Gettysburg, a pivotal battle in the American Civil War, was fought on July 1 – 3, 1863, making this year the 150th anniversary. As far as I know, I have no personal relationship to the battle; none of my relatives were there, and I grew up on the other side of the country. But when I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit the battlefield, I was in tears. I’m not sure, but I think my tears were brought forth by, of all things, two particularly well done films: the four-and-a-quarter-hour 1993 film Gettysburg, and Ken Burns’ eleven and a half hour 1990 documentary The Civil War. I know it’s not the same thing, but these two compassionate, sober accounts have made me feel emotionally close to these battles. This year I decided it was high time I step back and read the source for the 1993 movie, the Pulitzer-winning The Killer Angels (1974).
For me, the title of the novel perfectly captures the tone of the book. It’s taken from an oration one of the main characters, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, wrote. Chamberlain is a high-minded individual who volunteered for the war because he felt it was time humanity stick up for humanity. When he was younger, he recited a favorite speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to his father:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
His father responded, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel” (Hamlet would agree). This inspired Chamberlain oration topic: Man, the Killer Angel.
Shaara’s accounting of the three-day battle of Gettysburg shows some men at their most noble, filled with courage and conviction and the spirit of true sacrifice, and yet they are enacting a horrendous slaughter, sometimes against their own family and friends. It’s a strange paradox, and I think it’s that strange paradox, that terrible situation, that puts me in tears. These are, for the most part, good men, and their fate is to kill other good men, and maybe die themselves.
In the course of the book, we primarily follow three men: the above-mentioned Colonel Chamberlain, of the Union Army; General James (“Pete”) Longstreet, of the Confederate Army; and General Robert E. Lee, of the Confederate Army. We also wander around with Union cavalry General John Buford, Confederate General George Pickett, and a few others.
Each man has his own reason for being in the war. Some were fighting for the success of the Union that was only four score and seven years old; some, like Chamberlain, because it was time to show ourselves and the world that man is truly equal; others to ensure their states had the right to find their own way without an obtrusive federal government telling them what to do. Yes, slavery was very much at the center of all of this, but Shaara’s book shows that the individual motives or excuses or whatehaveyou were a bit more nuanced.
Shaara gives each man a unique life, allowing us to feel their triumphs, their demons. One of my favorites (though I loved Shaara’s portrayal of them all) was the relatively quiet but stubborn Longstreet, who has recently lost two of his young children. Deep in thought, short in words, he’s pessimistic, upset, really, that Lee chose to invade the North. The Confederate army seems oblivious to the fact that they could actually lose this thing, and that confidence in themselves, in Southern nobility, and in God’s will, is perhaps a factor in their thrilling advances. Longstreet seems to be the only one among them show sees the writing on the wall, though he, who never was in favor of succession in the first place, would fight, against orders, on the front lines.
Most of these men, now on opposing sides of a war, knew each other well, for they’d all fought together in the Union Army during their younger days. This is tragically shown in the relationship of General Armistead, of the Confederate Army, and General Hancock, of the Union Army. There’s a poignant scene on the second evening when Armistead sits down to talk with Longstreet. A young voice has just sung the sad song “Kathleen Mavourneen. Armistead, on the cusp of tears, remembers the night he and his best friend, now waiting on the other side of the battlefield, separated to join their armies. This passage shows how Shaara is able to slow things down, give us genuine sentiment, and show the personality (see Longstreet’s quiet listening) of the men involved:
[Armistead] stopped, paused, looked down in the whisky glass, looked up at Longstreet. “You know how it was, Pete.”
“Well, the man was a brother to me. You remember. Toward the end of the evening . . . it got rough. We all began, well, you know, there were a lot of tears.” Armistead’s voice wavered; he took a deep breath. “Well, I was crying, and I went up to Win [Hancock] and I took him by the shoulder and I said, ‘Win, so help me, if I ever lift a hand against you, may God strike me dead.'”
Longstreet felt a cold shudder. He looked down at the ground. There was nothing to say. Armistead said, shaken, “I’ve not seen him since. I haven’t been on the same field with him, thank God. It . . . troubles me to think on it.”
Longstreet wanted to reach out and touch him. But he went on looking at the dark ground.
“Can’t leave the fight, of course,” Armistead said. “But I think about it. I meant it as a vow, you see. You understand, Pete?”
“I thought about sitting this one out. But . . . I don’t think I can do that. I don’t think that would be right either.”
Armistead sighed. He drank the last of the whisky in a swift single motion. He took off the soft black hat and held it in his hand and the gray hair glistened wetly, and the band of white skin at the forehead shone in the light. With the hat off he was older, much older, old courtly Lo. Had been a fiery young man. Lothario grown old.
These little moments make the book (and movie) deep and meaningful, much more than a battle scene. Another small moment comes just before the start of the famous Battle of Little Round Top, when Colonel Chamberlain successfully holds the ground protecting the Union Army’s flank. Chamberlain had the high ground, but he didn’t have many men and only little ammunition (they would run out of ammunition after withstanding two Confederate attacks, leading to a gutsy bayonet charge down the hill). Just before the first Confederate attack, Shaara slows down all action and focuses on Chamberlain’s wandering mind:
Don’t like to wait. Let’s get on, get on. But his mind said cheerily, coldly: Be patient, friend, be patient. You are not leaving here. Possibly not forever, except, as they say, trailing clouds of glory, if that theory really is true after all and they do send some sort of chariot, possibly presently you will be on it. My, how the mind does chatter at times like this. Stop thinking. Depart in a chariot of fire. I suppose it’s possible. That He is waiting. Well. May well find out.
As it happens, Chamberlain’s little brother, a very kind young man who gets along with everyone, including prisoners, is in the fight. Their relationship is touching, each looking out for the other, and Chamberlain hates that brothers have to fight next to each other and perhaps witness the other’s demise. Worse, at one crucial moment of the battle, Chamberlain sees a hole in their line and tells his brother Tom to fill the gap:
Chamberlain saw movement below, troops drawn toward the gap as toward a cool place in all the heat, and looking down, saw Tom’s face and yelled, but not being heard, pointed and pushed, but his hand stopped in mid-air, not my own brother, but Tom understood, hopped across to the vacant place and plugged it with his body so that there was no longer a hole but one terribly mortal exposed boy, and smoke cut him off, so that Chamberlain could no longer see, moving forward himself, had to shoot another man, shot him twice, the first ball taking him in the shoulder, and the man was trying to fire a musket with one hand when Chamberlain got him again, taking careful aim this time.
This moment, when he plugs the hole with the human flesh of his mortal, younger brother, will haunt Chamberlain for the remainder of the book. We are fortunate to experience it, however slightly, with him.