Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara [4]

****/***** (4/5)

I enjoyed Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel dealing with the three-day Battle of Gettysburg widely acknowledged as the turning point of the American Civil War. The book derives its title from Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain memorizing a Shakespeare quote in his childhood regarding man in action and his father's subsequent remark: "Well, boy, if he's an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel." Chamberlain then coins the term, "Man, the Killer Angel." Shaara's enthralling novel affects the leaders of the Battle of Gettysburg as these Killer Angels: the difficult choices they make, their courage and heroism, and finally their grief and agony. Michael Shaara recreates the battle from old letters and correspondences and I found the resulting prose, characterizations, settings and pacing singularly bewitching. We know the plot, but it's Shaara's style and delivery which affects a worthwhile and enjoyable reading experience. Although the book demonstrates the brutality and inhumanity of war, it also balances that with a feeling of camaraderie, thrill and excitement that nothing except war could bring. Very unlike Jakes' unilateral depiction of a monstrous war in his NORTH AND SOUTH series. And that's a good thing.

And yet suddenly, terribly, [Longstreet] wanted it again, the way it used to be, arms linked together, all drunk and singing beautifully into the night, with visions of death from the afternoon, and dreams of death in the coming dawn, the night filled with monstrous and temporary glittering joy, fat moments, thick seconds dropping like warm rain, jewel after jewel.

THE KILLER ANGELS deftly contrasts the Battle of Gettysburg from the Southern and Northern points of view; for the south and its generals, missed opportunities plagued their loss while for the north, much-needed luck vaulted them to victory. We follow most of the brilliant generals from the South including Robert E. Lee, Pete Longstreet and Lewis Armistead while from the North, it's mostly Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine and his climactic stand on Little Round Top on Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg. The North's hodgepodge of religions and races worked against their superior numbers while the South possessed a more cohesive, more united group of soldiers. Unlike the North, the South also had the brilliant commander their soldiers believed in: General Robert E. Lee. As opposed to Lincoln's capricious line of army commanders (at least before he settled on Grant), General Robert E. Lee has never lost a battle prior to Gettysburg, thoroughly whipping Yankees left and right. Known for a making a tough decision and acting on it, Lee's men believed in him enough to execute his decisions with alacrity and success.

"By damn, man, if there is one human being in the world less devious than Robert Lee, I aint yet met him..." [Longstreet] leaned forward blackly across the pommel of the saddle. "Colonel, let me explain something. The secret of General Lee is that men love him and follow him with faith in him. That's one secret. The next secret is that General Lee makes a decision and he moves, with guts, and he's been up against a lot of sickly generals who don't know how to make decisions, although some of them have guts but whose men don't love them. That's why we win, mostly. Because we move with speed, and faith, and because we usually have the good ground. Tactics? God, man, we don't win because of tricks . . . " (p. 251, Gen. Longstreet refuting Fremantle's fabled and iconic view of Confederate victories prior to the Battle of Gettysburg)

Then it's a wonder the South lost the Battle of Gettysburg when they had every opportunity to win there as well. From Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's joyriding depriving Lee of his eyes and ears into Northern army movements, to Heth's decision to engage Buford's Union line on Day 1 when Lee specifically ordered no attacks until the entire Southern army congregated around Gettysburg, to a diffident Gen. Ewell's failure to pursue the Union army at the end of Day 1, to Lee's rejection of Hood's sensible plan to outflank the Union line on Cemetery Ridge outside of Gettysburg on Day 2, the loss at the Battle of Gettysburg represented one missed opportunity after another for the Southern army.

THE KILLER ANGELS intersperses a very engaging political and philosophical discussion over the each side's motivations to fight in the war. We know the South isn't fighting to keep slavery despite what the North (and the rest of the world) believe, they're fighting for the Cause: state rights. Like Lee's beloved state of Virginia, they view state laws superior to the nation's and therein lies the divide. Meanwhile, as Col. Chamberlain's brother remarks, no matter what the "Johnnies" (Southerners) say they're fighting for, at the end of the day if they win, slavery continues and if they lose, slavery begins to die. For Englishman Fremantle, the South symbolizes a transposed Europe, while for Chamberlain's Sergeant Kilrain, the South represents a time when the name of one's father means more than your name. Kilrain is adamantly against such traditions.

But the point is [the South does] it all exactly as we do in Europe. And the North does not. That's what the war is really about. The North has those huge bloody cities and a thousand religions, and the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth. The Northerner doesn't give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country. He hates the Old Country... of course, the South is the Old Country. They haven't left Europe. They've merely transplanted it. And that's what the war is about. -Englishman Fremantle traveling with the Southern army

"Equality? Christ in Heaven. What I'm fighting for is the right to prove I'm a better man than many...No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree. There's many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don't think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice. 'Tis why I'm here. I'll be treated as a I deserve, not as my father deserved. I'm Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen. I don't know who me father was and I don't give a damn...The point is that we have a country here where the past cannot keep a good man in chains, and that's the nature of the war. It's the aristocracy I'm after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a coachroach, ah." --Union Sergeant Buster Kilrain talking to his Colonel, Chamberlain

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

The story begins one day prior to the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg when Longstreet's spy alerts Longstreet of Buford's cavalry near Gettysburg. And where the Northern cavalry rides, their army isn't far behind. Union Gen. Buford has an eye for the high ground and on seeing the hills surrounding Gettysburg, Buford's meager cavalry regiment dismounts and digs in to defend the hills. Meanwhile, Lee's eyes and ears, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, hasn't reported to Lee in some time and Lee's entire army forays into Pennsylvania blind to Northern army movements. After hearing of Northern movements near Gettysburg from Longstreet's spy, Lee orders the army to move towards Gettysburg and not attack until the entire Southern army has congregated there. Gen. Heth's division arrives first and upon seeing the sparse regiment of Union soldiers on the hill, orders his division to take the hills west / northwest of Gettysburg. Buford holds out long enough against Heth for Union Major Gen. Reynolds's corps to arrive. Despite holding out all day, Ewell's corps attack the Union corps from the north while Heth and Pender batters them from the west and finally the Union soldiers retreat to the higher ground of Cemetery Ridge to the south of Gettysburg. Ewell fails to pursue the Union army towards the end of Day 1 despite orders from Lee to keep at it.

All the rest of that morning gray Rebel troops came pouring down that narrow road...The [Union] line continued to hold. There did not seem to be anyone in command, but the line held... (after the death of Union Major Gen. John Reynolds on Day 1 of the Battle of Gettysburg)

On the momentous second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Col. Chamberlain's 20th Maine digs in on Little Round Top and they form the absolute end of the Union line. If rebel forces overrun the 20th Maine, the Union line will be outflanked and Gettysburg lost. A learned man, tall and handsome, Col. Chamberlain and his men bravely defend Little Round Top against tide after tide of Confederate soldiers. In previous battles, Rebels screams and a slight tilt in their favor easily resulted in Yankees turning tail and running. Now however, the veteran and experienced group of soldiers in the 20th Maine persevere and they're unafraid of the Rebel screams after having witnessed them so many times before. After their ammunition runs out, Chamberlain orders the unthinkable: he orders his soldiers to fix bayonets on their guns and charge. Never before has the South seen Northern soldiers charging at them with such fervor as Chamberlain's 20th Maine on Little Round Top.

"Where'd you get the idea to charge?"

Chamberlain said, "We were out of ammunition."

Rice nodded. "So. You fixed bayonets."

Chamberlain nodded. It seemed logical enough. It was beginning to dawn on him that what he had done might be considered unusual. He said, "There didn't seem to be any alternative."

Rice shook his head, chuckled, grunted.

Against Longstreet's better judgment, Lee orders Picket and his division to charge the middle of the Union line on the third day. After getting routed for a second time, Lee finally orders a full retreat from Gettysburg, thereby ending his campaign in Pennsylvania. The Union commander during this battle, Gen. Meade, was inept and fails to pursue a hobbled Confederate army and the war lingers on for more years.

A very entertaining and engaging depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg.

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