Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

 This is the fourth post in a series of book reviews on war.  Click on the  hyperlinks for the first and second and third.

    The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara was first published in 1974.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and is the basis for the movie Gettysburg.  

    Focusing on the Battle of Gettysburg, Shaara starts with the days preceding it and brings us step by step up to this momentous and horrific occasion.

      In the beginning of the book, Shaara introduces the reader to all the key players, who they are, where they come from, and how they ended up commanding or serving in certain armies.  At the end of the book, he lets us know how they all ended up after the war-those that survived it.

     In between, we get to hear the thoughts and decisions each leader and other soldiers make.  Reading the book I felt as if I were a phantom, an invisible third party, witnessing and experiencing one of the most profound turning points of our country’s history.  Shaara is impeccable in his use of language.  He is not guilty of the sin so many modern writers commit by putting today’s thoughts and words into people from eras who never thought and spoke as we do today. (Author Margaret Atwood is guilty of this and it's why I no longer read her books.)

     His language and descriptions of how the men spoke, carried themselves, interacted with each other, no doubt based on researching letters and documents written during the time period, carry an eloquence sadly lacking in today’s modern language and behavior.  The south may have lost, but the rest of us lost a dignity in our culture that grace and manners had given it once upon a time.    

On June 15, the first troops of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee commanding, slip across the Potomac at Williamsport and begin the invasion of the North.

It is an army of seventy thousand men.  They are rebels and volunteers.  They are mostly unpaid and usually self-equipped.  It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.  It is Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  Though there are many men who cannot read or write, they all speak English.  They share common customs and a common faith...

...Their main objective is to draw the Union army out into the open where it can be destroyed.  By the end of the month they are closing on Harrisburg, having spread panic and rage and despair through the North.


  Late in June the Army of the Potomac, ever slow to move, turns north at last to begin the great pursuit which will end at Gettysburg.  It is a strange new kind of army, a polyglot mass of vastly dissimilar men, fighting for union.  There are strange accents and strange religions and many who do not speak English at all...

....they have lost faith in their leaders but not in themselves.  They think this will be the last battle, and they are glad that it is to be fought on their own home ground...

It is the third summer of the war.   (From the foreword)

       That sounds nice and neat but anyone who knows their history knows that the Spanish populated the south before the Anglo Saxons and many fine old Southern cities such as Mobile, Alabama did and still have Roman Catholic majority populations.  It wasn’t only the Anglo Saxon Protestants who marched against the north.

     That is the only thing to remember.  As convincing as Shaara’s writing is, it is still a work of fiction and no one really knows what any of these historical figures were thinking or saying amongst each other-even though as I said, I think he captured the style and culture superbly.

 I appreciate Shaara’s even handed writing.  It permits us to sympathize with each side.  Each side was populated by humans, young men, many who never returned home to their families.  Shaara allows us to see how hellish war is and especially this one.  The Battle of Gettysburg is the Confederate army’s defeat that prompted Lee and other southern generals to request to be relieved of their command.  The book quotes Lee as taking full responsibility for the Confederate’s loss but I also believe that he and the others then understood that this was a war the South must ultimately lose. 

      As history shows us, he is refused, and it finally takes Generals Grant and Sherman to persuade Jefferson Davis that there is no hope. 


      I received this book from Paperback Swap.  A great website where you can trade books for free. 

Kindle Store


For other books about Americans in war:

For further information:


  1. Great review Sharon.

    I liked The Killer Angels a lot (, I also recommend Jeff Shaara's books, he continued writing in his father's style finished The Civil War and moved on the WWII books which I thought were fantastic.

    I'm going to Gettysburg with the local university in March, can't wait.

    1. Thanks, MOLB. I never got to Gettysburg when I lived in the northeast, unfortunately. It was visiting West Point that sparked my interest in the Civil War.
      There are many Civil War battlefields near where I live down South that I've enjoyed visiting.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.