Literature Study GuidesThe Killer AngelsTo The Reader And Foreword Summary

The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | To the Reader and Foreword | Summary



To the Reader

The author, Michael Shaara, explains his reason for writing the book: to let readers know what it was like to be in the Civil War. He says he has stayed away from the analysis of the battle by historians, opting instead to focus on primary sources as the basis for his narrative, although he admits to modernizing the men's language and offering his own interpretation of the characters' personalities.


In the summer of 1863, the third year of the Civil War, the Confederate Army, a unified, confident group of Protestant men who trust their leader Robert E. Lee, begin their invasion of the North. Their goal is to get the Union Army out in the open in order to finish them off. The Northern Army, a disjointed group of many different types of men who have begun to distrust their leaders, turns to follow the Confederate Army. The two armies are to meet at Gettysburg for what many believe will be the final battle of the war.

General Robert E. Lee is a principled, Christian gentleman who does not agree with slavery, but neither does he believe in racial equality. He plans to defeat the Union Army and offer peace after he has done so. His second in command is Lieutenant General James Longstreet, often called Pete, who is a stubborn man who has grown morose after the deaths of his three children. Although Longstreet expresses opposition to the invasion of the North, he follows orders. Major General George Pickett is another Confederate officer and a bit of a dandy. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell is a bald officer who has recently lost a leg and with it his confidence. Major General Ambrose Powell Hill is a disagreeable man who has a tendency to be inexplicably ill when it is time for battles. Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, called "Lo," is a quiet widower whose friend, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, is an officer for the Union Army. Brigadier General Richard Brooke Garnett is a commander under Pickett and lives under the shadow of an accusation made against him by the late Stonewall Jackson. Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart commands the cavalry division of Lee's forces and loves to see his name in print. He fails to do his duty of keeping tabs on the Union Army for Lee. Major General Jubal Early is a rancorous man whom Longstreet despises but to whom Ewell defers.

Union officer Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a handsome, charismatic leader who took a sabbatical from his job as a professor of rhetoric to enlist. Major General John Buford is a cavalry soldier who values the strategic advantage of high ground. Major John Reynolds is one of the best officers in the Union Army but has turned down the offer to command the army rather than be directed from Washington. Instead, Major General Gordon Meade is chosen to lead the Union Army just two days before the battle. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock is a cultured man and longtime friend of Lewis Armistead.


In his note "To the Reader" the author states the purpose of the novel. He lets readers know he intends for the text to portray what it is really like to be there, in the middle of the Civil War. This creates expectations for readers, who anticipate lots of sensory details rather than a recitation of facts. Shaara also spells out the extent to which the book is history and which it is fiction by explaining that although he has used primary sources for his research, he has taken license to creatively interpret the men's personalities and to make them more relatable to readers by modernizing the language. Readers can expect historically accurate events and characters but should know that to a large extent the portrayal of characters and their words is fictitious.

In the foreword the author contrasts the two armies. He portrays the Confederate Army as a confident, unified group who would follow Lee anywhere, while the Union Army is a heterogeneous group of men who are beginning to doubt their leaders. The South is on the offense, invading enemy territory, hoping to end it all in one last fight, while the North is worried it may be their last stand before defeat. The author uses the contrast to explain the expectations of the men on both sides going into the battle; this also influences readers' expectations. Even readers who know the ultimate outcome of the battle will wonder how such expectations will be proven wrong.

The foreword provides the background information necessary to understand the context of the battle. The author explains what has happened prior to the events of the novel and states the purpose of the Confederates in coming into Pennsylvania. Lee has set his troops on the offensive, invading the North to draw the army out into the open. He fully expects to beat them one last time, then offer peace. The North, on the other hand, is on the defensive, following the invading enemy and not confident of their chances in repelling the Confederate force. This context is necessary to understand how the battle came to be in Gettysburg specifically, the mindset of the two armies, and the battle's place and role in the war as a whole for both sides.

The author spends the majority of the foreword introducing many of the characters involved. It also serves as a handy reference for readers. Shaara lays out a concise description of the personalities and roles of each of the men listed in the foreword, a list to which readers can refer in order to clarify their understanding of each man and the relationships among the characters. In a novel with a lot of characters and—on the whole—more action than character development, such a list is helpful.

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