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The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | Part 2, Chapter 1 : Wednesday, July 1, 1863: The First Day (Lee) | Summary



Robert E. Lee awakens on July 1st feeling frail. His heart often leaves him breathless and has done so for several months. He tries to keep others from seeing his infirmity. Major Walter Taylor brings him the day's news. Generals Hill and Ewell are approaching Gettysburg. Hill doubts the presence of Union cavalry, and Lee still has no word from Stuart. One of Lee's commanders wants to court-martial Stuart for his absence, but Lee is more interested in responding in a way that will make Stuart a better soldier. Lee settles several complaints from local civilians, reminding Taylor to command the men and to "be charitable" with the locals. Venable asks Lee to speak to General Dorsey Pender, who is upset because his wife says she can no longer pray from him, believing the move into enemy territory puts the Confederate forces in the wrong. Lee recalls he once vowed to protect the land he is now invading.

Lee sends for Longstreet; he views Longstreet as his strongest commander and the only veteran leader he would trust to replace him. He feels "it was reassuring just to look at him." Lee commands Longstreet to stay back from the front of the battle because, as he says, "I cannot spare you." Longstreet tells Lee his spy has confirmed the Union cavalry in Gettysburg and advises Lee to place their army between the Union forces and Washington, forcing the Union to come to them. Lee does not want to "take the defensive. Not again." Instead he wants to attack while Meade's army is tired from marching and still unprepared. The two men ride forward to observe, and Lee prays "blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my fingers to fight and my hands to war." They hear artillery fire.


While readers have learned something about Lee's character from other characters, this is the first chapter from Lee's perspective. The author uses Lee's thoughts, feelings, and words to develop his character. Readers learn of Lee's heart condition, perhaps more than those around him know as he tries to keep others from seeing his dizziness, palpitations, and breathlessness. He clearly cares deeply not only for his men, Longstreet in particular, but also for honor. It is important to him that his troops are fair to the civilians in the area, even though they support the Union. He is very devout, praying to himself as he rides with Longstreet. He is an honorable man who is afraid of leaving his men without a strong leader like himself. Although he knows Longstreet is his strongest leader, he dismisses Longstreet's advice because he doesn't want to seem weak. Shaara creates a sympathetic portrait of a noble gentleman, conveying his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

The author contrasts the preferred strategies of Lee and Longstreet to add tension and foreshadow coming events. Lee wants to attack while he has the chance, before the enemy can get organized. It is an aggressive stance. Longstreet, on the other hand, sees the strategic advantage of cutting the enemy off from their capital and waiting for them to attack, all from a fortified position. It is a defensive stance. Lee refuses, foreshadowing the decision he will soon make, and his interaction with Longstreet, all of which will lead to the tragic end of the battle for the Confederates.

For now though, the author chooses to end the chapter in a cliffhanger. He builds suspense with the unexplained loud noises. It is unexpected artillery fire. Is it the Union? The Confederates? Why shoot now? Shaara ends the chapter without answering any of these questions, which makes readers want to turn the page to see what happens next.

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