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Killer Angels

I love reading about history. Particularly wars – I find it fascinating seeing mankind simultaneously at our best and worst. Most of my efforts have been spent on WWII. To date, I know very little about the Civil War. A friend recommended I read the Pulitzer winning, Killer Angels, as my introduction. Phenomenal book.

Killer Angels focuses on the Battle of Gettysburg – arguably the last major battle for the Virginian army and a significant turning point in favor of the Union.

With hindsight bias, I think we tend to view the Civil War as the “good, anti-slavery North” versus the “bad, pro-slavery South”.  When it comes to countrymen taking up arms against one another, Killer Angels (historical fiction), does a tremendous job in showing how much more complicated the era really was.

The style of the book is fantastic, (similar to Game of Thrones) in that each chapter is from a different character’s perspective. This approach allows us to get into the minds of the competing sides and dive deeper into the dynamics at play. We are told of brothers, best friends, and former peers of West Point now pitted against one another on the battlefield. Some characters see the war about slavery, some see it about state’s rights, and others view it stemming from a structural difference in the class systems of North versus South.

A couple of examples:

The Northerner, fighting against slavery:

“If men were equal in America, all these former Poles and English and Czechs and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as a foreigner; there were only free men and slaves. And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.” (Chamberlain > Page 26 · Location 626)

The Southerner, fighting for state rights:

“Actually,” Pickett said gravely, “I think my analogy of the club was best. I mean, it’s as if we all joined a gentlemen’s club, and then the members of the club started sticking their noses into our private lives, and then we up and resigned, and then they tell us we don’t have the right to resign. I think that’s a fair analogy, hey, Pete?” (Longstreet > Page 62 · Location 1202)

The foreign observer on class:

“The great experiment. In democracy. The equality of rabble. In not much more than a generation they have come back to class. As the French have done. What a tragic thing, that Revolution. Bloody George was a bloody fool. But no matter. The experiment doesn’t work. Give them fifty years, and all that equality rot is gone. Here they have that same love of the land and of tradition, of the right form, of breeding, in their horses, their women. Of course slavery is a bit embarrassing, but that, of course, will go. But the point is they do 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. Odd. You very rarely hear a Southerner refer to “the Old Country.” In that pained way a German does. Or an Italian. Well, 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.” (Fremantle > Page 156 · Location 2516)

In addition to giving insight into the moral issues at play, the approach of telling the story through the characters provides the best perspective of the battle. Shara takes us along for the ride through the planning stages all the way into Pickett’s charge and Chamberlain’s heroic stand. The book does an incredible job of making you feel like you’re with the characters right in the thick of the action.

Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and I found this quote to be very powerful,

“To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. That is … a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.” (Longstreet > Page 182 · Location 2922)

Killer Angels was extremely engaging and I got through this one fast. The book is one of a trilogy by father, Michael Shaara, and son, Jeff Shaara, on the Civil War. Gods and Generals is next on my list as son, Jeff, wrote it as a prequel to his father’s Killer Angels.

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