The Killer Angels: Essay Q&A
1. Was Lee really to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg?
In the novel, Lee and Longstreet disagree over tactics. Longstreet wants to practice a defensive strategy, involving a move around the left flank of the Union army. This would have placed the Confederate army between the Union army and Washington DC, forcing the Union forces to attack well-defended Confederate positions. In contrast, Lee insists on attacking, but his tactics, both on day two and day three of the battle, do not achieve their objectives. On day three, Longstreet says it would need a miracle for Lee’s tactic of attacking the center of the Union line to succeed. After the battle, Lee admits to Longstreet that he was wrong and that Longstreet was correct. However, this is not the way that all historians have viewed the battle. Much of The Killer Angels is based on Longstreet’s memoirs, so the novel is slanted to show Longstreet as being right and Lee wrong. For example, Longstreet stated in his memoir (as quoted by Jeffry D. Wert in his book General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography): “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” This is very close to the words given to Longstreet in The Killer Angels. However, in the years following the Civil War, Longstreet himself was subject to considerable criticism. There were accusations that he had dragged his feet in executing Lee’s orders and had attacked too late in the day, thus contributing to the defeat. Modern historians do not accept this version of events, but Longstreet’s reputation suffered for many decades because of this and other allegations, including his blaming of Lee for the defeat. Lee was a revered figure, and criticism of him was unwelcome in the South. Biographies of Lee and a number of other histories of the Civil War right up to the 1950s and 1960s painted Longstreet in a bad light and did not accept that Lee’s tactics were responsible for the defeat. The Killer Angels, when published in 1974, helped to rehabilitate Longstreet’s reputation, but the presentation of him in a sympathetic light does not necessarily mean that his view of events was the correct one.
2. Which cause is presented in the best light in the novel—that of the North or South?
Although more chapters are told from the point of view of the Confederates (Lee, Longstreet, Armistead), it is the Union cause that is presented with the most force and eloquence. This is apparent as early as chapter 2, which is narrated from Chamberlain’s point of view. He has an idealistic view of what America stands for: “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” (p. 29). Chamberlain then gives an inspiring speech to the mutineers, in which he tells them that theirs is an army unique to history because it goes out “to set other men free” (p. 32). The Union cause is further dramatized when the Twentieth Maine finds the wounded black man, an escaped slave, in Gettysburg. The men treat him well, and Buster Kilrain comments, “And this is what it’s all about” (p. 179), reinforcing Chamberlain’s view of the noble cause for which the war is being fought and affirming his own view of the basic equality of all men.
There is no comparable figure to Chamberlain on the side of the Confederates. Longstreet is not interested in the Cause, as he puts it, and neither does Lee spend any time espousing it. The Confederate officers, including Kemper and Pickett, do talk about their cause among themselves, but not at length and certainly without the passionate interest in freedom that Chamberlain expresses on behalf of the North. They are mystified that the North thinks the war is all about slavery, since they believe it is a matter of states’ rights. Pickett explains that being a part of the Union was like joining a gentleman’s club—if they later decided that they wanted to leave the club, they should have the right to do so. The Englishman Fremantle also champions the Confederate cause, but he does so as an outsider who is misinformed about some issues and supports the Confederates largely because in their respect for tradition they remind him of England. In addition, the Confederate cause is undermined by a comical incident in which Tom Chamberlain of the Twentieth Maine talks to three rebel prisoners. He thinks they keep insisting they are fighting for their “rats,” until he realizes they are talking about their “rights.” But when he asks them what rights they have that are being violated, one of them replies that “he didn’t know, but he must have some rights he didn’t know nothin’ about.”
3. What role does religious faith play in the novel?
General Lee in particular is presented as a religious man with a streak of fatalism in his nature. He tends to attribute certain events to the will of God. This is first apparent when he realizes that there will be a battle at Gettysburg, even though this was not the location he had decided upon. Everything seems to be unfolding without much input from him and he thinks, “it was all in God’s hands” (p. 111). Later, as he muses about whether the Confederates will in effect win their independence on July 4th—Independence Day itself—he wonders whether that is part of the divine purpose, which he believes in “as surely as he believed that the stars above him were really there” (p. 278). Just before Pickett’s Charge begins, Lee repeats the notion that “It is all in the hands of God” (p. 317), although Longstreet, the down-to-earth soldier, pointedly replies that “it isn’t God that is sending those men up that hill.” Longstreet’s remark presents a different world view. Men do not march blindly to their preordained fates; their fate is decided by men who make certain decisions and have it in their power to make different ones. It is human will not divine will that determines outcomes.
Armistead has a religious nature similar to that of Lee. He prays before Pickett’s Charge begins, knowing that everything is out of his hands, and he believes there is a “foreordained” plan, the outline of which they will soon come to know. Like Lee he seems fatalistic, believing himself to be “in the grip of these great forces, powerless, sliding down the long afternoon toward the end, as if it was all arranged somewhere” (p. 334).
No one on the Union side expresses ideas like these, which seem to be associated with the traditional religious faith that flourished in the South and which is part of the reason Fremantle admires the Confederacy. On the other side, Chamberlain, who in effect is the chief spokesman for the Union cause, thinks more in terms of the ability of men to shape their own future democratically rather than invoking the will of God as the power that dictates what happens in human affairs.
4. What role did the battle play in the Civil War as a whole?
The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. On the Union side there were about 23,000 casualties; the Confederates suffered about 28,000 casualties.
The battle is usually considered the “high tide of the Confederacy.” Never again would the Confederacy be in the strong position it occupied during the summer of 1863, at the time of the invasion of the North but before the defeat at Gettysburg. Some historians argue that had the Confederates won, they might have gone on to win the entire war, although this is not a universal view. It belongs mostly to the movement known as the Lost Cause, which blames the failure at Gettysburg on Lee’s subordinates, including Longstreet, Early, and Stuart (the failures of the latter two are outlined in The Killer Angels).
Other historians regard the battle as a turning point in the war, although opinions differ as to how decisive it was. At the time, many in the South regarded the defeat at Gettysburg as a setback rather than a disaster, and beginning on July 5, two days after the battle, Lee’s army began a successful retreat, in the face of many dangers, to Virginia. The war was to continue for two more years before the South surrendered. However, never again would Lee’s army mount an offensive campaign. The initiative had passed to Ulysses S. Grant, who became commander of the Union armies in 1864. It was Grant who was responsible for developing and executing a strategy that resulted in the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg, a series of battles that forced Lee’s army to retreat to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. In April 1865, Lee abandoned Richmond and retreated west, but was cut off by Union forces. Lee then surrendered to Grant at the battle of Appomattox Court House, and within two months, with the surrender of other Confederate armies, the war effectively came to an end.
5. What is the balance between fiction and nonfiction in The Killer Angels?
The writer of the historical novel that focuses closely on actual events writes under certain constraints. Unless he is writing an “alternative” history, as Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen did in Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (in which the Confederates win the battle), he must stick to the basic facts of the matter and must be reasonably truthful to the roles played by the main actors in the historical events. Anticipating this question, Shaara writes in his note “To The Reader,” “I have not consciously changed any fact . . . I have not knowingly violated the action.” He acknowledges that he has modernized some of the language and also that “the interpretation of character is my own,” although that interpretation is based, he points out, on “letters and other document of the men themselves.”
All of the major characters in the novel are historical personages who took part in the battle, but Shaara does permit himself the liberty of creating at least one fictional character. This is Private Buster Kilrain, the former sergeant in the Twentieth Maine who plays the role of father figure to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Kilrain is wounded twice and dies on the last day of battle. There was no such man in real life, although if the Wikipedia entry under the name Buster Kilrain is accurate, it is possible that Shaara based the character partly on a Sergeant George Buck, who served in the Twentieth Maine. According to Thomas Desjardin’s book, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign (1995), Buck was, like Kilrain, demoted from sergeant to private for striking an officer and was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Shaara, however, develops the character far beyond these bare historical facts. The author uses Kilrain so that Joshua Chamberlain can have someone to bounce ideas off regarding political and metaphysical matters. In addition, Kilrain’s admiring attitude to Chamberlain helps to shape the reader’s positive impression of Chamberlain.
Another fictional character is likely to be the escaped slave who is helped by the men of the Twentieth Maine. This episode, which involves Kilrain, takes up much of chapter 2 of The Second Day, and that chapter might therefore be considered the most fictional chapter in the book, developed because Shaara wished to show the reader in a concrete way how the Union side was opposed to slavery.