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The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | Part 4, Chapter 4 : Friday, July 3, 1863 (Armistead) | Summary



The Union begins to return artillery fire toward the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge. Armistead checks his watch periodically, waiting for the firing to end so they can begin their charge. Pickett rejoices as the battle begins, calling it "marvelous." He's pleased he didn't miss what "may be the last great fight of the war." Armistead, unlike Stuart and Pickett, does not see "war as God's greatest game." He can't help returning to the memory of his last night with his friends, saying goodbye as the song goes, for "it may be for years, it may be forever." He recalls his vow to Hancock.

Armistead speaks to Garnett, who must ride a horse into battle because of his injured leg, aware it will make him an easy target. Armistead feels very sad to know Garnett will die but understands Garnett "cannot stay behind": his honor is at stake. Armistead receives his final order from Longstreet, who is crying. Pickett is full of joy to begin. Armistead believes the outcome of the day is "foreordained" by God.

The Confederate Army arranges itself neatly, and the charge begins. The Union artillery begins to ravage the force as they advance across the field, and the ranks have to keep closing the holes left by the dead. The closer they get to the hill the more men fall. Indeed, it seems "the whole world was dying," and the advance becomes more and more disorganized and fragmented. As he nears the top, shouting for his few remaining men to follow him, Armistead knows victory is impossible. He continues. Armistead manages to make it to the top of the hill, although he is injured, jumping over the stone wall. With blue uniforms all around him, he is mortally wounded. He asks a Union soldier to tell Hancock he is sorry and dies.


The theme of honor comes up again in the chapter, primarily with regard to Garnett. As readers know from previous chapters, although none of Garnett's friends question his honesty or loyalty or even bravery, the unanswered charges Jackson made against him before he died have left a cloud over Garnett. He is motivated to clear his name, to restore his honor. He cannot stay behind lest he confirm doubters, but his leg forces him to ride while everyone else walks. Towering above the rest on his horse will make him an easy target, but because his honor is a stake he goes anyway. He would rather die than be dishonored. Honor is the highest motivator possible in that sense for Garnett.

The attack on Cemetery Ridge is the climax of the novel. All of the action and character development have built to this moment. The author has carefully laid the groundwork of the war, the two armies, and the decisions that have led to the charge. Readers understand the key players involved and care about the outcome. Suspense has been building to this moment, and even readers who know the outcome keep reading to find out exactly what happens to Armistead and when. Everything that follows this moment in the novel will be descending action or the resolution of the story.

The author contrasts two very different attitudes toward war in this chapter. While Pickett and Stuart see war as an exciting adventure and opportunity for glory in "God's great game," Armistead and Longstreet regret its necessity very much. The latter are pained by the impending deaths and loss. They care about people on the other side, and they are doing their duty without relish because they feel they have to.

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