Reflections on Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels”


Economic History of the U.S. To 1900

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels is illustrative of the fogginess that often accompanies warfare. The novel covers the very brief period of June 30th, 1863 through July 3rd, 1863. It is a story of the Battle of Gettysburg, three years into the Civil War. The Killer Angels is also a story that at times questions what the Civil War was about.

I have always been taught that the Civil War was a war fought over slavery and the North imposing its ways on the South. From what I have gained from high school history courses, I feel that slavery was what got the war started, but the divisions between the North and South were stronger. Those divisions, although political intervention could have probably helped ironed them out, are what allowed the Civil War to continue. These differences can be noted in the very first few paragraphs of Shaara’s foreword to his novel. The Confederate army, for example, is shown to be “an army of remarkable unity,” who “share common customs and a common faith.” By contrast, the Union army is “a strange new kind of army” made up of “vastly dissimilar men” with “strange accents and strange religions and many who do not speak English at all.”

The history of slavery was not unique to the Southern states. Slavery accompanied the founding of the United States, but it was always accompanied with hopes that it would gradually decline in use. The slave trade with Africa was abolished in the early part of the 1800s, and slavery in the North dissipated while the region began to undergo many changes, especially the increase in immigrant workers to work in the factories. The Southern states, however, were mostly dependent on a plantation economy based on crops like tobacco and cotton, and continued their use of slave labor in the fields. The North was changing rapidly, with many immigrant workers and an industrializing society built up around the city structures, compared to the relative stability of the South, where life had not changed much over the years.

And yet, though growing apart as they were, the North was, as Shaara put it, a group of “dissimilar men fighting for union,” fighting against the rebel volunteers, “an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.”

This conflict between the North and South arises a couple of times in Shaara’s novel. Take, for example, Fremantle, then Englishman who accompanies Longstreet. In a passage where he is trying to work out to himself what this war is about and where it fits in with the history of the United States’ experiment in democracy, sees a similar image to the one presented above. He says, “The North has those 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…. In the South…by and large, they were all the same nationality, same religion, same customs.” At one point, he says that the war is basically about these differences, about the “sameness” of the South to the Europe that Americans had tried to leave, contrasting with the forces of change in the North.

In addition to these forces of change and disunity, the young United States was also very economically different by geographic regions. The North (Union) was over twice as large as the South (Confederacy), both in terms of population and number of states (not land area). The North had a diverse economy and was home to many more factories and manufacturing bases than did the South, which settled with their prosperous “one crop” cotton agriculture. Most of the arms supply for the war was manufactured in the North, a fact touched on at various times throughout Shaara’s novel. For example, it is noted that many of the Confederate soldiers (volunteers) were “unpaid and self armed.”

This said, however, I think that it is unquestionable that slavery was the big issue behind the Civil War. To the Confederates, the persistence of the Union pushing their views on them was something they were quite resentful of. One of the Confederate soldiers offered the following analogy about what the war was about: “I think my analogy of the club was the best. I mean, it’s as if we all joined a gentleman’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.” That they did not hold slaves in the North was supposed to make the Northerners morally better. These Northerners were people who were fighting for the ideal of freedom. The Southerners were people fighting to have their Constitutional rights upheld—not fighting a war about slavery.

At the same time there was much resentment in the North of the Southerners’ “arrogant” use of the Bible to justify their acts—trying thus to make their acts seem morally acceptable. A very interesting part of The Killer Angels which looks at this issue is the scene where the wounded black man is taken up by the Union Army. A discussion takes place between Chamberlain (sort of an idealist) and Kilrain (more of a realist). Discussing issues of racial differences between blacks and whites, Chamberlain says, “To me there was never any difference.” Chamberlain remembers a time when a Southern minister and a university professor visited him in the North. The discussion ended on slavery and morality. Chamberlain argued that men should not be used like animals, to which the minister replied, “A Negro is not a man.”

Kilrain, a man who considers himself “not a clever man,” comments on Chamberlain’s story. “No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance…. 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.” Kilrain believes that things must change—not just in the South though, for he sees discrimination by the aristocracy that he is fighting against. “They used to have signs on tavern doors,” he tells Chamberlain, speaking of taverns in the North, “Dogs and Irishmen keep out.” The situation in the North was far from flawless. Chamberlain’s “oddness, a crawly hesitation, not wanting to touch him [the black man],” is an example of the unstable grounds that the Civil War was being fought on.

The Killer Angels ends without any real resolution, which seems strange for a novel with 100 years hindsight, until one manages to place themselves in the situation at that time. Even today, it seems like the war was unavoidable—and it was a war in which the soldiers were all a bit unclear about what they were fighting for. Even at the end, a Union soldier notes that, “When you ask them prisoners, they never talk about slavery…. If it weren’t for the slaves, there’d never have been no war, now would there?” That final question is perhaps one of the biggest ones concerning the Civil War.


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