Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels”
An Introduction to “The Killer Angels”
Truth be told, if a reader is looking for a historically accurate account of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest and certainly most pivotal battles of the American Civil War, Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” is not the best choice of works. However, if a reader is looking for a skillfully constructed tapestry of historical context, deep characterization and a tale that parallels any ancient Greek tragedy, Shaara’s work will nicely fit the bill. This analysis will discuss many facets of “Angels” in combination with critical examination. Overall, upon completion of this research, additional light will have been shed on a work that has spawned a major motion picture, a modern day renaissance in the study of the Battle of Gettysburg, and delighted millions of readers since its 1974 publication.
“Angels” as History
In the introduction to Shaara’s work, the point was made that “Angels” is not totally accurate as historic work, but it was not intended as such. Rather than obsessing about the minutia of troop movements, exact timelines and other dry historic facts, “Angels” is as much a study and detail of people and their intersecting lives as anything else. In the foreword to the book, the point is made by Shaara that he did not intentionally change any historic fact, and that is the truth. What he did manage to do, however, is take many of the most prominent figures from the Gettysburg battlefield- Confederates Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Lewis Armistead, and well as Unionists George G. Meade and Joshua L. Chamberlain as quick examples- and bring the reader into the thoughts, fears, dreams and ambitions of these men, brought to a small Pennsylvania crossroads town and drawn into a bloody battle whose outcome would change the direction of the entire Civil War. Therefore, “Angels” is more accurately classified as historic fiction than anything else.
Bringing Historic Characters to Life
While countless volumes exist that tell the life stories of the leaders of the Civil War such as the afore mentioned Lee, Longstreet, Armistead, Meade and Chamberlain, few works like “Angels” take creative license and attempt to make these warriors from another era seem more human to the reader. Michael Shaara brings forth a story of an aged and tired Lee, seeking the guidance of God more than the counsel of his staff members, leading the Confederate forces against a newly minted and unsure Union leader in Meade, who seeks the input of his commanders in a late night council of war prior to the climax of the 3 day bloodbath at Gettysburg. Longstreet is portrayed as a conflicted individual, torn between the orders that he must carry out at Lee’s insistence, but having a voice inside of him that tells him that what is happening is not in the best interest of his troops or newly formed nation. The main characters of “Angels” frequently walk the line between the obligations of duty, the requirements of honor, and their own instincts and emotions.
Michael Shaara, in his work, did in fact influence history, or at least the modern interpretation of it. One of the main plots of “Angels” concerns itself with the struggles that the 20th Maine Regiment, led by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, had in holding back advancing Confederate troops and in turn preventing a Union loss at Gettysburg. Shaara paints a vivid picture by utilizing dramatic license, giving the impression that Chamberlain’s men almost single-handedly won the Battle of Gettysburg for the Union, and downplaying the hundreds of other troops that contributed to the achievements of the 20th Maine, the thousands of other soldiers dying on other parts of the Gettysburg battlefield, and the like. So popular was, and is, Shaara’s depiction of Chamberlain and his exploits that if an individual mistook “Angels” for historic account, they would certainly give more credit to Chamberlain than any other American commander. This is a tribute to the power of Shaara’s work and his talent in characterization and high drama.
Critical Comment on “Angels”
Following the countless accolades that have been placed on “Angels” in the more than three decades since its publication, there is little doubt that the book is a fascinating work that has delighted even those who would never pick up a history book. It is acceptable to allow Shaara to keep these accolades as long as it is clearly understood exactly what is found in “Angels”- a skillful combination of a shadow of historic facts combined with elements of fiction, characterization and the use of dramatic license to create entertaining fiction, based on fact in some regards.
If any criticism is to be leveled at “Angels”, it is that the events of the Battle of Gettysburg go far beyond the simple inner conflicts that are portrayed in the book. Nonetheless, few works of historic fiction can compare to “Angels”.
“Angels” certainly deserves the praise that it has generated over the years, and very few woks of Civil War fiction come close to the work in terms of interpersonal relationships, the horrors of war, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit despite overwhelming odds. In this sense, in closing, perhaps the best way to classify “Angels” is as a modern revival of the events of the past, made interesting and rich through the talents of the author’s well guided pen.
Shaara, Michael (1974). The Killer Angels. New York: Ballantine Books.