The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

Book 44

My mother loved Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels so much that she has read every book his kid wrote. I might have gone my whole life rolling my eyes at the idea of reading a novel about Gettysburg, except that Professor Blight mentioned that it was the fiction piece that he had assigned to his Civil War students for years – until Doctorow’s The March.

I think I understand why Blight made the change. The March focused less on the soldiers’ experience and a bit more on the civilian experience. And it particularly focused on the experience of the freed slaves. The Killer Angels covers the Battle of Gettysburg by moving the narrative from one leader to another on both sides of the field.

I cannot even describe how beautifully written this book was, except to say that I put it down after almost every chapter. Both to let the language sink in, and because I didn’t want to hurry through it. Until Pickett’s charge. Then I might have hurried a bit. Because, you know, it doesn’t end well.

I loved them all. John Buford, the Union General that got the high ground and held it until he was reinforced. Colonel Chamberlain, the professor from Maine who had his little brother in his regiment. But mostly, for me, this book was about Generals Lee and Longstreet.

I don’t need to tell you that Lee was next to God in this time and place, but Shaara did a brilliant job of making me believe it without being frothy. I think this was mostly because we see him through Longstreet’s eyes. Longstreet loved him, but believed he was wrong and told him so. There is a moment when Longstreet is ranting – which almost never happened – to a friendly British observer – that the battles won by the Confederates were not won because of superior strategy or tactics. Or better weapons or even better soldiers. They were won because the men were just that devoted to Lee. Chivalry and devotion to Lee.

I was going to find some small part of the text here to help make my point, but there are too many and they run rather long. This one is a keeper.

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