Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974) gives the most intense, striking descriptions of battle I have encountered. He strips battle of hackneyed stereotypes and shows it as a complex, intricate series of human actions, some carried out by design, some the result of necessity, some of chance.
Although the novel is about the three-day long Battle of Gettysburg, the most important battle of the Civil War, it is largely devoid of partisanship. Shaara makes us aware of the reasons why soldiers on both sides of the battle are fighting (why they think they are fighting), but he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the evils of slavery, the impracticalities of a particular world view. He does a good job of contrasting the habits and cultural disposition of both sides, but again without an underlying bias. I don’t view this as an assertion that both sides occupy equivalent moral positions. Rather I see it as a reflection of the historical moment—what matters in the battle is not the right or wrong position each side is defending, but the battle itself, the prospect of death.
The novel is about battle, about the fury of battle. The ideological and political conflicts that lead to Gettysburg, the reasons why it may be the turning point in the war, and in the history of the nation, are secondary or even tertiary to the battle itself.
The novel is structured around the three day-long span of the Battle of Gettysburg and around the officers who lead the armies on both sides. Various figures emerge, often colorfully (Pickett and Stuart), but the two main characters are General James Longstreet on the Confederate side and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on the Northern side. Chamberlain becomes an unlikely hero during the defense of Little Round Top more out of panic and necessity than anything else, but the experience transforms him and determines the rest of his life. Longstreet, who for me was the most interesting and developed character in the novel, was a deeply introspective and rational man who believes that Lee’s plans to undertake a full frontal assault on Pickett Hill on the battle’s third day will fail and that the Southern army will be wiped out. He urges Lee to change his plans, but Lee is resolute. Longstreet follows Lee’s plan anyway, because of his loyalty to the general and because as a military officer he regards it as his duty to comply with his commanding officer’s orders. But the failure of the Southern efforts in the battle leave him scarred and full of guilt, and destroys his close friendship with Lee, whose miscalculations the novel seems to suggest lead to defeat.
The main characters in this novel are generals and colonels and other officers who sent thousands of men into battle. Although some of these officers die, most stand back and watch the battle develop—Lee, Longstreet, and others. They feel responsible for what happens, but they survive. The thousands of anonymous soldiers killed and wounded in the battle are acknowledged in the novel, but they remain mostly faceless. What makes Chamberlain significant is that he actually fought.