Friday, July 1, 2016

The Killer Angels (The Civil War Trilogy, #2) by Michael Shaara

Michael Shaara brilliantly mixes historical facts with fictional elements to create complex characters set during the Battle of Gettysburg. Most of the story is through three characters' point of view: General Robert E. Lee who commanded the Rebel army, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet who commanded a corps, and  Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded a Union regiment. The complexities of the men are captured by Shaara who shows their inner conflicts over loyalty, friends, and professionalism.

The individual characters show broader themes on the effects of leadership in military, conflicting values, and desire for honor, to name a few. Robert E. Lee was revered by the troops and willing to die for him. Even Longstreet, who disagreed to the core with Lee's strategic decision, would not forsake his post nor go against Lee's commands. General Lee reflected an old way of life that had its roots in England where gentleman, honor, and chivalry prevailed in a ruling elite or aristocracy. The North had its money in cities where any individual could become wealthy without the stronger class distinctions of the South. While the war is known as being fought to free the slaves, it was more complex in terms of an old way of life being threatened by a new way. Some of the minor characters such as Stuart and Fremantle enforce this notion while also adding some comic relief.

Longstreet did not fight for a cause and Lee chastised him over it. The two reflect the professionalism they felt toward each other as soldiers and while he was loyal to Lee, he did not fight for a Cause, but fought to win. He was a complex man that wanted to fit in with his soldiers but he was a frontiersman and not an aristocrat; thus, feeling separate from those around him. One wonders at Longstreet's lack of commitment and inability to communicate with Lee regarding statistical numbers of climbing the hill. He was brilliant with military tactics and far ahead of the times, but couldn't seem to be heard by Lee or other leaders. Yet the two relied on each other and cared deeply for each other's well-being. While other aristocratic leaders like Pickett were enthusiastic about leading the charge of the Gettysburg hill, he later blamed Lee for the death of over half his men. Longstreet knew that the chance of winning was statistically low, but hoped the loyalty of the soldiers toward Lee would produce a miracle. Instead, the Rebel army never recovered from the Battle losing many of their commanding officers and proving Longstreet right.

The Union soldier Joshua Chamberlain, who was a professor at Bowdain before enlisting, shows the only character that was actually in the battle. Lee and Longstreet observed from a distance while Chamberlain led a regiment. He had respect for the enemy and admires their courage. His leadership when the Union soldiers repelled the Rebels from flanking the army showed bravery and wit that made a big difference in the Battle of Gettysburg. He led his soldiers by following three tenants: be courageous, be decisive, and care about his soldiers. He also has a brother in his regiment and shows the difficulty of relying on him and wanting to protect him at the same time.

Chamberlain shows that he does have a Cause: "He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. ...Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home. It isn't the land - there's always more land. It's the idea that we all value, you and me, we're worth something more than dirt. ...What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other." He was fighting for freedom not only for blacks but from the old way of life or traditions carried specifically by the English.

While Lee and Longstreet are a look into generalship, Chamberlain reveals what it is like to be in the midst of battle. Studying the complexities of the characters gives a microscopic look into what reflects the bigger issues in military leadership and fundamentals of combat. I didn't realize that this is book 2 in a trilogy. It is not necessary to read book one. I was able to follow the story and characters, although I read it on an eReader and could not see the maps detailing the battle. That was a bit frustrating. A fascinating read that is incredibly well-written about the Civil War.

5 Smileys

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