The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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

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Summary

On the morning of July 1 Buford hears the first shots of the battle. He is amused to think the Confederate Army is initially repelled by his brigade, which is firmly dug in at the ridge to the northwest of town, but he worries that the road to the north is unguarded. As the fighting intensifies, he sends a message to Reynolds "expecting relief." Gamble makes Buford aware they are facing Heth's division, which has 10,000 troops, and behind him is Hill with another 25,000. There is also Longstreet and Ewell to consider. Buford commands just 2,000 men, and he asks himself how long his men can hold off Heth's 10,000. He is losing men, and his line threatens to break under cannon fire.

Just as he considers pulling out, he sees Reynolds riding across the field, the "picture of a soldier." Behind Reynolds come two full infantry corps, about 20,000 soldiers, and he delights in the idea of surprising Heth with his forces since Heth expects to encounter just Buford's two cavalry brigades. Reynolds sends word to Meade to send all his commanders to Gettysburg quickly to keep the high ground of the city. Buford is relieved to hand over command to Reynolds, who has complimented him on choosing good ground for the fight. Buford sees Reynolds waving his hat and pointing. When he looks again, Reynolds is on the ground, dead. Without a commander, the battle rages on. Buford follows his last orders from Reynolds to withdraw his men and guard the north road.

Analysis

The author creates suspense in this chapter through both Buford's doubts that reinforcements will arrive as well as the small number of Union troops facing a larger enemy force. Readers wonder if Buford's choice to stay and fight, all while uncertain of whether or not help is on the way, is brave or foolish. Troops fighting when vastly outnumbered makes for nail-biting suspense. It is the classic underdog story, and the author uses it in this chapter to gain sympathy for Buford's men and to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

This chapter emphasizes how much better the Union's reconnaissance is than the Confederate's, left blind by the absence of Stuart. The Union's information on the Confederate leaders, numbers, location, and paths is comprehensive and accurate. They know precisely whom and how many they are facing as well as their locations. This is in contrast to the lack of intelligence on the part of the South. While the Confederates still suspect they face only a cavalry brigade, the Union knows their enemy's strength and can plan their defense, which gives them a critical advantage over their enemy.

The demise of Reynolds introduces the topic of death, which is indiscriminate and unpredictable. Although Reynolds is an excellent soldier, he is just as susceptible to being killed in battle as any other man. Death shows no partiality to rank or experience. The author emphasizes the unpredictability of death by portraying his death as sudden and expected. Buford fully anticipates leaving Reynolds in charge. He views Reynolds as a savior, leading reinforcements and coming to his aid when so many leaders have failed to do in the past, which is why Reynolds's death is so shocking. One moment Buford sees Reynolds on his horse, and the next moment Reynolds is on the ground, dead. This is the first death of a named character in the novel. The author will develop the topic of death more as the battle progresses.

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