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The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | Themes


The Cause

Each character seems to have a different opinion about the cause of the war as well as their own reasons for fighting. While Union soldiers like Tom and foreign observers like Fremantle identify slavery as the obvious cause of the war, Confederate soldiers like Sorrel and Kemper passionately argue the real cause is the rights of states to self-governance and "to avoid a central tyranny." Interestingly, Longstreet, the second in command of the Confederate Army, readily admits the war is about slavery even though that has nothing to do with his reason for fighting.

Interestingly, slavery has little to do with the personal cause for fighting of the characters. Longstreet also has no passion for the cause of states' rights espoused by his fellow Confederate officers, as he thinks of all the men whose lives it has claimed. He takes a stoic, cynical stance. His cause is only victory, and even that is a no-win situation because he cares about men on both sides of the battle. Lee feels forced into the war by the secession of Virginia. As a U.S. Army officer he left to avoid having to attack his own state. His initial cause is protecting his home state and family. Later he admits to Longstreet, "You and I, we have no Cause ... only the army. But if a soldier fights only for soldiers, he cannot ever win." They both just want the war to be over. That is their reason for fighting.

Chamberlain's understanding of the cause is somewhat fluid. Although Chamberlain makes a moving speech about freedom to the mutineers, for him at that point the cause is more about freedom from the oppression of the social class system. He wants to preserve the United States as a place where "no man has to bow." However, after he meets the unnamed black man and imagines what he has been through, "the cause of the war was brutally clear" as necessary to eradicate such cruelty. Yet in the midst of the bombardment, he completely forgets about the cause. In the aftermath of the battle he gives the cause little thought. Instead, he can only think the battle is a tragedy, not a victory for the cause.


Brotherhood manifests itself in a variety of forms in the novel. Of course, there are literal brothers including Chamberlain and Tom, as well as Jim and Bill Merrill. These sets of brothers fight for the Union Army. Chamberlain fears for his brother's safety and is upset that he used Tom to fill the hole in the line. He wants to send Tom away from the battle because he feels placing Tom is one of the "things a man cannot be asked to do." Other brothers were divided on opposite sides of the battle. Gibbon is a Union soldier, but the war has divided him from his brothers. They are Confederate soldiers. The novel also includes a set of friends who were "closer than brothers." Armistead and Hancock, like the Gibbon brothers, are separated by the war, forcing them to face the prospect of meeting on the battlefield as enemies. Armistead has made a vow to Hancock never to raise a hand against him. He wishes he could see Hancock one more time.

The novel focuses on the metaphorical brotherhood of soldiers. Longstreet has known and fought with the officers under him for over 20 years, making it "more a family than an army." He feels much affection for them, and he weeps when he orders the charge he knows will claim so many of their lives. Lee too feels pain when he is compelled to reprimand Stuart, his "brother officer."

What makes the theme of brotherhood so poignant and compelling is that it extends across enemy lines. Sadly for Longstreet, he knows and has served with many of the soldiers in the Union Army. Longstreet knows "the boys he was fighting were boys he had grown up with." Chamberlain too comes to identify with the Confederate soldiers, dead in the field, as if they were his own men. He realizes "this whole war is concerned with the killing of brothers," which is what makes the battle such a tragedy.


Known as "a man of honor," Lee's choices are guided by that principle. He rejects Longstreet's defensive tactics, in large part, because he believes the honorable way to fight is "face to face with the enemy ... [to] end with honor." It is a value he believes he holds in common with his soldiers. He claims that soldiers in his army are "ready to die ... for their homes and their honor." He believes a death on the battlefield is an "honorable death." He argues with Longstreet that he cannot pull out of the battle once it has begun because his troops would be dishonored and morale would suffer. No, he claims "a man of honor can no longer turn away" once blood has been spilled in battle.

Longstreet takes a very different view of honor. He values it but only when in conjunction with common sense. He argues "honor without intelligence is a disaster ... [that] could lose the war." He finds men who value honor above practicality to be foolish and ridiculous. When Powell wanted to duel Longstreet as "a matter of honor," Longstreet ignores him. Longstreet prefers what will work to what is honorable if what is honorable means the deaths of good men. He would rather withdraw, even if it is seen as dishonorable, to gain better ground upon which to fight and hopefully defeat the Union Army. He doesn't find defensive tactics dishonorable or weak, but Lee and the other Confederate officers do.

The author offers a clear example of the value of honor, even above life, in the case of Garnett, the soldier accused of cowardice by Jackson. The charges, which cannot be cleared since Jackson has died, hang over Garnett, dishonoring him. When faced with the choice to go into battle on a horse because of injury or sit the fight out, Garnett would rather die than be dishonored again. He knows the horse will make him a target, but even dying in battle regaining some honor is preferable to being held in dishonor in life.

Honor is closely tied with masculinity in the novel. Real men behave in honorable ways, sacrificing their own desires, like Longstreet and Armistead, or even their lives, like Garnett, rather than be seen as cowards or less manly. Conversely, when men follow their duty honorably and succeed in their task, they have the greatest reward a man can have. Chamberlain feels "as good as a man can feel" when he saves Little Round Top from the hands of the enemy.

Atrocities of Modern Warfare

The author focuses on the cost of war throughout the novel, showing specifically the gruesome consequences of modern technological advances on the battlefield. New weaponry like rifled muskets and breech-loading artillery changed the way battle was conducted. Soldiers could now fire at greater range and in quicker succession. As a result, traditional tactics like the full-frontal assaults were no longer wise, forcing officers to experiment with new ideas as they went, often with devastating consequences. Officers like Lee, unwilling to change tactics because of ideas of honor, refused to adjust to the detriment of their men, as in Pickett's charge in which men were slaughtered as they made a frontal advance across the open field against the Union Army in a superior position with long-range guns. More progressive tactical minds like Longstreet's understood how to adapt to modern technology in battle, but because his idea of defensive and trench warfare was rejected, modern warfare in the Civil War was particularly deadly. The staggering number of dead at the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the numerous gruesome descriptions of men and animals blown apart by the force of the weaponry, reinforces the theme of the atrocities of modern warfare.

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