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The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | Context


The American Civil War

The battle of Gettysburg, the subject of the novel, was just one battle among many in the conflict between the Confederate and Union armies in the latter half of the 19th century known as the American Civil War. The 19th century saw a growing divide in the economic investments of the northern portion of American and the Southern states. While the economy of the North expanded to include a variety of industries, transportation, and financial institutions, the majority of the Southern economy, driven by plantations, relied on investments into slave labor. Increasingly the morality of slavery was questioned by the abolition movement, and conflict over the expansion of slavery to newly acquired lands from the Mexican-American War of 1848 caused mounting tensions between those in favor of and those opposed to slavery.

When Abraham Lincoln, the candidate for the antislavery Republican Party, was elected in 1860, seven states from the South seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. They were fiercely committed to their right to self-governance and against federal rule. Four more Southern states soon joined the Confederacy. In joining the Confederate States of America the 11 states of the Confederacy declared their independence from the United States, which had 20 remaining states, a larger population, and greater resources than its foe. The Confederate force, or rebel army as it was known, launched its first attack on the North, or Union Army, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861, beginning what was to be a four-year-long armed conflict that divided the nation. Although the Confederate Army enjoyed many victories, leading some to believe their victory was certain, the Battle of Gettysburg described in the novel proved to be a turning point in the war in the Union's favor. The Confederacy was eventually overpowered and conceded defeat in April 1865. The Civil War came at the cost of well over half a million American lives.

The Battle of Gettysburg

The pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, the setting and subject of the novel, was the stage on which Confederate general Robert E. Lee, along with others, made fateful mistakes, which many consider to have altered the course of the war. Lee, who was revered by his troops, was inspired in part by a winning streak during his 13 months of command that led up to the confrontation at Gettysburg. Morale in the Confederate Army was high, and confidence in Lee's leadership was virtually unquestioned, as described in the novel.

After the recent death of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Lee reconfigured his 75,000 troops into three corps and a cavalry division. Lee's offensive invasion of Pennsylvania was an unexpected move, giving the Confederate Army an opportunity to strike before the Union Army fully assembled. However, the absence of Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, the leader of Lee's Confederate Calvary division whose job was to scout the location of the Union Army, left Lee unsure regarding his opponent's formation and strength. Lee's decision, against the advice of his second in command General James Longstreet, to allow Major General George Pickett to lead a charge up Cemetery Ridge proved disastrous for the Confederate Army.

Cemetery Ridge offered a large tactical advantage of both height and fortification, but forcing Confederate troops to march across a valley to get there left them at the mercy of enemy fire. The resulting retreat turned into a retreat of all that was left of Lee's troops, who fled southward. The tragic consequences so vividly described in The Killer Angels inspired journalist Charles Carleton Coffin to call the battle "the high water mark" of the Confederacy. Some historians name the Battle of Gettysburg as the turning point in the war as Lee's ill-informed decisions likely cost the South the battle despite the courage and aggression of the Confederate soldiers.

The Union Army was led by General Joseph Hooker, who mistakenly believed the Confederate force outnumbered his own. He demanded reinforcements or replacement. The Union leadership replaced Hooker with George Meade, who went into the fight with little to no information from his predecessor. The ensuing battle, marked by confusion and strategic guesses on both sides, was one of the most deadly conflicts of the war, causing nearly 50,000 casualties and accounting for the harm or death of a quarter of the Union soldiers and a third of the Confederate soldiers in the fight.

19th-Century Warfare

The Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) and the technological advances that resulted rapidly changed warfare in the 19th century. Advances in communication, logistics, and weaponry greatly impacted the way war was waged. The invention of the telegraph and increased distribution of daily newspapers increased the rate of the communication of information. Because of the telegraph, commanders in the Civil War no longer had to wait a week for new orders to arrive or to learn the outcome of battles in another part of the war. This technology enabled the Union, in particular, to communicate with their leaders in Washington, bringing the new commander General Meade to the site of the conflict within days, as described in the novel. Through newspapers the public too was more informed than ever before about not just the events of the war but of the personalities of the players involved. Journalism served to garner support as well as sway public opinion about the war, although the reliability of the reports was sometimes dubious. In the novel Confederate Cavalry Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart is said to have courted the attention of the press, and a journalist was embedded with the Confederate Army to report on events.

At the time of the Civil War the advent of the railway system and industrial production of goods made it more possible than ever to efficiently move and supply an army of hundreds of thousands of men. The North, with its growing industrial economy and healthy railway system, had a great advantage in this respect over the South, where infrastructure was in poorer condition.

Newly developed weaponry changed the execution of warfare. The standard Confederate infantry weapon for fighters in the Civil War was the Enfield rifle musket, which had twice the range of the rifles that preceded it. This meant soldiers could fire at greater distance, which increased the number of infantry deaths. The Union Army used Springfield rifle muskets. These rifles had bayonet attachments that could be fixed to the end of the muzzle, as Union officer Joshua Chamberlain has his men do when they run out of ammunition, a scene powerfully portrayed in the novel. Some soldiers also had Colt or Remington revolvers, but few had guns that would fire repeatedly. The forerunner to the machine gun, called the Gatling gun, was also used during the Civil War. Cavalry was still an important component of warfare at the time of the Civil War, although cavalry soldiers used guns and fired from their horses rather than charging with swords as they had in the past. Both armies also used field artillery in the form of cannons that were mounted on wheels and were positioned strategically. In the novel both sides carefully position their artillery, and the weapons prove devastating. Shaara describes the brutality of shelling most vividly in the Confederate bombardment of Cemetery Ridge, experienced by Union officer Joshua Chamberlain. Artillery weapons, like the soldier's rifles, had to be loaded for each shot, although the new technology of breech loading made them safer and faster to arm than previous forms of artillery. Technological advances in weaponry led to higher casualty rates, although it continued to be true that more men died from disease than combat.

Changes in weaponry contributed to evolving tactics. Rifles capable of longer range led more soldiers to fire from protected positions. Experience with irregular or guerilla warfare in skirmishes with Native Americans and in the Mexican-American War influenced some Civil War leaders. The elevation of Little Round Top, a hill that provided a tactical advantage for the Union troops, recognized and secured early in the novel by Union cavalry officer John Buford, shows the advantage of firing from a protected position. The tactic of trench warfare, repeated advocated by Confederate General James Longstreet in the novel, was a defensive strategy well suited to take advantage of new weaponry but was not to be widely used until World War I (1914–18).

The advances in technology challenged leadership on both sides of the war, forcing them to change tactics based on experience as the war progressed. In this new type of war even the goals for victory evolved. While the aim of war in the past had been to defeat the army and capture the capital of an opponent, this war was different: the Union was fighting not just the Confederate Army but the idea of the Confederacy as a legitimate, separate nation―its very identity. To defeat this type of enemy, the Union waged a hard war to crush the spirit of the Confederacy. If Shaara's portrayal of the hopelessness of Confederate General James Longstreet after the devastating loss at Gettysburg is exemplary of most Confederate troops, the Union seems to have succeeded in this goal. After the defeat of the Confederate Army at Gettysburg, the Union Army went about systematically attacking the Southern economy by destroying its agricultural infrastructure, including burning barns, confiscating livestock, and freeing slaves. This strategy proved very effective in cutting off the South's capital and breaking its political will.

The Novel as Historical Fiction

Historical fiction as a genre can be defined as prose set in a time in the past, before the author was alive, such that all the information about the time period is based upon research. Literature in this genre portrays factual details, real people, locations, and events from a specific time and place, often as the focus of the work, as in The Killer Angels, but sometimes as merely a backdrop to a fictional story. While historical fiction is most often associated with the form of the novel, it can be applied to a variety of literature and film forms including documentary, period drama, poetry, and plays.

The genre's great advantage over a simple historical narrative is the way it brings the story to life for readers. While a strict narrative account of a battle offers much of the same information as a historical novel like The Killer Angels, a historical novel allows readers to inhabit the characters, know their thoughts, and experience their environment. In the novel the author uses sensory details to bring readers into the story. Readers feel the slippery gush of blood in Union officer Joshua Chamberlain's boot when he is wounded during the battle. They taste the delicious juices of steak from famished Confederate General James Longstreet's fingers in a lull in the battle. They think painfully of Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead's friendship with Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and his wife at the piano as Armistead climbs over the stone wall for the final Confederate push of the Battle of Gettysburg. The imagined sensory details the author adds to historical fiction invigorate the story in a way plainly narrative accounts cannot, while still educating and exploring real people, places, and events.

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