Book review: The Killer Angels


“The Killer Angels” is the Pulitzer Prize winning US Civil War novel that gave rise to the pretentious TV-mini series, Gettysburg, available on DVD. The book attempts to get the reader into the mind of General Robert E Lee, Confederate Army, and his senior subordinates. Author Michael Shaara in his note to his readers makes no bones that he is writing from the Confederate (Southern) view. Northerners (the Union) therefore feature less — and at a lower level. We therefore never get to see what Federal commander George Meade thought of what to many was one of the pivotal battles of the 1861-1865 conflict.

Gettysburg was the first real defeat Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had ever suffered. The plan had been to invade the north and at the appropriate time and place bring the Union’s Army of the Potomac (Federal Armies were named after rivers, Confederate armies after territory) to battle and defeat it. Once defeated, the way to Washington would be open and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis would be able to offer US President Abraham Lincoln a peace deal that would include recognising the South’s independence.

But as the elder Moltke had said, no plan survives initial contact. In this case, things went awry early. Several commanders were uncomfortable with invading the North as this took from them a supposed moral high ground in being the defenders of their homeland. Lee’s cavalry commander, the flamboyant JEB Stuart was off “joyriding” leaving his boss without any cavalry for reconnaissance purposes. It is thus that Lee’s infantry then blindly blunders into Union cavalry just outside Gettysburg on June 30, 1963. Ignoring orders not to become decisively engaged, Harry Heth, the lead divisional commander in AP Hill’s corps attacked John Buford’s dismounted and entrenched cavalry on the morning of July 1. He received a bloody nose — and set in motion a train of events that sucked in Lee’s army. By the time his army was concentrated it was dawn on the third day and Meade’s army held the good ground.

The book gradually builds up to that dawn, dwelling just long enough on the second day’s misfortunes — the Confederate rebuff before Little Round Top, a thickly wooded rocky hill at the extreme left of the Union line. After that rebuff and an earlier one on the extreme right, Lee resolved to attack with about 15,000 men straight in the middle of the Union line, arguably the thickest part of the fence. This event became known as Pickett’s charge, after 30-year-old Major General George Pickett, one of the three divisional commanders involved. It was a dreadful slaughter. Few of the attackers got to the Union line and even fewer breached it. Most of those who did, did not survive long. As the broken ranks came streaming back, Pickett was a broken man.

Shaara put it thus: “Lee raised a hand. ‘General Pickett, I want you to reform your division in the rear of this hill.’ Pickett’s eyes lighted as if a sudden pain had shot through him. He started to cry. Lee said again with absolute calm, ‘General, you must look to your division.’ Pickett said tearfully, voice of a bewildered angry boy, ‘General Lee, I have no division.’ He pointed back down the hill, jabbing at the blowing smoke, the valley of wrecked men, turned and shuddered, waving then saying, ‘Sir? What about my men? … Armistead is gone. Garnett is gone. Kemper is gone. All my colonels are gone. General, every one. Most of my men are gone. Good God, sir, what about my men?'”
defenceWeb does not often promote works of fiction, but this book is a welcome exception to that rule. It highlights many of command and leadership’s “softer” aspects and should be required reading for young officer cadets of all services. Few set out to lose a battle and seldom is the day lost for of a single reason. Lee intended to win but for a variety of reasons he was defeated. If Shaara’s interpretation does not convince you, you should at least have been entertained by a cracking good story, illustrated with good pen sketches of the leading personalities and first-rate maps.

Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels,

David McKay Co

New York