The Killer Angels

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The Killer Angels




Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels (1974) covers a four-day period (June 29, July 1-3, 1863) during which the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War, was fought in Pennsylvania. Shaara describes the battle from the points of view of several of the main participants, the most important being, on the Confederate side, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate First Army Corps and Lee's second in command, and on the Union side, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the Twentieth Maine Infantry regiment. Shaara reveals the thoughts and feelings of these and other soldiers as they play out their parts in the historic battle: why they fight, what motivates them, what their beliefs are, what decisions they make and why. Through dialogue and inner monologue, the author explores the great issues of the day, including slavery, states' rights, and theories of war and how they are applied to the battle at hand, as well as religious and philosophical issues such as the role played by chance and destiny in the great battle. In vivid prose that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of battle, The Killer Angels makes readers feel that they are right there in the midst of the action. The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 and was the basis for the film Gettysburg in 1993.


Michael Shaara was born on June 23, 1929, in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of Italian immigrants. He attended Rutgers University and it was there that he realized his goal was to become a writer. He wrote his first published story while he was still an undergraduate, even though his creative writing teacher was less than enthusiastic about his work and suggested he aim for a more literary style.

Shaara graduated from Rutgers with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1951 and then pursued graduate study at Columbia University (1952-1953) and the University of Vermont (1953-1954). He also began to publish science fiction short stories in popular magazines.

Shaara married Helen Krumweide in 1950, and in 1954, he moved with his wife and young son to Florida, where Shaara was for a short time employed as a police officer in St. Petersburg. After this he began to teach English, literature, and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He was associate professor at that university from 1961 to 1973.

Shaara continued to write and published more than seventy short stories in magazines such as Playboy, Galaxy, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post. His first novel, The Broken Place, about a soldier who returns home from the Korean War and becomes a boxer, was published by New American Library in 1968.

The origins of Shaara's second novel, The Killer Angels, was a visit Shaara made with his family to Gettysburg, the site of the famous Civil War battle. Shaara worked on the manuscript for seven years, only to see it rejected by fifteen publishers. It was finally accepted by a small independent publisher, the David McKay Company, and published in 1974. It did not attract great attention from reviewers, but this did not prevent it from being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. The novel was the basis for the 1993 television miniseries Gettysburg.

During a difficult process of recovery following a serious motorcycle accident, Shaara continued to dedicate himself to his writing. His third novel, The Herald, was published by McGraw in 1981. It is about a scientist who wants to create a master race and plans to kill millions of people in order to accomplish his goal.

The following year, a selection of Shaara's previously published short stories, Soldier Boy, was published by Pocket Books.

During the 1980s, however, Shaara's health was in decline. He had already, in 1965, suffered a major heart attack, and on May 5, 1988, in Tallahassee, he died of a second heart attack.

After Shaara's death, his children discovered an unpublished manuscript by their father. Called For Love of the Game, it is a story about an aging baseball pitcher. It turned out that during the 1980s, Shaara had tried but failed to find a publisher for this novel, which was eventually published in 1991 by Carroll & Graf. In 1999, For Love of the Game was released as a major motion picture by Universal Studios.


  • The Killer Angels was adapted by Turner Pictures and aired as the television miniseries Gettysburg, in 1993.
  • The novel was also recorded, in an unabridged audio version by Books on Tape and published in 1985.


Foreword: June 1863

The Killer Angels begins with a foreword that sets the scene for the action that follows. It is divided into two sections. The first section describes the two armies. The Army of Northern Virginia, consisting of seventy thousand men commanded by Robert E. Lee, has on June 15, 1863, crossed the Potomac at Williamsport and invaded the North. Its aim is to draw the Union army out into the open and crush it. In late June, the Union army, the Army of the Potomac, numbering eighty thousand men, turns north to begin its pursuit of the rebels that ends at Gettysburg. The second section of the foreword briefly describes the main characters: on the Confederate side, Robert Edward Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett, Richard Ewell, Ambrose Power Hill, Lewis Armistead, Richard Brooke Garnett, J. E. B. Stuart, Jubal Early; on the Union side, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, John Buford, John Reynolds, George Gordon Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock.

Monday, June 29, 1863


Harrison, a spy sent by Longstreet from Virginia to locate the position of the Union army, looks down from a high position in the woods upon two Union corps, twenty thousand men moving fast. He slips away on horseback and reaches Confederate headquarters after dark. He is taken to General Longstreet and to whom he gives detailed information about the position of the Union army. Longstreet did not even know that the Union army was on the move and certainly not as close as two hundred miles away. He is skeptical about the accuracy of Harrison's report, but Harrison insists he is right. Longstreet knows that if Harrison's information is correct, his army is in great danger, with the Union army so close. He takes Harrison to see Lee, who is doubtful whether he should make a move on the word of a spy. But he does decide to move quickly, aiming to get behind the Union forces and cut them off from Washington. Lee gives the order to move at dawn in the direction of the small town of Gettysburg.


Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the Twentieth Maine regiment, is awakened by his aide Buster Kilrain. Kilrain informs him that they are being sent 120 mutineers from the Second Maine regiment, men who have refused to serve the final year of their three-year enlistment. There is a message signed by General Meade, the new Union commander, to the effect that these men are to fight. If they refuse, Chamberlain is authorized to shoot them. The ragged, tired mutineers are presented to Chamberlain by a captain from a Pennsylvania regiment. Chamberlain allows their leader, Joseph Bucklin, to express their grievances. Bucklin complains about the incompetence of the officers they have served under. After Chamberlain receives orders to move west into Pennsylvania, he gives what he hopes will be an inspirational speech to the mutineers about the cause of freedom they are fighting for. He says he needs them because the regiment is under strength, but he will not shoot them if they refuse to fight. As the regiment moves in the direction of Gettysburg, Chamberlain is pleased to hear from his brother Tom that all but six of the mutineers have agreed to fight.


At noon, from the top of a hill outside Gettysburg, Union commander John Buford observes rebel troops on the far side of the town. There is at least a brigade, but no cavalry in sight. Buford has two brigades with him; the big infantry is a day's march behind him. Buford watches as the rebels withdraw then sends scouts to gather information about the rebels' movements so he can know what the Union forces are facing. Next, he sends a message to John Reynolds and General Meade explaining that he expects the rebel army to be there in force in the morning. He worries that they will occupy a strong position in the hills, and he does not know whether his forces will be able to hold their ground until Reynolds arrives with his infantry. After dark, the scouts return and report that the whole Confederate army is on its way to Gettysburg. Later, Buford receives a note from Reynolds, who promises to come in the morning as early as possible.


In Longstreet's camp, thirty miles from Gettysburg, Longstreet worries because he does not know the position of the Union army. He was expecting to hear from General Stuart, who has been gone for several days but has sent no information. General Hill disbelieves reports of Union cavalry in Gettysburg, and Lee accepts Hill's judgment. Longstreet is not so sure. General Pickett, an old friend of Longstreet's, arrives. Pickett and his forces are bringing up the rear; he is desperate to see some action and asks Longstreet if he can be moved forward. Longstreet tells him his time will come. Longstreet then talks to Armistead, who is confident of victory in the forthcoming battle. They discuss military strategy, including the merits of offensive and defensive war. Other officers discuss why the war is being fought. Just before dawn, Confederate soldiers approach a Union picket, and one of the pickets fires the first shot of the battle.

Wednesday, July 1, 1863: The First Day

1: LEE

Lee arises at dawn. He has heart trouble and does not feel well. His aide Major Taylor informs him that nothing has been heard from Stuart. He also informs Lee of Hill's skepticism about the presence of Union cavalry at Gettysburg. Lee knows that if cavalry is present, there will be infantry close by. He tells Taylor that he does not want to fight until his entire army is concentrated. Lee deals with some civilians and consults further with his aides. Marshall wants to court-martial Stuart for his continued absence, but Lee offers him no support. Longstreet arrives, and Lee tells him to stay in the rear, since he cannot afford to lose him. They discuss tactics; Longstreet favors defense, but Lee wants to attack. When the army gets on the move, Lee and Longstreet ride several miles together. At about ten in the morning, they hear the first sounds of artillery in the distance.


At dawn, Buford deals with the first rebel attack and expects another more organized one imminently. His forces are dug in and he is confident, but he writes to Reynolds saying he expects relief. Another rebel attack is repelled, and prisoners are taken. Buford knows that the rebels are there in force, and the Union position is precarious against such numbers, even when Reynolds arrives. When the big attack comes, Union lines are tested, and Buford considers pulling out. Then Reynolds arrives with two corps of fresh Union infantry, and their prospects look good. But when Buford and Reynolds ride out together, placing their troops, Reynolds is shot and killed.

3: LEE

Lee has issued orders to Heth not to force a major engagement. He frets about not having heard from Stuart and, therefore, not knowing the disposition of Union forces. He soon realizes that Heth has taken on more than he can handle and has been repulsed. Heth arrives and explains that he was surprised by the presence of Union infantry. He thought he was faced only by local militia. He apologizes. Rodes and Early continue the attack, and Heth requests permission to do so also. Lee is unsure but then tells Heth to go ahead and tells Pender to do the same. The battle rages. Heth is wounded, but then a courier from Early brings the news that the enemy is falling back. Lee instructs Early to take Cemetery Hill, unless he is faced with a superior force, since he does not want Union forces established on high ground. Longstreet arrives, and he and Lee disagree over tactics. While Lee wants to press the attack, Longstreet wants to disengage, swing the army round, and get a good defensive position on high ground between the Union army and Washington, so that Union forces will have no option but to attack. Lee is worried that he sees no sign of an assault on Cemetery Hill. Longstreet again pushes for withdrawal, but Lee says he will attack the next day if Meade is there with all his forces.


Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine make their way north across the Pennsylvania border to Hanover. Tom Chamberlain, Joshua's younger brother, teaches one of the men from Second Maine the regiment's bugle call. Chamberlain reflects on the battle of Fredericksburg, in which he participated; the characteristics of Maine; his mother and father; his home. When they reach Hanover, the townspeople are delighted to see them. As evening comes they go to rest; they have marched a hundred miles in five days. But soon they hear their bugle call and are ordered to march on through the night to Gettysburg; they hear rumors about the battle that has just taken place and also the false information that the popular General McClellan is back in charge of the Union army. They reach Gettysburg at midnight.


In the evening after the first day of battle, Longstreet rides back from Gettysburg to his camp. He knows that Lee will ignore his advice and attack in the morning. He thinks back to the previous winter, during which his three children died of fever. He discusses the day's events with the Englishman, Fremantle, who is there as an observer of the battle. Fremantle speaks of his admiration for Lee and his hope that England will ally itself with the Confederacy. Longstreet relates some memories of Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general who was killed before Gettysburg, and argues the case for defensive rather than offensive war.

6: LEE

That evening Lee receives congratulations for the Confederates' success in battle. Ewell explains that he did not attack Cemetery Hill, because it did not seem practical. Early, to whom Ewell defers, confirms the reasons for their decision. Lee explains Longstreet's preferred strategy, but Ewell and Early favor attack rather than defense. Lee rides off and encounters General Trimble, who is angry with Ewell for not attempting to take the hill. He believes it could have been done. Lee returns to his headquarters, where Ewell apologizes for being too careful during the battle. Lee realizes Ewell is not up to the task, but he speaks kindly to him. Alone later in the night, Lee resolves to attack the following afternoon.


At two o'clock in the morning, Buford rides along Cemetery Hill as his men dig in. He is in pain from an arm wound. He goes to a farmhouse where officers are gathered and sees two majors arguing about who is in charge. Buford learns that Howard, who was in charge of the Eleventh Corps that did not perform well, has complained that Buford did not support Howard's right flank. Buford explains to Hancock how much he was involved in the previous day's action. Meade arrives. Buford has received his orders, cannot get close to Meade, and rides back towards the cemetery, where he talks to the dead Reynolds, saying that they held the ground.

Thursday, July 2, 1863: The Second Day


At three o'clock in the morning, Fremantle eagerly awaits the coming battle as he joins the other officers at breakfast. He feels at home, thinking of the Confederate army as transplanted Englishmen. He is certain they will win. The officers observe the Union lines through field glasses. A bit later, Fremantle rides with Longstreet then goes off to talk with some of the European officers; he thinks about how he supports the traditions of the South rather than the democracy favored by the North.


Kilrain informs Chamberlain that just before dawn they found a wounded black man. Chamberlain has rarely seen a black man before. They cannot communicate with him and think he must have been a slave who tried to run away from the Confederates and was shot. They feed him and treat his wound. They conclude he has not long been in the country. It later transpires that he was shot by a woman in Gettysburg after he came into town looking for directions. Bugles blow and the division forms itself. Colonel Vincent informs Chamberlain that they will probably be held in reserve that morning. The call comes to advance, and the corps begins to march. Then they are ordered to stop, and they rest in a field. Chamberlain talks with Kilrain about black people; Chamberlain says that he sees no essential differences between the races, only the humanity and the "divine spark" they share. He regards slavery as a terrible thing. Chamberlain sits against a tree, waiting for the battle to begin.


Lee seeks Longstreet's agreement on tactics. He points out that neither Ewell nor Early favors withdrawing. They believe they can take Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, which are held by Union forces. Poring over a map, the generals plan their moves as Lee gives orders. Johnston is given responsibility for moving Longstreet into position, and Longstreet insists that his men are not seen by the enemy. Johnston confesses he knows little about the roads, which causes Longstreet to curse at the continued absence of Stuart, who would have been able to supply information. They begin the march at noon. Lee and Longstreet ride together; they recall past battles, and Lee hopes the coming one will be the last. After Lee rides off, Johnston informs Longstreet that if they continue their present course, they will be seen by the enemy. Furious, Longstreet orders a change of direction. They find another route, but Longstreet knows that the extra march will tire his men. When they reach the front, they unexpectedly find Union soldiers in the peach orchard. Hood wants to shift the plan and go right, behind the Big Round Top. He says otherwise he will lose half his division. Privately, Longstreet agrees this is the wisest course but refuses to deviate from Lee's orders. The attack begins.


Chamberlain hears artillery fire and knows the battle has begun. It is nearly 4 p.m. Vincent informs them that the rebels are attacking the Union left flank and places Chamberlain's regiment on Little Round Top, the extreme left of the Union line. He instructs him to hold the line at all costs. Chamberlain places his men; he can see the battle raging below. Three of the Maine mutineers agree to join the fight. The rebels come in full force, and the Union line holds. The rebels come again. There are many dead on both sides; Kilrain is wounded, and Chamberlain is wounded in his right foot. He continues to direct his forces effectively, but they are running low on ammunition, and the rebels are still coming. He directs his brother Tom to fill a gap in the line. One man says they cannot hold the line and should pull out. Chamberlain refuses. He orders his men to fix bayonets, and they charge down the hill, routing the rebels and taking five hundred prisoners. Kilrain is wounded for the second time, but he saves Chamberlain's life by shooting a rebel who was aiming his rifle at Chamberlain. Tom brings news that they fought off four rebel regiments, perhaps two thousand men. The Twentieth Maine takes 130 casualties, which is nearly half the regiment. Chamberlain feels great joy at the victory.


In the evening, Longstreet visits the wounded Hood in the hospital. Then he learns from Sorrel that Hood's officers blame Longstreet for the failure to take the hill. Longstreet knows that no one will blame Lee, even though they were following Lee's orders. Longstreet learns that Hood's division suffered losses of 50 percent and knows they no longer have the resources for another major assault. Then he hears that General Pickett has arrived with five thousand fresh men. He goes to headquarters to talk to Lee and finds that at last Stuart has returned. Lee tells Longstreet they almost succeeded, but Longstreet knows that is not true. He informs Lee that there are three Union corps dug in on the high ground. When Longstreet moves off into the crowd he sees Marshall, who wants to court-martial Stuart but says Lee refuses to sign the papers; Longstreet says he will speak to Lee about it. He rides with Fremantle, who is full of praise for Lee, but Longstreet speaks of Lee and his tactics in a way that he immediately realizes might be thought disloyal. He returns to camp and listens to the officers singing, drinking, and telling stories. An emotional Armistead recalls a time back in 1861 when he sang a particular song with his close friend Win Hancock, who is now on the opposing side.

6: LEE

Lee works all night. He reflects on why he had to break his vow to defend the Union; he feels he had no choice, since he could not take up arms against his own people. He now has to decide whether to move to higher ground in another place or stay and fight. Stuart visits him; Lee rebukes him for letting the army down, and Stuart offers to resign, but Lee says he needs him in the coming fight. Lee decides he must attack. He plans to use Pickett's forces in a drive to the center of the Union line that will split the enemy in two, and then he wants to use Stuart's cavalry at the rear to complete the rout.

Friday July 3, 1863


At dawn, Chamberlain climbs a tree and surveys the scene. His foot is still bleeding, and the men are out of rations. He thinks the rebels will come again that day; he has only two hundred men left, but they are in a good position. The battle has begun, to the north of them, on the opposite flank. An aide from Colonel Rice arrives and tells Chamberlain he is relieved; Colonel Fisher is to take over their position. Chamberlain does not want to leave, and the Union lieutenant takes them to their new position, which is right in the center of the Union line.


Longstreet and Lee ride together; Longstreet says he has discovered a way south and wants to move, but Lee will hear none of it. He explains his attacking strategy. Longstreet protests, saying a frontal assault will be a disaster. Lee insists there is no alternative. Word comes that Union forces are attacking Ewell. Lee is surprised. Lee talks to Wofford, who tells him his men cannot break the Union lines because the enemy has brought in reinforcements. Lee still believes that his fifteen thousand men can do it. The plan is for a heavy artillery barrage on the center of the Union line, followed by a charge at the center by Pickett's division, which will break the line. Longstreet says he believes the attack will fail. They will have to march for a mile over open ground under constant artillery fire. Lee, however, is confident of victory. Longstreet says nothing about his doubts as he explains the battle strategy to the officers, including Pettigrew, Trimble, and Pickett. Longstreet waits for the 140 guns to begin firing and for the Union reply. It will be the greatest artillery barrage ever fired.


Lieutenant Pitzer guides Chamberlain and his men to their position, near Meade's headquarters. They are to be held in reserve. Chamberlain is called over to meet General Sykes, who is impressed by what he has heard of Chamberlain's bayonet charge. Sykes promises he will get rations to Chamberlain's men. Chamberlain walks back to his men, troubled by his injured foot. Tom reports that Kilrain has died not from his wounds but of a heart attack. The artillery battle begins, and shells fall very close to Chamberlain and Tom. Chamberlain sleeps intermittently while he waits for action.


Armistead watches the artillery barrage begin just after one o'clock in the afternoon. He sees Pickett writing a poem for his sweetheart and gives him a ring from his finger to send to her. Pickett is joyfully awaiting the action. Garnett rides up on horseback and says he intends to ride into the battle, even though that is against orders. His leg is injured, and he cannot walk. Armistead tries to get Pickett to order Garnett not to make the charge, but Pickett refuses. The artillery barrage slackens, and the Confederates begin their charge, moving through the woods and then into the open fields beyond. Armistead encounters Garnett still on horseback and knows he will die. The Union artillery opens up once more, and a wave of fire rolls down on the advancing men who form a line a mile long. Many men fall, and the gaps in the line are closed up. Armistead permits himself to hope that they may succeed. They face devastating canister fire—millions of small metal balls. Armistead yells encouragement to Kemper. He is wounded in the leg, but he still goes forward and manages to reach the stone wall that is the object of their charge. He is hit in the side and knows he is dying. The dead are all around him, most of them Confederate soldiers. He asks a Union officer if he can send a message to his old friend General Hancock. He is informed that Hancock is wounded; he prays that Hancock may survive, then he dies.


Longstreet sits watching the battle and then sees his men retreat. He orders Pickett to retreat. He thinks that all his men have died for nothing. Lee appears, and the retreating men slow at the sight of him. Longstreet thinks he will never forgive Lee. Lee says he expects a counterattack, but the Union troops pull back. Longstreet rides back towards the camp. He learns that of the thirteen colonels in Pickett's division, seven are dead and six wounded. Lee tells Longstreet they must withdraw that night. He says they will do better next time, but Longstreet disagrees. Lee admits he was wrong in his battle strategy and that Longstreet was right.


In the evening, Chamberlain goes off to be on his own. He looks over the battlefield. Tom joins him and remarks on the courage the rebels showed. Tom does not understand how they could fight so hard for slavery. Chamberlain feels pity for the dead men whose corpses are being laid out on a nearby field, but he feels a thrill at the thought of fresh battles to come.


A brief Afterword describes what happened to some of the main characters in the months and years after the great battle.


Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead

Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead is one of Pickett's brigade commanders. He is a shy, courtly, honest man, with a strong sense of duty. A widower, he is nicknamed Lo (short for Lothario) as a joke. He is a close friend of General Hancock, who is now fighting on the Union side, and this gives Armistead much cause for reflection. He had once said to Hancock, "if I ever lift a hand against you, may God strike me dead." He takes part in Pickett's charge, against positions defended by Hancock, and is killed.

Major General John Buford

Major General John Buford is a tall, blond cavalry soldier, born in Kentucky. He is a veteran of the Indian wars in the west and many Civil War battles. He tends to proceed slowly and carefully. Conscious of class divisions, he does not care for "gentleman" Confederates. Buford is a professional soldier who has acquired the latest weaponry for his men and taught them how to dig in and hold off any force for a while. Once he held off Longstreet's army for six hours, and he is proud of the fact that they hold their ground against the first wave of Confederate attacks.

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain commands the Twentieth Maine regiment with distinction. He is not a career soldier or politician; before the war he was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin University. He is tall, with "a grave boyish dignity," and he has a gift for making speeches. Chamberlain is always concerned with the welfare of his men and leads by example. He treats even the mutineers well, feeding them, listening to their grievances, and explaining to them the cause for which they are being asked to fight. He speaks to them in the same calm, pleasant manner that he used to deal with rebellious students. It is because of Chamberlain's decent attitude that most of the mutineers agree to fight. Chamberlain would not shoot them even though he is authorized to do so. He is also chivalrous to captured prisoners, on one occasion offering his own water flask to a rebel who requests water.

Chamberlain is a strong believer in the Union cause. He believes in the dignity of man and the equality of all men, and he has faith in the United States and in the individual. He loves his brother Tom, but he is willing to put Tom in harm's way when necessary because of his belief in the cause. Chamberlain loves army life; he finds it "a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee." He feels exhilarated after the victory that follows the bayonet charge; his ordering of the charge shows his ability to instinctively do the right thing in an emergency. After the final battle of Gettysburg is over, he is eager for future battles.

Lieutenant Tom Chamberlain

Tom Chamberlain is Joshua's younger brother. He has been recently promoted to lieutenant, and he is Chamberlain's aide. He practically worships his older brother.

Major General Jubal Early

Major General Jubal Early is the commander of one of Ewell's divisions. He is "a dark, cold, icy man, bitter, alone." Longstreet dislikes him.

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell is the commander of the Union's Second Army Corps. He has "the look of a great-beaked, hopping bird. He was bald and scrawny; his voice piped and squeaked like cracking eggshells." He lost a leg in an earlier battle and has just returned to the army. Ewell has been a good soldier, but he is not a success as a commander. He is too cautious and unsure of himself and defers to the judgments of Early. He apologizes to Lee for failing to attack Cemetery Hill on the first day of battle. Lee realizes that appointing him as a corps commander, in charge of twenty thousand men, was a mistake.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lyon Fremantle

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lyon Fremantle is an Englishman who is present with the Confederates at Gettysburg as an observer. Described as "a scrawny man, toothy, with a pipelike neck and a monstrous Adam's apple," Fremantle is an officer of the British Coldstream Guards. He admires Lee and the Confederacy because their respect for tradition reminds him of England.

Brigadier General Richard Brooke Garnett

Brigadier General Richard Brooke Garnett is Pickett's brigade commander. He is a man who has something to prove, since Stonewall Jackson accused him of cowardice. This seems to have been a false accusation, since Garnett is respected by his fellow officers, including Longstreet and Armistead. He insists on riding into battle during Pickett's charge, even though he is wounded and cannot walk. He has to prove his honor and his courage. He is killed during the assault.

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock is the commander of Second Corps. He is known as an excellent soldier. Longstreet thinks of him as "dashing and confident," and Chamberlain, when he sees him, observes that he is "tall and calm, handsome, magnetic." An old friend of the Confederate Armistead, Hancock is wounded on the third day of the battle, but he recovers.


Harrison is the Confederate scout, or spy, sent by Longstreet to report on the position of the Union army. He is distrusted by the Confederates, who treat him with disdain. By profession, Harrison is an actor.

Major General Henry Heth

Major General Henry (Harry) Heth is a commander of one of Hill's divisions. He is "a square-faced man, a gentle face." On the first day of battle, he gets into a major fight with Buford's forces, even though he was under orders not to start a major engagement.

Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Power Hill

Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Power Hill has recently been put in charge of the Confederate Third Army Corps. He is a "nervous, volatile, brilliant man" and was a superb division commander, but Lee has his doubts about whether Hill will be as effective now that he is in command of an entire corps.

Major General John Bell Hood

Major General John Bell Hood, known as Sam, commands one of Longstreet's divisions. He is a "tall slim man with an extraordinary face, eyes with a cold glint in them, erect in posture even as he sat, cutting a stick." He is a competent soldier.

Major General Oliver O. Howard

Major General Oliver O. Howard is the commander of the Union's Eleventh Corps that does not perform well on the first day of battle. Howard allows his line to be broken as he had also done at the battle of Chancellorsville. Hancock takes command and reforms Howard's men, after which men go to him rather than Howard for orders. This greatly angers Howard who outranks Hancock.

Brigadier General James Kemper

Brigadier General James Kemper serves under General Pickett. Formerly, he had been Speaker of the Virginia House. He is wounded in the Confederate charge on the last day of the battle.

Private Buster Kilrain

Private Buster Kilrain is an aide to Chamberlain. He is much older than Chamberlain and is described as "a white-haired man with the build of an ape." He has a fatherly attitude toward Chamberlain, and Chamberlain depends on him. Kilrain is a former sergeant who was demoted for striking an officer when drunk. He is twice wounded in battle, saves Chamberlain's life by killing a man who was taking aim at Chamberlain, and finally dies of a heart attack.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee is the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He is fifty-six years old and is not in good health, showing early signs of heart disease. He is often weary, but his appearance is impressive: "regal, formal, a beautiful white-haired, white-bearded old man." Lee is known as an honest man and a gentleman without vices. He does not drink, smoke, gamble, or chase women. He does not complain, and he is always in control. Lee is loved by his men who regard him with respect and awe. Fremantle tells a story going round that when Lee was asleep, and the army was marching by, fifteen thousand men went by on tiptoe to ensure they did not wake him. Lee's men have faith in their commander, and this is what has made the Confederate army, up to Gettysburg, so successful.

Lee has a great deal of patience. He speaks formally to his officers and does not betray his irritation at Ewell for being too cautious, and he refuses to court-martial Stuart for letting him down. He listens calmly to Trimble as he rages against Ewell. Lee's practical nature means that he deals with the situation as it is rather than worrying about how things might have been better. His practice is to give the orders and let his men get on with the job, but he is sometimes let down by the poor performances of his officers. He does not always coordinate his orders by assembling his officers in one place, and he gives no written orders.

Lee loves Virginia and believes he had no alternative but to take up arms in the Confederate cause. Throughout the battle he shows great faith in God. He believes his strategy is the way God would have it, and he believes everything rests in the hands of God. He is prepared to take risks, and he dislikes defensive warfare. Committed to attack, he ignores Longstreet's advice to withdraw. In Longstreet's eyes, Lee appears stubborn, persisting in a strategy of attack when it is clearly doomed. However, like all the other officers, Longstreet greatly admires and respects Lee.

Lieutenant General James Longstreet

Lieutenant General James Longstreet is the commander of the Confederate First Army Corps and Lee's second in command. Longstreet "gave an impression of ominous bad-tempered strength and a kind of slow, even, stubborn, unquenchable anger." He talks and moves slowly and some of the officers regard him as not much fun. But he is acknowledged to be a magnificent soldier, and he is a brilliant man. Now that Stonewall Jackson is dead, Longstreet is regarded as "the rock of the army." He is Lee's most trusted commander and confidant. Lee respects Longstreet because Longstreet always says what he thinks and tells him the truth. In return, Longstreet respects Lee as the finest commander he has served under. However, he comes into conflict with Lee over battlefield tactics. Longstreet has invented a theory of defensive warfare, but he cannot convince his officers or Lee of its virtues. He is convinced that Lee's insistence on attack is a tragic mistake. But Longstreet is also a loyal soldier who follows orders.

The previous winter, Longstreet's three children died of fever, and he has since become more withdrawn than usual, not taking part in the poker games that he used to love. Unlike most of the officers, he is not from Virginia, and he does not feel quite at home with many of them. He thinks he does not belong. But he is an old comrade of Pickett and Armistead, from many previous military campaigns, and he is extremely fond of them both. He dislikes Stuart, however.

Major General George Gordon Meade

Major General George Gordon Meade is the recently appointed commander of the Union army. He took charge only two days before the battle of Gettysburg begins. He is described as "Vain and bad-tempered, balding, full of self-pity." Lee expects him to be a cautious commander and is surprised when Meade attacks on the third day.

Brigadier James Johnston Pettigrew

Brigadier James Johnston Pettigrew is Heth's brigade commander. He is one of the few intellectuals in the army. When Heth is injured, Lee gives his division to Pettigrew. Pettigrew suffers a minor hand wound during the Confederate charge on the third day of battle.

Major General George E. Pickett

Major General George E. Pickett is Longstreet's division commander. He is described as "Gaudy and lovable, long-haired, perfumed." He loves adventure and romance. Pickett finished last in his class at West Point, and Longstreet regards him as not particularly bright but knows that he is a fighter and can be relied upon. Pickett is an exuberant, entertaining man who knows how to tell a good story. He and his men missed out on the action at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, and he is desperate to see action now. He gets his wish, but his division suffers 60 percent casualties in the charge on the third day.

Major General John F. Reynolds

Major General John F. Reynolds is the commander of the Union First Corps. He is a fine soldier, giving the impression of being completely in charge of the situation. He is killed on the first day of battle.

Colonel James M. Rice

Colonel James M. Rice is the commander of the Forty-fourth New York regiment in Vincent's brigade.

Major General Daniel Sickles

Major General Daniel Sickles is the commander of the Union Third Corps. He was formerly a politician from New York, and he is notorious for having shot his wife's lover. He is nicknamed "The Bully Boy."

Major Moxley Sorrel

Major Moxley Sorrel is Longstreet's chief of staff.

Lieutenant General J. E. B. Stuart

Lieutenant General J. E. B. Stuart is a cavalry division commander on the Confederate side. He was sent out by Lee to bring back information about the movement of the Union army, but he fails to do this. Some officers want him court-martialed for his failure, but Lee, although he speaks to Stuart sternly, takes no action against him. Stuart is a flamboyant man, "carefree … languid, cheery, confident."

General Sykes

General Sykes is a general on the Union side. He is a "small, thin, grouchy man, [with] a reputation of a gentleman, though somewhat bad-tempered." He congratulates Chamberlain on his bayonet charge.

Major Walter Taylor

Major Walter Taylor is an aide to General Lee. He is already a major at the young age of twenty-four.

Brigadier General Isaac Trimble

Brigadier General Isaac Trimble is nearly sixty years old. He is a fiery kind of man who is so angered by Ewell's indecision that he refuses to serve under him any longer. He is appointed division commander under Pender and is wounded in the charge on the final day of the battle.

Colonel Strong Vincent

Colonel Strong Vincent is Chamberlain's new brigade commander. He has a good reputation and the air of a man who knows what he is doing. He is killed on the second day of battle.


  • Watch the movie Gettysburg and make a class presentation, using video clips, in which you discuss to what extent the main characters in the film resemble the characters as created by Shaara in the novel. Do you notice any major differences between the movie and the novel?
  • Read two or three nonfiction historical accounts of the third1 day of the battle. Also study the sections in the novel in which Lee and Longstreet disagree about tactics. Then write an essay in which you discuss the different ways in which the relationship between the two men at Gettysburg has been interpreted. Do your sources give any clue as to whether the Confederate defeat was due to Lee's flawed judgment or to Longstreet's lack of support for his commander's tactics?
  • Write an essay in which you analyze how the attitude toward war expressed by the participants, especially Chamberlain after the battle, and Pickett, before the final charge, differ from modern attitudes toward war. Would it be fair to say that the characters in The Killer Angels have a romantic view of war and battle? What role does the concept of honor and glory play in this novel? How have attitudes toward war today been altered by the experience of the United States in Vietnam and Iraq?
  • Make a class presentation in which you analyze two characters from the novel, comparing and contrasting them. You may choose two characters from the same side, such as Lee and Longstreet, or from different sides, such as Longstreet and Chamberlain. You may also select less central figures, such as Buford, Armistead, or Pickett. Make sure you discuss important traits such as leadership qualities. What type of leadership does each man show?


Different Beliefs about the Cause of the War

The Union men all believe that the Civil War is about freeing the slaves in the South. They subscribe to a democratic ethos that asserts the equality of all men. This is made clear early in the novel by Chamberlain, who is probably the most idealistic character in the novel. He believes he is fighting for freedom, the right of every individual to "become what he wished to become," free from oppression by tradition or the old European-style aristocracies and royalties. He explains to the mutineers that the Union army is a different kind of army than any in the past. It does not fight for land, for king, or for booty, but with the purpose of "set[ting] other men free." For Chamberlain, the Confederacy represents a new kind of aristocracy that is perpetuating tyranny through the institution of slavery.

The Confederates, however, mock the Union belief that the war is about slavery. For them it is a matter of states' rights. As Kemper says to Fremantle, the Englishman who just seems to assume the war is about slavery, "We established this country in the first place with strong state governments … to avoid a central tyranny." This point is echoed by the rebel prisoners who are captured by Chamberlain's men. They insist they are fighting for their rights, not for the continuance of slavery. But Chamberlain is not convinced. When he sees the wounded black man, he believes he sees the cause of the war, the enslavement of blacks, very clearly.

Offensive versus Defensive War

A recurring theme is the disagreement between Longstreet and Lee over strategy. Longstreet is a pioneer of defensive warfare, and he thinks Lee is misguided in his insistence on attack. Longstreet consistently argues for setting up a sound defensive position and luring the enemy into an attack. He tries to convince Armistead of the virtues of his theory, but Armistead insists that neither Lee nor his army is suited for "slow dull defense." Lee is not to be convinced, either. He loathes the nickname of "King of Spades," which was given to him when he ordered tunnels dug for the defense of Richmond, Virginia. Defensive warfare goes against his training. He has confidence in the pride of his men; they have been outgunned before, as they are now, but have still won great victories. He thinks only of attacking and getting the battle won. For Longstreet, however, Lee's attitude is out of date. The entire war, Longstreet thinks, is old-fashioned, with tactics dating back to the Napoleonic era, as well as outmoded notions of chivalry and glory. "They all ride to glory, all the plumed knights," he thinks bitterly as he looks at the Confederate officers. In the end, Longstreet is proved correct, and Lee acknowledges this to him.

On the Union side, Buford espouses theories similar to those of Longstreet. He has had much experience in the Indian Wars, and he speaks disparagingly about how ineffective is "that glorious charge, sabers a-shining" against the Indian, who will hide behind a rock and then shoot you as you go by. Putting his experience to good use, Buford has schooled his men in defensive tactics, which is how they are able to dig in and hold off the attacking Confederates until relief arrives.

Divided Friendships

The nature of the Civil War is brought home by frequent references to the fact that it has split up old friends and comrades and placed them on opposite sides in the conflict. Longstreet remembers the shock of realizing that "the boys he was fighting were boys he had grown up with." Before the war, the Confederate Armistead was close friends with the Union man, Hancock. In an emotional scene, Armistead recalls his last meeting with his friend, when after dinner at Hancock's home, they stood around the piano, singing. Now, two years later, at Gettysburg, Armistead must take part in a charge on a position defended by Hancock.

When Longstreet and Lee look back on their exploits in the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-1848), Longstreet speaks admiringly of the men who served with them, noting that "Some of them are up ahead now, waiting for us." When Chamberlain thinks about the ethics of putting his brother in grave danger by getting him to plug a gap in the line, he reflects: "Killing of brothers. This whole war is concerned with the killing of brothers." John Gibbon, of Hancock's corps, has three brothers on the Confederate side. The emphasis on brother against brother presents an image of the United States as a family divided against itself.

God's Will, Human Will, or Chance?

Lee is a religious man who sees the hand of God at work in events: "He believed in a Purpose as surely as he believed that the stars above him were really there." When he hears news of the Confederates' victory on the first day, he thinks it was God's will and offers a prayer of gratitude. He also feels that the location of the battle at Gettysburg, even though it was not consciously planned, was nonetheless a part of the divine "Intention," even though earlier he had thought, as it became apparent that a battle was looming, "We drift blindly toward a great collision."

Just before the final charge begins, Lee says, "It is all in the hands of God." But Longstreet, with his practical, down-to-earth nature, thinks differently. After Lee's remark, Longstreet thinks, "[I]t isn't God that is sending those men up that hill." In other words, it is a human decision, one that could have been made differently. Not everything is predestined or fated to be the way it is. Humans also have responsibility.

The theme that events are working themselves out, for good or ill, according to God's will, can also be seen in the fact that Lee and other Confederate officers are troubled because they broke their oaths to defend the Union. There is a certain fatalism on the Confederate side, the idea that since they broke their oaths, and also since they invaded the North, God may have turned against them.


Recurring Metaphor

The title of the book points to a metaphor that recurs in the book. Before the first battle, Buford notices in the cemetery, among the gravestones, a statue of a "white angel, arm uplifted, a stony sadness." After the first battle, Buford stops in the cemetery but cannot find the white angel. It is as if the brutality of the battle has driven away this divine image.

The metaphor recurs, but with a shift in meaning, later in the novel, when Chamberlain recalls learning a speech from Shakespeare's play,

Hamlet, in which man in action is compared to an angel. On hearing his son recite the passage, Chamberlain's father remarked, "Well, boy, if he's an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel." Chamberlain then gave a speech at school entitled "Man the Killer Angel." The image recurs after the final battle ends, when Chamberlain surveys the battlefield, sees the corpses being laid out, and thinks again of man as the killer angel. The image conveys the paradox of man: he is blessed with noble feelings and high ideals, as shown in the soldiers' devotion to a cause that transcends their individual selves. This higher aspect of man's nature links him to God; it is what Chamberlain calls the "divine spark," and yet man also has another side to his nature: He is aggressive and destructive, prepared to slaughter his own kind in terrible battles.


Music is a recurring motif in the novel. The sound of military bands playing is an almost constant background to the movement of troops and the battles. As Chamberlain's men enter Hanover, a band plays the "Star-Spangled Banner"; Buford hears the Sixth Wisconsin band playing "The Campbells are Coming" as they move to take up battle positions. The music is described as "an eerie sound like a joyful wind." At Confederate headquarters, a band plays "That Bonny Blue Flag" in honor of Lee. This kind of stirring, patriotic music is designed to fill the soldiers with pride and steel their hearts for battle, but there is music of another kind that plays a key role in the novel, too. An Irish song sung by a tenor in the Confederate camp on the night before the final day of battle evokes tender emotions in all who hear it. The song is called "Kathleen Mavourneen," about the sadness of old friends when the time comes to part, whether for years or forever. The officers who hear it are deeply touched, and stillness descends on the camp. For Armistead, the song recalls the last time he was with his close friend, Hancock, who is now fighting on the Union side. Music thus creates moments of reflective sadness when men feel the pain of loss and separation. Another moment comes earlier that same night, when Longstreet hears a boy playing a harmonica, a "frail and lovely sound," and Longstreet thinks immediately of a comrade who rode off into battle and was killed. Music can therefore fortify the men for battle, or it can sadden their hearts by making them aware of the human price paid in war.

Music is also referred to in a metaphoric rather than literal sense in the description of the battles. In the midst of battle, Chamberlain hears the incredible variety of sounds, "like a great orchestra of death"; later, another unusual musical metaphor occurs: "Bullets still plucked the air; song of the dark guitar."


The Civil War Begins

The American Civil War pitted the United States federal government, under President Abraham Lincoln, against a group of initially seven southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) that seceded from the Union in February 1861, and formed the Confederate States of America, under President Jefferson Davis.

The main cause of the Civil War was slavery; states' rights were also an issue. The Confederate states believed they had a right to continue slavery and to expand the practice into the territories. Citing the Tenth Amendment, they argued that the federal government did not have the power to curtail states' rights and so could not prevent slavery being exported to the territories. The South also argued that northern states were failing to honor their obligations to the Constitution by assisting slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad and refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the capture and return of slaves who escaped into northern free states. The South also feared long-term changes in the demographic and political structure of the United States. The northern population was growing and would soon control the federal government, leaving the South in a permanent minority.


  • 1860s: Advances in weaponry lead to high casualty rates during the American Civil War. Muskets are deadly at ranges of hundreds of yards; rapid-firing rifles are common, and artillery becomes more mobile and lethal.

    1970s: In the Vietnam War, the most common weapon issued to American troops is the M16A1, 5.56mm assault rifle, a gas-operated, magazine-fed rifle capable of semi-automatic and automatic fire with an effective range of three hundred meters and a practical rate of fire of sixty rpm.

    Today: U.S. troops in Iraq are equipped with M16A2 semiautomatic rifles. The maximum effective range of this weapon over an area target is eight hundred meters; for a point target, the range is 550 meters. It fires forty-five rounds per minute and can also fire 40mm grenades when equipped with a M203 grenade launcher.

  • 1860s: The United States endures its most bitter and deadly conflict. The Civil War results in the deaths of about 646,000 soldiers. Two-thirds of the deaths are due to disease.

    1970s: The Vietnam War comes to an end. In 1973, a ceasefire agreement is signed and the last U.S. forces leave Vietnam. Over 58,000 U.S. servicemen die in the war. Lasting eleven years, the war is the longest in U.S. history. In 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, falls to North Vietnamese forces.

    Today: The United States is engaged in a costly war in Iraq. As of January 2007, the United States has lost over 3,000 servicemen since U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003; Iraqi dead are estimated to exceed 600,000.

  • 1860s: After the Civil War ends, Lee campaigns for reconciliation between the North and South. In 1865, Lee becomes president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, a position he retains until his death in 1870. Lee makes a point of recruiting college students from the North as well as from the South.

    1970s: In 1975, following a vote in Congress, President Gerald Ford issues a posthumous pardon for General Lee and a restoration of his U.S. citizenship. Ford issues a statement that the pardon corrects a one-hundred-year-old oversight in U.S. history.

    Today: In 2006, The Atlantic, in its list of the hundred most influential Americans of all time, places Lee in fifty-seventh position, and states, "He was a good general but a better symbol, embodying conciliation in defeat."

Although abolitionist sentiment was strong in the North, the abolition of slavery was not an original goal of the federal government. The North regarded secession as an act of rebellion and initially fought simply to preserve the Union.

In the early months of 1861, the Confederacy took charge of federal forts within its boundaries, and in April, Confederate forces bombarded and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston, North Carolina. This marked the beginning of the Civil War. The North immediately moved to recapture Fort Sumter and other forts; Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers. The following month, four more states, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, joined the Confederacy. The Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.

In May 1861, Lincoln blockaded southern ports, cutting off exports vital to the South. On July 21, 1861, the Confederate army fought off Union forces at the first Battle of Bull Run. The following year, the war intensified. The Union Army of the Potomac, under Major General George B. McClellan, attacked Virginia but was halted at the Battle of Seven Pines and then defeated by General Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days' Battles. Lee's army recorded another victory, against General John Pope's Union Army of Virginia, in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August. The Confederacy then invaded the North and fought the Union army at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. The result of the battle was inconclusive, but it did have the effect of halting the invasion and prompting Lee to return to Virginia.

Confederate successes followed, with victories for Lee's army at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December, 12, 1862, and the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Lee then decided to once more invade the North.

The Battle of Gettysburg

Lee's army began its invasion on June 15. He learned on June 28, 1863, that the Union army had crossed the Potomac in pursuit, and he concentrated his forces at Cashtown, eight miles west of Gettysburg. The stage was set for the most decisive battle of the war. On the first day of fighting, July 1, federal troops were outnumbered, since not all their forces were assembled. The rebels, led by Major Generals Robert E. Rodes and Jubal Early, forced the Union army to retreat from their positions just north and west of Gettysburg to the high ground known as Cemetery Hill, south of town. Lee ordered Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to take the hill if possible, but Ewell decided not to attempt it. That night Major General George Meade arrived with two divisions and set up a strong defensive position on Cemetery Hill.

On July 2, the second day of battle, Lee ordered General Longstreet's forces, led by Major General John Bell Hood, to capture the area south of Cemetery Hill, known as Big Round Top and Little Round Top, on the Union left flank. Union forces, enduring heavy casualties, managed to hold their ground. The Federals also held their positions on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill, despite determined Confederate assaults by Ewell's divisions.

On July 3, Lee attempted to capture the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The assault was preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment, after which 12,500 Confederates marched three-quarters of a mile across open terrain, during which they were subject to intense Union rifle and artillery fire. This is popularly known as Pickett's Charge, although Pickett led only one of the three divisions involved; the others were led by Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew and Major General Isaac R. Trimble. The charge was repulsed, with Confederate forces suffering heavy casualties.

Lee regrouped his army into a defensive position, thinking that the Union forces would attack. The counterattack never came, and on July 5, Lee's army headed back to Virginia.

The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in an estimated twenty-three thousand casualties on the Union side and twenty-eight thousand on the Confederate side.

The Final Years of the Civil War

After Gettysburg, the tide turned against the South. Northern forces, under General Ulysses S. Grant, formed and executed a comprehensive strategy to destroy the Confederate army and its economic base. A series of battles forced Lee's army to retreat to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. At the Siege of Petersburg, trench warfare lasted for over nine months. In April, 1864, Richmond fell to the Union army.

Meanwhile, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia, capturing

Atlanta in September 1864 and Savannah in December. Lee, realizing that the Confederate position had become hopeless, surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, took effect in December 1865.


Published by a small independent publisher in 1974, The Killer Angels at first attracted little attention from major review sources. In a very brief review in Atlantic Monthly, Phoebe Adams notes that Shaara had taken "a novelist's liberty of invention with [selected officers'] motives and reactions." Adams concludes that the novel was "an unusual project and has worked out well, with excitement and plausibility." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly comments that Shaara "fashions a compelling version of what America's Armageddon must have been like." The reviewer concludes that The Killer Angels is "a novel Civil War buffs will relish for its authenticity and general readers will appreciate for its surefire storytelling." In Library Journal, Ellen K. Stoppel comments that "Although some of [Shaara's] judgments are not necessarily substantiated by historians, he demonstrates a knowledge of both the battle and the area. The writing is vivid and fast-moving."

The novel received more attention when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Edward Weeks, in a longer review in Atlantic Monthly, comments that "The best way to write about battle is to tell it as the men who went through it saw it and felt it, and that is what Michael Shaara has done in this stirring, brilliant interpretive novel."

When the television miniseries, Gettysburg, based on The Killer Angels, was screened in 1993, the novel achieved popular success, reaching number one on the New York Times bestseller list, nineteen years after its publication. On publication in England in 1997, the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement noted that the novel concentrates entirely on the battle, rather than ranging into social territory. Commenting that "the reader becomes involved in the decisions which had to be taken and the conditions of combat, harrowingly described," the reviewer concludes that the novel is a "moving, dramatic tale."


  • The Last Full Measure: A Novel (1998), by Jeff Shaara, takes up the story of what happened after the Battle of Gettysburg. Shaara, who is Michael Shaara's son, covers Lee's retreat from Pennsylvania and continues through the end of the war. He tells the story through the eyes of Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Ulysses S. Grant. Readers may also be interested in Jeff Shaara's novel, Gone for Soldiers (2000), which covers the action prior to Gettysburg.
  • The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane, is one of the most famous novels set in the Civil War period. The hero, Henry Fleming, is a young farm boy who comes under fire in battle for the first time and runs away in fear. The battle is unnamed but may have been Chancellorsville. Henry rejoins his regiment, which does not know about his cowardice, and in a later battle shows great courage.
  • Cold Mountain (1998), by Charles Frazier, is an epic novel about the return of a wounded Civil War veteran to his home in North Carolina following the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The soldier travels three hundred miles, struggling with physical hardship and despair.
  • Carol Rearden, in Pickett's Charge in History and Memory (1997), examines Pickett's Charge through the lens of memory and reveals why the charge endures so strongly in the American imagination. Over the years, soldiers, journalists, veterans, politicians, orators, and others have shaped and revised the facts of the charge to create versions that met shifting needs and deeply felt values. Rearden shows that the story of Pickett's Charge as told in the late twentieth century is really an amalgam of history and memory.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he argues that in The Killer Angels, Shaara presents his historical material in a manner that clearly favors the northern cause in the Civil War.

Michael Shaara's riveting novel about the Battle of Gettysburg presents in novelistic form some of the political and social factors that divided the North from the South during the Civil War years, and in the dialogue he carefully selects spokesmen on both sides who argue that their cause is the just and right one. In writing the novel, Shaara states in his note "To the Reader," the author went back to the actual words of the men who participated in the battle, as recorded in letters and other documents. He states that to his knowledge, he changed no facts, and he adds, "Though I have often had to choose between conflicting viewpoints, I have not knowingly violated the action. … The interpretation of character is my own." There is no reason to quibble with Shaara's words; however, he does appear to have decided to present his material in a way that clearly favors the northern cause.

The northern cause is presented almost exclusively through the viewpoints of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his aide Buster Kilrain. Chamberlain adheres passionately to the American democratic ideal, the belief that all men have the right to freedom and the pursuit of their own destiny without coercion from the ruling powers. Chamberlain, who evokes the cause eloquently to the Maine mutineers, believes the North is fighting for the dignity of man in a country, unique in the world, where the individual matters more than the state. He is proud of the fact that in the United States, no man has to bow down to another. He regards an aristocracy as a "curse," something that belongs to old Europe, and he is horrified to see what he thinks of as a "new aristocracy" transplanted from Europe into the South. For Chamberlain, the cause for which he is fighting transcends simple patriotism and attains a universal meaning: "The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land."

The other man who gives expression to the Union cause is Chamberlain's devoted aide, Kilrain. The rough-and-ready former sergeant is a complete contrast to the eloquent, former professor Chamberlain. But as comrades in arms, their mutual respect and affection, coupled with the difference in their ages, enables them to be like father and son to each other. Separated by rank and education they may be, but they relate to each other with generosity and affection, an example of the ideal for which they are fighting, the basic equality of all men. Kilrain even attains a rough eloquence of his own in expressing his beliefs. Like Chamberlain, he dislikes aristocracies, and he expresses himself with venom that is foreign to his commanding officer: "It's the aristocracy I'm after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a cockroach, ah." He also says, "There is only one aristocracy, and that's right here—" (he taps his skull with his finger). The rights of all men to make of their talents what they can rather than being born into a rigid social and cultural system in which who a man's father is matters more than who a man is.

The only other Union character presented in any detail is Buford. Like Kilrain, he shares a dislike of a social system based on class. He is irritated by "the cavaliers, the high-bred, feathery, courtly ones who spoke like Englishmen and treated a man like dirt." When a Confederate officer he sees in the distance takes his hat off to him, Buford grimaces; "a gentleman," he thinks.

The southern attitude that Buford, Chamberlain, and Kilrain dislike can be seen right at the beginning of the novel in the way the Confederates treat their spy, Harrison, who was sent out personally by Longstreet to report on the movement of the Union army. As shown by his colloquial speech, Harrison is a lower-class individual, a former actor who likes Shakespeare but gets his quotations muddled up (he slips in a quotation from King Lear thinking it is from Hamlet). Harrison does the job he was asked to do, but there is not much of the famed southern chivalry in the way he is treated when he returns to the Confederate camp with the required information. Sorrel gazes at him distastefully; Longstreet and Lee distrust him. The point is that Harrison may be a small cog in the wheel of war; he may not be a particularly admirable character, but he doggedly gets his job done, and he does it with skill and cunning and even bravery. He is implicitly contrasted with the flamboyant, cavalier officer J. E. B. Stuart, who was also charged with the task of tracking the Union army. Whereas the humble Harrison does what he was asked to do, the glamorous Stuart conspicuously fails in the task Lee entrusted to him, and as a result he endangers the entire Confederate army. The little man did his job; the great man failed.

Compounding the subtle message imparted by this comparison between Harrison and Stuart is the fact that in this novel, the South has no spokesman who presents the southern cause with anything approaching the eloquence of the North's Chamberlain. This is not for want of conviction on the part of the rebels, since the justifications for the war are so important to them that the word "Cause" is capitalized whenever the subject comes up. Nor is the lack of eloquent defense of the Confederacy due to a lack of possible spokesmen. The reader learns the Union point of view only from Buford and Chamberlain, with a little help from Kilrain, whereas the bulk of the novel is told from the point of view of the Confederate men, Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead, and the Confederate sympathizer Fremantle. Lee fights not from some grandiose notion of states' rights but simply because he refused to take up arms against Virginians, his own kith and kin; his reasons are deeply personal, not political or philosophical. Longstreet, the professional soldier, simply wants to get on with the business of fighting and winning; he is impatient when he hears the other officers discussing the Cause, as is Armistead. It is left to the English observer Fremantle to put the southern case best. He is in favor of tradition and "breeding"; he regards democracy as advocated in the North as the "equality of rabble"; equality, he thinks, is "rot." In the South that he admires so much (in part because it reminds him of England) he finds a pleasing homogeneity; there is for the most part one religion and one way of life, but in the North there are those "huge bloody cities and a thousand religions" in which "the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth." Snobbish and bigoted he may be, but Fremantle has hit on something that was indeed one of the underlying causes of the war: the modernizing, industrializing, urbanizing North, with its rapid development of free-market capitalism, was perceived with dismay and suspicion by the predominantly rural, agrarian, tradition-bound South.

Another defense of the southern cause is given by Colonel George E. Pickett. He likens the United States before the war to a gentlemen's club. But then some members of the club (the North) started interfering with the private lives of southern members (their right to do as they pleased, according to their own traditions) so the South resigned from the club, only to be told they had no right to resign. In Pickett's eyes, then, the war resulted from a breaking of a gentlemen's agreement as enshrined in the Constitution. For Pickett and the other Confederate officers, the war has nothing to do with slavery, and everything to do with their states' rights. (Longstreet knows better and privately thinks that the war is indeed about slavery, although he does not care to talk about it.) But this defense of the Confederate cause is almost comically undercut later—in a way the northern cause never is in this novel—by the incident involving Confederate prisoners that Tom Chamberlain reports to his elder brother, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Tom has been chatting with three rebel prisoners, farm boys from the South, who insist they are fighting for their "rats." Tom finally manages to figure out that they mean "rights," but when he questions them further, trying to find out what rights they feel have been violated, all one man can say is that "he didn't know, but he must have some rights he didn't know nothin' about."

The undermining of the Confederate cause is also apparent in the story Chamberlain tells about his encounter with a southern Baptist minister who resented the North in the same way he would if someone had asked him to free a fine stallion from one of his fields. When Chamberlain tried to point out that a man is not a horse, the minister replied that "a Negro was not a man." Coming just after the incident in which Chamberlain's men treat the frightened black man who has strayed into town seeking directions and been shot by a woman from her porch, Chamberlain's story reinforces the simple moral basis of the northern cause. By turning the spotlight on slavery and the plight of black people, Shaara tries to ensure that—the fundamental decency of the rebel officers and the courage of their men notwithstanding—the reader realizes that this was a war in which the northern cause, the cause of democracy, equality of opportunity, and human rights, on which the United States of America prided itself then as now, was the just and honorable one.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Killer Angels, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.

Kevin Grauke

In the following essay, Grauke argues that the novel should be read in terms of the social and political effects that the Vietnam War had on American society. Focusing on Shaara's interpretation of character, Grauke interprets the novel as a defense of the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

In his book, The Civil War in Popular Culture, Jim Cullen examines a number of Civil-War-inspired twentieth-century works in light of how they, to varying degrees, rewrite history, thus revealing the influence of a "social or political stress" present at the time of their creations. To Cullen, the sentimental, panegyric qualities of Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln should be understood within the context of the Great Depression, "a time of enormous social and psychological instability, [during which] Lincoln could simultaneously represent ideals of freedom and equality, order and democracy, ordeal and victory." On the other hand, Gone with the Wind, particularly its protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara, should be read in terms of having been created at a "time when it finally seemed that modernity might allow women to escape, or at least restructure, the bonds of womanhood that had circumscribed their hopes for so long." To Cullen, the Confederacy-infused music of Southern rock bands of the 1970s such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band should be heard as a reaction to the "Civil Rights movement and the fear and guilt that movement engendered in white men." Along the same lines, I would argue that Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (1974) and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (1997) should be read in terms of the social and political stress exerted upon the nation by, in Shaara's case, the Vietnam War, and in Frazier's case, the approach of the millennium.

Despite being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and despite selling nearly three million copies as of 1996, very little has been written about The Killer Angels except for the reviews that were published at the time of its initial printing and at the time of the release of its film adaptation, Gettysburg (1993). Praise for the novel was nearly unanimous in these reviews. The elements of the novel that were repeatedly singled out for acclaim were its multiple points of view, which present perspectives from both the North and South, its authentic and detailed descriptions of battle scenes, and its strict reliance upon correspondence and other historical documents. Thomas LeClair, in the New York Times Book Review, praised Shaara's ability to capture the "terror and the bravery, the precarious balance of machine and man that made Gettysburg one of the last human battles," as well as his ability to provide the "minutia that give the immense motions of intellect and men their reality."

Although I agree with the accolades that these facets of the novel have received, most of these reviews ignored the more interesting—and more important—question of the novel's ideological perspective. The few that have addressed it mistakenly have praised the novel for its non-judgmental treatment of both sides. Shaara "doesn't attempt to glorify […] the causes of either North or South," wrote one reviewer (Stoppel 2092). This may seem the case at first, simply because the majority of the novel is presented from the South's—particularly Lee and Longstreet's—point of view. However, if one carefully compares how each side is presented—particularly how the novel presents the reasons for which each side believes it is fighting—one inevitably will come to realize that The Killer Angels forwards the Union's cause at the expense of the Confederacy's.

In his disclaimer to the reader, Shaara states, "I have not consciously changed any fact. […] I have not knowingly violated the action." However, at the end of this disclaimer, he adds, "The interpretation of character is my own." In light of the praise that has been heaped upon The Killer Angels by such respected historians as James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, it seems fairly safe to assume that the novel does do an excellent job of accurately portraying the facts and action of Gettysburg; however, it is through Shaara's "interpretation of character" that the novel reveals the anxieties peculiar to the United States during the 1970s.

During the ten years that Shaara spent crafting The Killer Angels prior to its publication in 1974 ("Pure Primacy" 58), the American public's discontent with the United States' involvement in Vietnam steadily intensified, particularly after the 1968 Tet Offensive and Nixon's escalation of the war into Cambodia in 1970. An increasing number of people were coming to question not only the possibility of an American victory, but the very involvement of American forces in a conflict that some viewed as a Vietnamese civil war. By 1970, two out of every three Americans believed the war to be a "brutal, dehumanizing, and pointless affair from which the United States should withdraw" (Taylor).

In direct opposition to the consensus of public opinion, Shaara—a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U. S. Army (1946-49) and a former sergeant in the U. S. Army Reserve (1949-53) ("Shaara" 463)—puts forth in The Killer Angels what should not be read merely as an attempt to portray "what it was like to be [at the Battle of Gettysburg], what the weather was like, what men's faces looked like," as Shaara claims as his reason for writing the novel, but as a defense of the United States' involvement in Vietnam. To see this, one needs only to examine the distinctions that exist between the words and thoughts of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, the heart and voice of the Union at Shaara's Gettysburg, and the words and thoughts of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, the foremost Confederate figures at the battle.

Early in the novel, before the Battle of Gettysburg commences, Chamberlain must speak to one hundred and twenty mutineers from the disbanded Second Maine in an effort to persuade them to fight with his regiment. While preparing himself for this speech, the narrator states Chamberlain's reasons for being there, for fighting against the Confederacy:

He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth.

This passage, particularly the final two sentences, speaks as loudly against the perceived threat of communism toward democracy as it does against the Confederacy's threat toward the Union. The mention of the word "state" brings to mind both the Confederate States of America as well as the communist state that, according to the foreign relations policy of the United States government during the Cold War, threatened, via the domino effect, the free world more and more with every country it consumed.

Chamberlain's thoughts continue:

If men were equal in America, all these former Poles and English and Czechs and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as a foreigner; there were only free men and slaves. And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.

This jingoistic passage is intended to cause the chests of readers to swell with pride at the mention of such all-American sensibilities as freedom and equality, not only in contrast to the South's institution of slavery, but also in contrast to communism's "slavery" of individuals to the state.

In his note to the reader, Shaara claims to have "gone back primarily to the words of the men themselves, their letters and other documents." The actual Joshua Chamberlain may very well have held the beliefs that Shaara has placed in the head of the fictional Joshua Chamberlain, but if we look at what the actual Chamberlain said regarding the cause of the Civil War at the dedication of the Maine monuments at Gettysburg in 1889, it seems as if Shaara took considerable license with the true sentiments of the hero at Little Round Top. Says Chamberlain:

It was, on its face, a question of government. There was a boastful pretense that each State held in its hands the death-warrant of the Nation; that any State had a right, without show of justification outside of its own caprice, to violate the covenants of the constitution [sic], to break away from the Union, and set up its own little sovereignty as sufficient for all human purposes and ends; thus leaving it to the mere will or whim of any member of our political system to destroy the body and dissolve the soul of the Great People. This was the political question submitted to the arbitrament arms. But the victory was of great politics over small. It was the right reason, the moral consciousness and solemn resolve of the people rectifying its wavering exterior lines according to the life-lines of its organic being.

According to this passage, the reason Chamberlain felt the Civil War was fought was not to further the cause of democracy via the crushing of the South's peculiar institution and the aristocratic impulses that forged it, but simply to bring back into the Union the rebellious southern states that unlawfully considered themselves able to disengage from it. But this reasoning does not allow itself to be applied to the contemporary situation in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was not an attempt to bring back into the fold a mutinous constituent; it was an attempt, at least theoretically, to free an innocent people from the bondage of communism. Hence the transformation of Chamberlain.

As for the Confederacy, the novel paints both Lee and Longstreet as tragically heroic figures, but it does not allow them to fight for reasons they believe in; they merely fight because they are soldiers. In the first section dedicated to Longstreet's perspective, the narrator says that Longstreet "did not think much of the Cause. He was a professional: the Cause was Victory." Then, after Pickett's Charge fails and the battle is known to be lost, Lee echoes these words in a conversation with Longstreet: "You and I we have no Cause. We have only the army." By disallowing these men a legitimate reason for fighting, the South's heartfelt cause is condemned in the same manner that the cause of Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh movement and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was condemned to the American public by its government.

This denigration of the South's cause exists in other parts of the novel, as well, particularly in a section in which Tom Chamberlain conveys to his brother Joshua a conversation he has had with a group of Confederate prisoners. Says Tom:

They kept on insistin' they wasn't fightin' for no slaves, they were fightin' for their ‘rats.’ It finally dawned on me that what the feller meant was their ‘rights,’ only, the way they talk, it came out ‘rats.’ Hee. Then after that I asked this fella what rights he had that we were offendin', and he said, well, he didn't know, but he must have some rights he didn't know nothin' about.

Granted, many of the men fighting for the South—as well as the North—probably did not have a firm grasp of what exactly they were fighting for, but no Northern equivalent of this lack of sophistication exists in the novel (nor is any Northerner ridiculed as is this soldier). Instead, we are shown soldiers such as Buster Kilrain, Chamberlain's brave and loyal man Friday, who says, "What matters is justice. 'Tis why I'm here. I'll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I'm Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen. I don't know who me father was and I don't give a damn." The Northern soldiers, like the U. S. government of the 1960s and 1970s, are to be seen as fighting for a righteous cause, whereas the Southern soldiers, like the Viet Cong, are, at best, sadly misled by their leaders, or, at worst, thoroughly un-American in their beliefs.

According to the historian Robert Brent Toplin, regrets about American involvement in World War I affected the manner in which historians of the period perceived the Civil War, causing them to see it as a conflict that was avoidable. But this opinion changed after World War II. "America's fight for freedom against fascist oppression evidently had its impact on the interpretations of history. The ‘Good War’ had involved a struggle against the evils of racism and territorial aggrandizement, and in this context consideration of ethical questions seemed to take on heightened importance." Shaara's The Killer Angels fits well within this sort of reasoning. During a time of draft dodgers, anti-war demonstrations, and a growing fear that the U. S. had entered an unwinnable war, Shaara turns to the Civil War, a war that, at least in historical retrospect, had a clearly delineated moral conflict, particularly in comparison to the dubious nature of the Vietnam War. By doing this, he attempts to transmit the artistically enhanced gloriousness and patriotism of the Union Army of 1863 to the U. S. armed forces of the 1960s and 1970s that were fighting the red scare in Southeast Asia. Had the Confederacy won, the novel implies, the America of the late twentieth century would not have come to pass. Slavery would have continued and spread, as would have the aristocratic mindset that stresses the blood of the father over the achievement of the son.

And if we extend this implication to the situation contemporary to the writing of this novel, we see that we are to understand that the America of the 1970s had reached a similarly crucial crossroads. The America that the Union affirmed with the victory over the South was in peril. If communism were allowed to sweep through Vietnam—if it were not fought militarily—it subsequently would sweep through neighboring countries, spreading until it reached the United States, where it would annihilate all the freedoms and rights we had struggled to maintain. Thus, in "one of the few effective defenses of military culture in [the Vietnam era]" (Cullen 154), The Killer Angels stands up against the tide of contemporary popular opinion, and via the seemingly unrelated topic of the Battle of Gettysburg fought in 1863, subtly forwards the United States' unpopular campaign against the spread of communism.

Now skip ahead to 1993, the year Gettysburg, the film adaptation of The Killer Angels, is released. Upon seeing the name of the distribution company, Turner Home Entertainment, one might be suspicious of Gettysburg's interpretation of The Killer Angels. After all, Turner Home Entertainment is owned by the Atlanta business mogul/Southern gentleman, Ted Turner, and its logo is an antebellum plantation house. Would the bias shift somehow from the North to the South? Would Chamberlain be portrayed as less heroic? Would Lee be portrayed as less stubbornly and foolishly arrogant? Oddly enough, if anything, the biases of the novel are intensified in the film. Overbearing, triumphalist music accompanies every move made by the Union army, while Martin Sheen's Robert E. Lee seems on the verge of senility.

Why did this film come out when it did, so long after the initial publication of The Killer Angels? Undoubtedly, one reason was the popularity of Ken Burns' 1990 eleven-hour documentary, The Civil War, as well as the popularity of Edward Zwick's 1989 film, Glory. But another probable reason was the "popularity" of the Persian Gulf War a few years before. Times—and sentiments—had changed. The American public's cynical distrust of the government and military that had been bred by the U. S. military's involvement and subsequent defeat in Vietnam had withered away significantly during the Reagan dynasty of the 1980s. Once again, public opinion supported the U. S. military's involvement in world affairs as the global policeman, the peace-maker. Operation Desert Storm, the United States' response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, inspired a sense of nationalistic pride not experienced since World War II, a sense that maintained itself in the years following Saddam Hussein's defeat. It is within this context that Gettysburg should be viewed. Even the reprint of the novel is aimed toward such a reading; the only blurb present on the cover is from General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief military officer of the Persian Gulf War: The Killer Angels is "the best and most realistic historical novel about war I have ever read."

In less than twenty years, The Killer Angels, which had once threatened the commonly held beliefs of the status quo, had come to embody them. The South, the enemy, the region that fought to continue slavery, could now reflect upon—and be reflected upon—Saddam Hussein, the despot who used his country's own people as human shields to protect his palace.

Four years after the release of Gettysburg, Charles Frazier published Cold Mountain. The patriotic atmosphere of the Gulf War had faded in the face of intensifying cultural anxieties emerging with the steady approach of the millennium, anxieties that reveal themselves from within Cold Mountain in much the same way that the cultural anxieties inspired by the situation in Vietnam reveal themselves in The Killer Angels. Like The Killer Angels, Cold Mountain, too, was a critical and commercial success. This story of Inman, a wounded Confederate veteran, and his struggle to return to Ada, the woman whom he wants to make his wife, and his home on Cold Mountain in North Carolina, sold 1.6 million copies within nine months of being published and won the National Book Award. Rick Bass's hyperbolic dust jacket blurb typifies much of the reaction this novel received: It "seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one."

What was it about this novel that caused such a furor? Some mentioned its realistic detail, its authentic rendering of nineteenth-century life. Others pointed to Inman and Ada's romance, the love that impels each of them to overcome numerous obstacles. "The genuine romantic saga of Ada and Inman is a page turner that attains the status of literature," wrote one reviewer (Jones, Jr. 73). Wrote another, "The author's focus is always on Ada and Inman. It is their movement toward each other that always remains central, and that finally makes Cold Mountain such a memorable book" (Polk). Still others referred to its setting during Civil War times, which continued to remain popular with the culture at large. One reviewer called it this generation's version of the Civil War, as were Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage for each of their respective generations (Breslin 33). But unlike Shaara's and Crane's novels, Frazier's novel provides very little battle; what combat it does provide comes to us distilled by Inman's memory. In addition to this, we get virtually no mention of the usual elements we have come to expect of Civil War novels—slavery, the Union, or states' rights.

So what kind of Civil War novel is this? Like The Killer Angels, Cold Mountain takes the Civil War and manipulates it in order to approach a contemporary issue. Where The Killer Angels concerns Vietnam, Cold Mountain alludes to the phenomenon of survivalism, as well as the ideology that encompasses survivalism, millennialism. As a cultural phenomenon, millennialism originated in the ancient Hebrew and Christian apocalyptic prophecies that foretold God's destruction of evil and his raising of the righteous to his kingdom, where they would live for a thousand years. It tends to gain popularity "during periods of intense social change, coinciding with the end of an age or era" (Lamy viii). But millennialism does not necessarily have to be of a religious order; it can be secular, as well. As we approached the year 2000, we saw the evidence of both religious and secular millennialist thought in such diverse individuals and groups as the Branch Davidians, the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, Aum Shinrikyo (the perpetrators of the Tokyo subway bombings), Randy Weaver (Ruby Ridge), the Montana Freemen, the Heaven's Gate cult, and the countless numbers of people who stockpiled living necessities in fear of fallout from the universal computer glitch famously known as Y2K. A world populated by such individuals and groups was the context from which Cold Mountain emerged, a world not too unlike the world which Inman passes through in his quest for home and in which Ada struggles to gain the knowledge necessary to allow her to survive in Inman's and her father's absence.

According to Philip Lamy in his book, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy, the survivalist philosophy, which can generally be thought of as the pragmatic aspect of millennialist thought, grew specifically from the cold-war paranoia of the fifties and gained popularity throughout the years of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It "speaks of mass destruction and death. It is not interested in reforming the system; the collapse of civilization is imminent. However, it does offer a plan of action, a kind of ‘redemption’ or ‘salvation,’ in the manner of surviving the great destruction of the current order and living on to build a new one" (Lamy vii).

In Cold Mountain, the end of the world seems to have already occurred. The landscape—nearly post-apocalyptic in its bleakness—is blighted, blasted. On the second page of the novel, as Inman looks out the window from his hospital bed where he is recovering from a wound to his neck, before he has even begun his treacherous trek back home, the narrator tells us that "he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled." Traveling primarily by night, Inman passes through a cruel and inhospitable landscape inhabited by vicious hounds, vipers, moths that look like ghosts, tree stumps that look like people, mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, horseflies, butterflies that drink from the stream of a man's urine, poison ivy, Venus fly traps, foul rivers, scythe-wielding attackers, "root doctors" (read: witches), the not-yet-dead picked apart by buzzards, lecherous preachers, and roving bands of murderous looters. In order to provide himself with at least the illusion of luck as he makes his way through this Godless world that "spoke of nothing but strife, danger, [and] grief", he "daubed on the breast of his jacket two concentric circles with a dot at the center and walked on, marked as the butt of the celestial realm, a night traveler, a fugitive, an outlier."

This image of the loner determined to prevail in an environment that is, at best, indifferent, and at worst, hostile, is the quintessential image of the survivalist hero: he wants only to survive in order that he may be left alone to make a modest life for himself. Cold Mountain, the destination of his trek, becomes for him the embodiment of his ideal, his isolationist Heaven (or, if you prefer to read Inman's journey from a non-secular perspective, his true Heaven). "He thought of getting home and building him a cabin on Cold Mountain so high that not a soul but the nighthawks passing across the clouds in autumn could hear his sad cry. Of living a life so quiet he would not need ears."

This desire for isolation and self-sufficiency is a common characteristic of the survivalist (and also of the retro-Confederate), who generally fosters an intense dislike and distrust of others. Inman "wished not to be smirched with the mess of other people," says the narrator. This dislike and distrust particularly applies to governments, which are considered a tyrannical threat to personal freedom. Many survivalists "refuse to pay federal taxes, purchase an automobile license, or vote in nationalist elections" (Lamy 124). A very distinct strain of anti-governmental thought runs throughout Cold Mountain. For Inman, the Civil War began as a fight "to drive off invaders", but it becomes for him just as much of a fight against the defenders of the South as embodied by the Home Guard, whose purpose is to round up defectors and return them to the front lines but who more often than not merely murder those whom they find. At one point, Inman is forced to kill several Federals after they have stolen everything from a widowed mother of an infant and left her to starve; at another point, he is caught and driven for days by the Home Guard, then shot and left for dead. Both sides are equally horrible, leaving Inman with no allegiances but to himself.

But Inman's story is only half of the novel. The other half concerns Ada, a former Charleston socialite who finds herself alone, helpless, and poor on a farm that she doesn't know how to maintain after the death of her wealthy and impractical father whom she had completely depended upon her entire life. Upon introduction to her, we are told that she

was perpetually hungry, having eaten little through the summer but milk, fried eggs, salads, and plates of miniature tomatoes from the untended plants that had grown wild and bushy with suckers. Even butter had proved beyond her means, for the milk she had tried to churn never firmed up beyond the consistency of runny clabber. She wanted a bowl of chicken and dumplings and a peach pie but had not a clue how one might arrive at them.

Eventually, in exchange for room and board, a world-weary but thoroughly capable woman named Ruby teaches her the art of subsistence. Grudgingly, Ada puts away her novels as well as her art materials and begins to learn everything that she needs to know to survive, from when to plant what in the garden to how to butcher and process a hog. Gradually, she grows to appreciate her newfound knowledge and respect these aspects of life that she once had disparaged. In a letter that she writes to her sister near the end of the novel, she describes the transformation, both physical and spiritual, that she has experienced: "I am brown as a penny from being outdoors all day, and I am growing somewhat ropy through the wrists and forearms. […] Working in the fields, there are brief times when I go totally without thought. Not one idea crosses my mind, though my senses are to all around me. […] You would not know [my new mien] on me for I suspect it is somehow akin to contentment."

By the end of the novel, when she and Inman reunite, Ada has come to be as self-sufficient as Inman has always been. Inman is pleasantly surprised by her metamorphosis. In their newfound harmony, the social barriers that had existed between them before Inman left to fight in the war have disappeared; the couple is able to come together naturally, without artifice. But, just as it seems they soon will begin an idyllic life together upon Cold Mountain, Inman is killed by the Home Guard, ending their hopes for the future promised by their first sexual encounter.

Despite this calamity, however, as we see in the epilogue that moves us ahead in the story nine years, Ada, without Inman, prospers in her life on Cold Mountain. Along with Ruby, Ruby's father, and Ada's daughter by Inman, Ada has come to realize that society at large is not necessary to be content; in fact, it is a hindrance. All that is needed is the community of the family and the knowledge needed to live off the land. In the final scene, we are shown a sentimental tableau: the group sitting outside around a campfire, listening to Ada read a story. "The night was growing cool, and Ada put the book away. A crescent moon stood close upon Venus in the sky. The children were sleepy, and morning would dawn early and demanding as always. Time to go inside and cover up the coals and pull in the latch string." No mention is made in the epilogue of the world beyond Cold Mountain; having completely isolated themselves within their self-sufficient sphere, they are oblivious to the struggles associated with Reconstruction that the rest of the South is experiencing.

For the South, the Civil War was the millennium, the end of the world. As we approached our own millennium (at least in the calendar sense of the word), we did not have to look through too many newspapers to find the values held by Inman and Ada reflected by a growing number of individuals and constituents in this country. Like Randy Weaver's wife and son at Ruby Ridge and David Koresh at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Inman dies a martyr's death in defense of his beliefs, leaving behind him a small but fervent group that is adamant in its desire to continue what he had started. All that he wanted was to be left alone, "to exist unmolested somewhere on the west fork of the Pigeon River drainage basin." But the government (first the government of the United States, then the government of the Confederate States of America) that once served his interests had stopped doing so; in fact, it had come to oppose him actively as he attempted to make it through the wasteland to his home.

Cold Mountain can be read as a paean to survivalism and anti-governmentalism; it is a novel that accurately reflects a small but distinct population of the United States that either believes that it must protect itself from its government by arming itself and becoming self-reliant, or believes that it must isolate itself in preparation for the end of the world (or believes a combination of both). Like some conflation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Home Guard strikes down Inman (Henry David Thoreau as portrayed by a Josey Wales-era Clint Eastwood), leaving him to burn in our memories as a symbol of what we have to fear from these times of ours. The comparatively clear-cut morality of the Civil War as observed by Shaara in the Vietnam era has transformed. No government—neither North nor South—can now be trusted. All that we can depend upon is ourselves.

How we tell the story of the Civil War structures the cultural narrative of the United States; it is the American sacred text, the American ur-text—or, at the very least, the New Testament to the Declaration of Independence's Old Testament. All that came before it in this nation can best be understood by thinking in terms of how each significant decision made or action taken influenced subsequent decisions and actions that would finally culminate in the 1860s. And all that has come after it has been influenced by how it resolved. Because of the fundamental role that the Civil War has served and continues to serve in the creation and maintenance of our nation's notion of itself, the significant attention that it continues to be paid should come as no surprise. But, like anything so monolithic, it should also come as no surprise that its meaning remains utterly protean. It is frequently interpreted in manners that drastically conflict with each other, as well as frequently referenced to buttress any number of diverse ideologies. Even the very naming of the conflict itself (The Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression) tellingly exposes the divisiveness that has marked all aspects of discourse about it. The very fact that it refuses to be completely understood and explained goads us to attempt to infuse it with our own concepts of what is significant and important to our contemporary lives. In the 1970s, The Killer Angels recast the Civil War as a parable of Vietnam; in the 1990s, Cold Mountain recast it as a backdrop to the political and spiritual concerns that faced a growing number of individuals as the millennium approached. In the future, the concerns and fears of the populace of the United States will again make themselves known through the manner in which the decisions and actions made by the likes of Lincoln and Lee are recast.

Source: Kevin Grauke, "Vietnam, Survivalism, and the Civil War: The Use of History in Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain," in War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 14, Nos. 1-2, 2002, pp. 45-57.


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Douthat, Ross, "They Made America," The Atlantic, Vol. 298, No. 5, December 2006, p. 74.

Review of The Killer Angels, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 206, No. 2, July 8, 1974, p. 69.

Review of The Killer Angels, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4916, June 20, 1997, p. 25.

Shaara, Michael, The Killer Angels, David McKay, 1974.

Stoppel, Ellen K., Review of The Killer Angels, in Library Journal, Vol. 99, No. 15, September 1, 1974, p. 2092.

Weeks, Edward, "The Peripatetic Reviewer," in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 235, No. 4, April 1975, p. 98.


Chesnut, Mary, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, Yale University Press, 1993.

Wife of a Cabinet member under Jefferson Davis, Chesnut describes the Civil War, much of which she witnessed. She was in Charleston during the firing on Fort Sumter, for example, which began the conflict. The 1982 edition of this book received the Pulitzer Prize for History.

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1963, pp. 467-581.

This is one of the best accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg written to date. It brings the personalities of the soldiers to life and clearly recreates the ebb and flow of battle as it really was, not as legend has made it.

Hartwig, D. Scott, A Killer Angels Companion, Thomas Publications, 1996.

Hartwig is a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, and in this book, he examines the extent to which Shaara's novel reflects the truth about the Battle of Gettysburg and its key figures. He also discusses what happened to the major characters after Gettysburg.

Lewis, Clayton, "The Civil War: Killing and Hallowed Ground," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 103, No. 3, Summer 1995, pp. 414-25.

Lewis argues that in many respects the novel is quite conventional. Its achievement, however, is the use of modern fictional technique to convey the immediacy of Civil War combat.