Thursday, April 14, 2011
Review - The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Short review: Lee blunders. Stuart joyrides. Longstreet broods. Meade does little. Chamberlain fights. Pickett charges. Hancock destroys Pickett's division. The South throws away any chance it had of hoping to win the war by trusting to the leadership of a cavalier who belongs to an earlier age.
On a rural field
Lee and Meade's vast armies meet
Decide nation's fate
Full review: The Killer Angels is probably one of the best historical novels about the U.S. Civil War. It is certainly the best historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, which it details from Lee's initial decision to turn East and move his army towards Washington D.C. in his second invasion of the Union, to the aftermath immediately following the breaking of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge. In between, the largest land battle to ever take place on the North American continent took place, and the result sealed the fate of the Confederacy. The novel also spawned the Ted Turner movie Gettysburg, which is both quite good and remarkably faithful to the book, although as a result it is really long.
Although this book is listed as the middle book in a trilogy, the other two books (Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure) were written years after this one by Michael Shaara's son Jeff Shaara following the elder Shaara's death. Unfortunately, Jeff is not quite as good a novelist as his father, so there is a danger that someone reading them in "order" will read Gods and Generals and decide not to continue the series. That would be a mistake. This novel is masterfully executed and stands head and shoulders above the other two novels in the trilogy.
While some historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg the pivotal moment in the U.S. Civil War, after reading Bruce Catton's excellent three volume history of the war - The Coming Fury (read review), Terrible Swift Sword (read review), and Never Call Retreat (read review) - I have come to the conclusion that it was instead the last desperate gasp of a defeated nation - a huge gamble against long odds that had little hope of success. This view seems to be borne out by the characterizations in The Killer Angels: The one dominant feeling one gets from most of the Confederate characters is a feeling of exhaustion. The soldiers are tired, Lee is tired, his minuscule staff is tired, and Shaara conveys this feeling perfectly. The lone exception to this is the exuberant General Pickett and the prodigal J.E.B. Stuart, but Pickett's exuberance against this background of overall malaise the rest of the Confederates seem to share makes his confidence seem even more misplaced and makes Stuart's energy seem juvenile. On the other hand, many on the Union side are exhausted by their travails during the unfolding events, but few of them have to deal with the relentless pace of the battle day after day.
The novel is told from a shifting limited third person viewpoint, jumping from person to person as the events of the battle move about. This storytelling style allows Shaara to give the reader a comprehensive view of the battle, while also giving insight into the decisions and difficulties each of the featured individuals would have faced. Reading the novel and knowing the history of the events of late June and early July 1863, one gets a sense of impending doom as a tired Lee lacking reliable intelligence about his enemy and relying on faulty assumptions and erroneous information works to convince himself that the incredibly stupid is actually the correct choice.
The novel makes clear two things. The first is that the Confederacy was already on its last legs, even though the war would drag on for almost two more years. As noted before, the Confederates portrayed in the novel seem almost universally exhausted, but they are also clearly lacking in basic supplies and out-manned by their opponent. The second is that placing too much faith in a single leader can exalt a military organization, but only so long as that leader makes the correct choices. When such a leader is wrong, or places his trust in subordinates who are unequal to the tasks given them, placing him upon such a pedestal results in there being no checks against his poor judgment. The Confederacy was both blessed and cursed with Lee as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and this book drives this home with a series of hammer blows that highlight both his obvious strengths as a leader, and his not so obvious but still quite serious flaws.
In the end, this book is probably as close as anyone alive today will come to seeing inside the minds of Lee, Longstreet, Buford, Chamberlain, and Armistead. It covers much of the battle, and covers it quite clearly. Shaara's choice of selecting critical viewpoint characters gives an intensely personal perspective on the battle, but it does limit the book as history as it limits the range of events that can be covered. For example, choosing Buford as his Union viewpoint character for the events of the first day limits Shaara's ability to detail the events of the day that took place after Buford left the main engagement. Similarly, by focusing on Chamberlain on the second day, Shaara is unable to cover the attacks that took place on the right flank of the "fishhook", as well as the attacks even on Big Round Top and the front side of Little Round Top. As a result, the fierce fighting in the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Devil's Den gets limited attention. Such compromises are probably necessary to make an account of a three day battle fit into a single novel length work, so these are probably minor quibbles. Despite this, this is an excellent book, and a must read for anyone who wants to understand the U.S. Civil War and the men who fought it.
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