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Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Prior to a distinguished academic and literary career he was a decorated paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne Division, a boxer and police officer. He published a great number of short stories prior to his first novel, “The Broken Place”, published in 1968. He died at age 59 in 1988 and his bestseller “For Love of the Game” was published posthumously.
“The Killer Angels” is a fact-based historical novel of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. As the battle was the greatest and costliest engagement of the Civil War, any depiction of it, factual or fictional, can be of epic proportions. Authors and historians are aided by a vast historical record encompassing everything from military records, eyewitness accounts, and volumes of letters written by the combatants. Shaara’s purpose is to place the reader “in the saddle” and see the battle through the eyes of the leaders. He places his novel precisely within the documented chronological and geographic facts of the battle and narrows his focus to fourteen key Confederate and Union officers. He tells the story of Gettysburg through their actions, issues and emotions, creating their thoughts and dialog based on the historical record. While this may disappoint anyone seeking the grand epic, it makes for a much more comprehensible lesson of what can only be seen as a very chaotic battle.
Shaara is very effective in telling the story and has a very readable style that is at once very dramatic yet authentic. His account is generally well presented, organized and balanced, and leaves the reader with no doubt of the magnitude and horrors of the battlefield. With such an enormous amount of detailed information available on the Battle of Gettysburg there are countless other issues and persons that Shaara could have brought into the book. That kind of scope was clearly not his purpose; rather, he is very succinct in limiting the action and accounts and is therefore successful in bringing the reader into the battle. He does this by essentially using a time-line of the battle, concentrating on the specific officer of significance at each critical point in time.
However, Shaara seems to emphasize the Confederate officers when there was a great deal of intrigue and machinations within the Union command ranks. He also does not provide much information regarding the surrounding civilian citizenry nor does he go into the political situations facing the generals of both governments. Yet these minor points are not necessarily detrimental; again, with an event as monumental as Gettysburg, Shaara is to be commended for fashioning an extremely moving and readable account. Not surprisingly, is was the basis of the widely acclaimed film “Gettysburg”.
By concentrating on the select officers and avoiding the temptation to deluge the reader with strategic and tactical plans and statistics, Shaara clearly presents the battle in a very personal perspective, allowing the reader to seemingly share their vision of their roles, actions, strengths, weaknesses, and regret. He takes the battle out of the mind-numbing colossal scope and places it squarely in human terms. This is the greatest strength of “The Killer Angels”. He succinctly portrays the enormous human toll as well as the generals’ personal emotional toll in this comment from General Lee to General Longstreet: “I lectured you yesterday, on war. I was trying to warn you. But…you have no Cause. You and I, we have no Cause. We have only the army. But if a soldier fights only for soldiers, he cannot ever win. It is only the soldiers who die.”
“The Killer Angels” is a “must read” for any student of The Civil War as well as a very significant work for anyone desiring a book which is fast-moving, historically accurate and emotionally moving.
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