June, 1863. In a bid to destroy the Army of the Potomac, Robert E. Lee invades Pennsylvania with an army of 70,000 men. Using the mountains to screen his movements, he advances toward Harrisburg, fully expecting to secure a victory that will end the American Civil War.
But two weeks into the campaign, Stuart’s cavalry still hasn’t reported back, leaving the Confederate army blind. Deep in enemy territory, with reports of the Union advance beginning to trickle in, Lee moves his forces to converge on a small town named Gettysburg.
In the titanic clash that follows, friend will fight against brother, generals will knowingly send thousands of men to their deaths, and the fate of the United States of America will lie in the hands of farmers and mountain men, immigrants, West Point classmates, and a New England professor.
This book is awesome. Epic, in the best and truest sense of the word. I’m not a civil war buff, but it reduced me to tears. The scope is tremendous, and yet at the same time the characters feel like real people.
For some, like Chamberlain, the war is about slavery and equality–something that disturbs him when he comes across a black man for the first time. For others, it’s about states’ rights and self-government. But for most everybody else–including Robert E. Lee–it’s about a myriad of other things, like honor, duty to country, boredom, a desire to prove one’s manhood, and a hunger to be part of something greater.
What’s remarkable is how so many good people, who more often than not respect the opposing side and hold them in the highest regard, end up getting swept into such a horrific and bloody battle. No one, especially the generals, have the power to prevent any of it–all they can do is leave it in the hands of God. And the tragedy of it all is summed up so perfectly in the film rendition of this book, when General Armistead reaches the high-water mark of the Confederacy and falls, only to hear that his friend and classmate on the Union side, General Hancock, has fallen too (skip to 23:15):
“Not both of us! Not all of us! Please, God!”
I’ve been to Gettysburg several times, and stood on the ground where the most critical parts of the battle were decided. And yet, I feel that living as an expat on the other side of the world has given me a much greater appreciation of my country’s history. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why this book was so moving to me at this time.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
He was a man to depend on, and there was this truth about war: it taught you the men you could depend on.
According to the now retired General Schwarzkopf, The Killer Angels is “the best and most realistic novel about war that I have ever read.” You really get a sense of what it’s like to be in command–what it’s like to depend on the actions of your men, and what goes through your mind as you lead them. The only other novel I’ve read that comes close to capturing that is Ender’s Game.
If the war goes on–and it will, it will–what else can we do but go on? It is the same question forever, what else can we do? If they fight, we will fight with them. And does it matter after all who wins? Was that ever really the question? Will God ask that question, in the end?”
Robert E. Lee’s words after the Confederate defeat on the third day. There is, of course, some criticism about how much artistic license Michael Shaara took in portraying the central historical figures. Regardless, this novel gave me a much greater respect for Lee and his men. There are no “bad guys” in this book–and therein lies the heart of the tragedy.
In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.
Well put. I’ve never experienced any tragedy on the scale of the American Civil War, but I do know what it’s like to lose family and loved ones, and this captured a bit of that for me. I can only imagine what it must be like to experience the tragedy of war.
This novel is a classic. If you have any interest in American history, it is absolutely a must-read. And even if you don’t, if you enjoy reading stories about war, whether modern, historical, or fantasy, you will almost certainly enjoy this book.