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The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | Part 2, Chapter 4 : Wednesday, July 1, 1863: The First Day (Chamberlain) | Summary



Chamberlain and his soldiers march in the heat of the day toward Gettysburg. He hears his brother, Tom, telling one of the new men from Maine about the bugle call they refer to as Dan Butterfield, after the general who wrote it to help different regiments understand which orders were meant for them. Butterfield also wrote taps that wasn't associated with burial until much later. Chamberlain has found he can almost sleep on his feet as he marches. He remembers a battle at Fredericksburg during which he lay in the field all night, using stacks of dead bodies for cover from enemy fire. He recalls his father, a solemn, wise man. When Chamberlain had recited a line from Shakespeare about men in action being like angels, his father had responded, "If he's an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel." Chamberlain had written a speech with the title "Man, the Killer Angel," which had made his father proud. When he thinks of Maine he remembers a winter when his brother was lost in the cold and dark but found his own way home.

Chamberlain's sergeant, Andrew Tozier, interrupts Chamberlain's thoughts to urge him to ride his horse instead of walking. As night falls the men begin to set up camp. However, the bugle call comes in to move forward. They groan. Colonel Vincent relays the command to proceed with speed to Gettysburg. Someone tells Chamberlain that McClellan has taken charge of the army. The men who hear the rumor cheer. Chamberlain hopes it is true. McClellan is loved, but Meade is a newcomer no one likes. Near midnight they reach Gettysburg. Chamberlain prays "for a leader. For his boys."


The author develops the character of Chamberlain in this chapter through his memories. Chamberlain cares about his men and knows the value in them having someone like McClellan as a leader. He has fond feelings toward his family. He is also a man who has experienced war trauma and the dehumanizing effects of battle. He made it through enemy fire in the dark by piling bodies in front of his body for protection. He is capable of doing what he needs to do to survive. This is a smart, tough, caring man.

This chapter includes the anecdote from which the novel draws its title. Chamberlain once told his father about a passage from Shakespeare that marveled at men's ways as like those of angels. His father retorted that if men were angelic they must be "murderin' angels." Chamberlain created a speech titled "The Killer Angels" later, and Shaara uses the same title for the novel, calling to mind men's capacity for both great good but also great evil.

The bugle was used to communicate with troops in wars prior to the Civil War, first during the Revolutionary War, but it came to have increased importance with the advent of artillery fire that made more traditional infantry signals like drums hard to hear. Bugle calls signaled the time of day, camp duties, as well as marching and battlefield actions with a simple series of notes, a brief melody specific to each command. Dan Butterfield's additional invention of prefacing orders with a signal for each regiment, described in the chapter, made the system clearer and more effective.

The reference to taps is an example of the omniscience of the narrator. The narrator interjects an interesting tidbit of information. Although Dan Butterfield wrote taps to signal time for bed, it was not until years later that the melody came to be associated with burial of the dead, usually military dead. Although the chapter is written from Chamberlain's perspective, this piece of information comes from the narrator, who knows more than Chamberlain, and it is apparently outside of the time period of the events of the novel, confirming the narrator's omniscience.

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