The Killer Angels is a fine account of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War. Shelby Foote’s magisterial history of that war credits the Union victory at Gettysburg principally to Generals Reynolds and Hancock. However, with the exception of the Confederate General Robert Lee, who is a major protagonist in this novel, for the most part The Killer Angels focuses upon key second and third rank leaders, in particular Longsteet amongst the Confederates and Buford and Chamberlain in the Union army: Buford fought decisively on his own initiative on the first day of the battle to deny the Conferates the high ground, and Chamberlain, along with others such as Paddy O’Rorke and the New York 140th, conducted a brilliant defense of a hill called Little Round Top on the second day to stop the Union forces from being flanked. Both these incidents had been overshadowed in other accounts of the battle, including Foote’s. Here the defence of Little Round Top is the centrepiece of the book, vividly described and for me the novel’s highlight. In emphasising the Little Round Top fight Shaara ensures that Chamberlain, one of the Civil War’s most outstanding figures, is properly remembered (though, perhaps unfairly, to the exclusion of some others who fought on Little Round Top that day).
The book advances the thesis that aside from fine Union leadership Confederate disaster at Gettysbury arose from an overwhelming hubris on the part of Lee who seemed incapable of believing, after so many victories up to that point, that defeat could any longer be a possibility for him. However while there is probably considerable truth to this thesis it is sustained in this novel by the sleight of ignoring Lee’s efforts, stopped by the Union cavalry including a young General Custer, to get behind the Union lines with Stuart’s cavalry in support of Pickett’s charge. Pickett’s charge was a desperate gamble, but maybe not quite the sacrificial affair portrayed here. Indeed Custer and the other cavalry who fought that day should perhaps stand alongside Chamberlain and Buford for the importance of their actions on the third day of the battle in ensuring Union victory.
Foote’s Civil War has been called an American Iliad, and it certainly must rank amongst the outstanding American literature, as well as history, of the twentieth century. In the Killer Angels the Homeric echoes are also poignantly present, most notably in the character of Longstreet, doomed like Cassandra to foresee in the minutest detail the coming disaster, but like her unable to make anyone believe him. The image of Longstreet weeping as he passes on the order for what he knows will be a slaughter of his troops on the last day of the battle is a powerful one.
Overall a fine novel that seeks to honour the courage of all, even those who fought for the vile cause of the Confederacy.