”No need for hurry now, too tired to run, expecting to be hit at any moment. Over on the right no horse, Kemper was down, impossible to live up there. Armistead moved on, expecting to die, but was not hit. He moved closer to the wall up there, past mounds of bodies, no line any more, just men moving forward at different speeds, stopping to fire, stopping to die, drifting back like leaves blown from the fire ahead. Armistead though: we won’t make it. He lifted the sword again screaming, and moved on, closer, closer, but it was all coming apart; the whole world was dying.”
The Civil War has dragged on for three long years. General Stonewall Jackson is dead and there is no end in sight for the conflict that has ripped apart families and destroyed friendships. The Confederate Army has crossed into Pennsylvania and is on the brink of exhaustion. A chance encounter of Confederate scouts and Union cavalry bring the two armies rushing towards one another, to converge upon a little town called Gettysburg. The next three days bring fire and flesh together in what some call the decisive battle of the war, vanquishing the might of one side and raising up the other.
Growing up in Canada I knew only the very basics of the American Civil War and had only heard of Gettysburg and the blood that was spilled there. I always imagined it was on a promontory and that the Confederates were massacred to a man. I had assumed the issue of slavery was the entire cause of the war. I could not have been more wrong. What I didn’t know was many states had already seceded from the Union and that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed after the war started. I assumed the victory of the Union was an open and shut case. Instead I was surprised to see how close the South came to winning. And I was fascinated to see how one tiny detail could change so much about an event: If only Ewell had taken that hill; if only Stuart had showed up; if only Lee had listened to Longstreet.
Each chapter is from the pov of a character from the war. Shaara provides their thoughts and fears, their strong sense of duty and their opinion of others. He gives us both sides of the war and by allowing us into the minds of these men, we learn to identify and sympathize with both the Union and the Confederacy soldiers as we’re meant to. After all, they were simply men following orders. In fact, Shaara manages to increase the tension by alternating chapters between the North and South. The reader may know everything but the two armies only have half the information. While reading I even started to have favourites on both the North and South side: Lee, the Chamberlain brothers, Armistead, Burton, Longstreet; I willed them to live, worried about them and felt rather motherly towards these men whom I’d never met and who had lived and died in another century, far separated from my own.
You also really sense the passage of time throughout the book. The story only takes place over four days but you feel every hour, you experience the slow inevitable drawing together of these two armies, you wait for the battle just as they do. The world was more patient and slow moving in those days but Shaara has made the action immediate. You feel as if you’re right there with them, holding a rifle, hunkered down against a rock, trying not to get shot. And the language! This book is a feast. The lyric lines, the description, the images he creates and the profound thoughts and words by these men are sumptuous and a joy to read. I once claimed ”The Red Badge of Courage” was the most poetic book I’d read about war but ”Killer Angels” has taken its place. Shaara manages to keep the words from getting in the way of the story and what words they are!
Prior to this I’d never read anything about the Civil War and I’m not sure anything else will ever measure up. The book won a rightly-deserve Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and if you looking for a book about Gettysburg that focuses more on the people than the schematics, this is story is for you.