Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Killer Angels


While in the woods of Washington I read Michael Shaara's Killer Angels. I'm usually kind of skeptical of novelized forms of history, but I must admit that I liked this book a great deal. It details the battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of the men fighting it, primarily CSA Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. What I discovered mostly from this method is how well the men fighting each other, knew each other. Some where best of friends and had fought together in the war against Mexico. Shaara describes how most of the CSA generals were not supporters of slavery but viewed the conflict as a matter of defending there home, i.e. Virginia and their rights. He uses the example of a country club that one might join, then changes it's rules, then uses force to keep you from quiting. I never quite looked at that way. I knew the war was about succession, but succession was at heart all about slavery. Men like Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet are not feckless and had good reason to to what they did. They agonized over the choices they made and oaths they broke.
The hero of the book, if there is such a thing anymore, is USA Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. First we see him treat disaffected US soldiers with sympathy and kindness, then fight heroically during the battle holding Little Round Top. A professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College he seems an unlikely war hero. What makes him special, in my opinion, is that he's not just a soldier but a decent man asked to do difficult things in time of war. He doesn't forget his humanity and this serves him well. The disaffected soldiers could have ruined his unit but he is able to sway them back to the Unions cause thereby nearly doubling the strength of his brigade. Later, at wars end, he calls Union troops to attention during the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox. A lessor man may have treated his surrendering enemy with contempt, but Chamberlain knew better and helped cement the peace with honor and dignity.
We killed a way of life in the Civil War, not just the moral scar of slavery. Killer Angels describes the days it died, like an inexorable tragedy that everyone knows is coming but can't seem to stop.

2 comments:

Dexter said...

I also enjoyed the film version of Killer Angels (Gettysburg), it is given towards talking instead of showing and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee is crimnal but overall film works. But don't make the same mistake of watching the film Gods & Angels.... I would have rather fought at Fedricksburg then seen this film. Turns Stonewall Jackson into a ninny.

Dexter said...

The movie is actually caleld Gods and Generals and even the prescence of Jeff Daniels reprising his role as Chamberlain could save this film.