More disclosure: I just googled “opposite of dark side” and found the answer.)

[There’s a lesson here. If I wasn’t last minute Christmas shopping and had thought for more than one minute, I would’ve realized this is the worst type of gift. Don’t buy someone a gift that you actually want, or use it as a chance to subtly suggest that the recipient do some self improvement. No exercise equipment, ok guys? The best gifts are something that the person wants but would never buy for him- or herself.]

So, I haven’t given up hope that Israel will love this book, but I went ahead and broke it in for him. Shaara follows the points of view of generals from the Union and Confederate armies in the days leading up to and through the battle of Gettysburg. The tone and style of the chapters vary depending on the general: some stream of consciousness, others much more disciplined and regimented in their self-talk. I was caught up in the characters, and to put it plainly, found the book very readable.

We get to know best General Longstreet, of the Confederacy, a military genius who can foresee the battle’s tragedy but whose loyalty trumps his pragmatism; and General Chamberlain from the Union Army, a mere college professor from Maine, whose unexpected bravery and leadership at Gettysburg earns him great renown. General Lee was portrayed as highly respected and deeply devout, but aging and tired. After seeing the battle from multiple points of view, the reader is left wondering whether the great losses at Gettysburg were inevitable.

I got the feeling that Shaara treated the Confederacy more sympathetically than the Union. That may have been a device for effective storytelling (mid-way through, I had to confirm with Israel: the South lost at Gettysburg, right?), or maybe I brought my own background to the interpretation. If you read it you’ll have to let me know what you think. But for both sides, the fictional format was effective for exploring the men’s motives and beliefs about the war.

I was struck by the strong emotions of classmates from West Point who never expected to face off opposite one another; soldiers sipping coffee in the early morning on the day of the fight, too charged up to sleep any more, like a modern day football rivalry; men drinking and singing around a campfire late into the night, not thinking too hard, because they know, if they survive, they’ll never find camaraderie like this once the war ends.

Not your basic chick lit summer read . . . I was never averse to war as the subject of a story, but still, I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did. If you’d like to feel smarter about the Civil War, but you’re more of a fiction fan, this is a great choice.

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4 thoughts on “Civil War Reading: The Killer Angels

  1. Growing up, General Longstreet was well known for his participation in the Battle of Chickamauga. I’m not sure I even knew he was at the Battle of Gettysburg. Steve or Jimmy Hartley would probably know more about that – or Uncle Taylor, but we can’t ask him!

  2. You would most certainly enjoy the movie, “Gettysburg”, which is based on this book. I’ve seen the movie twice, and read the book once. So.well.done. You will love it. Warning: It is pretty long! I had my then-6th grader watch it w/me the second time.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Celine! I haven’t seen that one, but my husband loves it. So he’ll be happy for the opportunity to educate me. And if it’s based on this book, maybe that’ll help me convince him to read it!

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