Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

The Civil War devastated American families, changed the American understanding of the Constititution, and was fought by mortal men. These men and women seem larger than life to modern students, and Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels helps to bring the conflict and the human participants back into reality. His format, skill, and understanding each bring each general’s hopes, dreams, and beliefs into sharp reality, all in a format that grips the reader throughout the bloody Battle of Gettysburg.

Michael Shaara walks his readers through every inch of the battle from a different point of view for each chapter. The reader becomes completely engaged in the conflict from the point of view of General Lee, Longstreet, Chamberlain, Buford, and several others. The reader feels the symptoms of Lee’s failing heart, or of Champerlain’s affection for his younger brother, and of Longstreet’s ability to sacrifice all of his men for the war. Each man has his failings, and the reader becomes aware of the mistakes of the war, not as a simple history lesson or an example of stupidity, but as an intricate and familiar part of humanity. Shaara insures that Lee’s mistakes are not opportunities for scorn, but for a better understanding of the men behind the larger-than-life figures of history. No matter which side of the conflict the reader may stand, he will appreciate the struggles and humanity of each of the generals before the book is done.

Each of the chapters tells the battle from the view of a different general, and each chapter is written as if the reader were reading the thoughts of the general at hand. Shaara uses a vocabulary, sentence structure, and thought process that reflects the character of the General. Longstreet feels thoughtful, quiet, awkward in crowds, and completely dedicated to the task at hand. The reader enters into the mind of Chamberlain, capable of great theological ponderings, but obviously disciplined enough to keep those thoughts at bay while in battle, until he can sit and think everything out clearly. The chapters from General Lee’s mind are controlled, sad, thoughtful, tired, with a yearning to return home, and an understanding that ‘home’ will never be the same for him. Shaara’s masterful use of language reflects the personality and thinking style of the man in the spotlight, helping the reader to better understand and relate to the General as a man.

As a reader who is largely unfamiliar with the greater themes and terrain of the Battle of Gettysburg, this book was a tremendous aid to great understanding. Not only did the battle descriptions make sense, but the Generals and leaders all became more human, making the battle all the more fascinating and distressing. The only improvement possible would be in reference to the maps. Each of the regiments and units was marked with the same color and style block, with no differentiation between Confederate and Union troops. This made the maps confusing for someone who was still learning the names and loyalties of each of the different generals and regiments. If the Union were always blocks, and the Confederate positions were marked with striped blocks, then the maps would have been vastly improved. Otherwise, this book cleared up so many confusions of the battle, and helped to establish the different participants as human beings, not simply characters in a story.

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