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Literature: The Killer Angels
The Killer Angels is a famous 1974 novel written by Michael Shaara about the Battle of Gettysburg. It is written from the perspective of several generals: John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on the Union side, James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee on the Confederates, with single chapters for a Confederate spy named Harrison, General Lewis Armistead, and British observer Arthur Fremantle. The story covers the three-day battle from the perspective of these characters and explores their motives for fighting, their loyalties to whichever cause, and the humanity and hell of the war.

The novel became hugely influential in the popular perception of the Civil War, winning a Pulitzer Prize, gaining accolades from military historians, and inspiring Ken Burns' famous documentary on the entirety of the war. In 1996, The Killer Angels was adapted into the film Gettysburg, which was very faithful to the source material. Although Shaara died in 1988, his son Jeffery continued his work in the prequel novel Gods and Generals and a sequel, The Last Full Measure, using his father's characterizations.


  • Achey Scars: John Buford has some old wounds that still bother him.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Armistead's only chapter is also his role in Pickett's Charge, where he dies—or at least falls unconscious—at the end. (In reality, Armistead was shot in the leg and the arm, rather than in the torso as the book and film depict; he lived long enough to be captured and died in the hospital.)
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Tom to Colonel Chamberlain. Chamberlain has to frequently remind him to call him "sir," not Lawrence.
  • As the Good Book Says: Most often Lee, who is devoutly religious.
  • Badass Beard: This was the era of badass beards and mustaches.
  • Badass Bookworm: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College before joining the army. Fittingly, he carries the day with a maneuver described as textbook.
  • Bayonet Ya: Chamberlain's order of a bayonet charge when his company runs out of ammunition. Afterwards, some of his men say that they couldn't make themselves actually stab anyone.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Pickett's desire to have his division used in battle.
  • Blood Knight: Sickles, off-screen, pulling his unit forward into Devil's Den and disaster. This causes the crisis on Little Round Top which results in the 20th Maine's placement there.
  • Blood Brothers: Armistead and Hancock. At their parting before the war, Armistead told Hancock with sincerity "if I ever raise a hand against you, may God strike me dead." Armistead is mortally wounded in Pickett's Charge and deeply distraught when told that Hancock has also been wounded.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Colonel Chamberlain has this dynamic with Buster Kilrain (who was so rough that he got demoted to private before the book opens).
  • The Cassandra: Longstreet is the only one to see what a disaster the third day's assault will be, but he can't persuade Lee not to make it.
  • Colonel Badass: Chamberlain.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: All of the characters are deeply introspective and reflect often on what they've left behind, their personal cause, and what could or should have been.
  • Disorganized Outline Speech: Chamberlain gives one to the deserters of the Second Maine that are transferred to his unit. Since he was a professor of rhetoric before joining up, it convinces all but six of them to join.
  • Death Seeker: General Garnett of Pickett's division. "Stonewall" Jackson accused him of cowardice and then died, so now the only way for Garnett to regain his honor is to die valiantly in battle.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • Buford thinks that if the Union doesn't take the high ground early on, they will "charge valiantly and be butchered valiantly," and the story would be used as an example of War Is Glorious by self-important blowhards after the fact. This is a pretty good description of how the Lost Cause treated Pickett's Charge.
    • Lee remarks on how ironic it would be if the Confederacy won a victory on the Fourth of July. The remark itself is an example given the outcome of the battle. The historical fact, naturally, is random coincidence.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The aftermath of Pickett's Charge. Fifty percent casualties, every single officer killed or wounded, and Pickett's famous reply to Lee: "General Lee, I have no division."
  • A Father to His Men: General Lee and Colonel Chamberlain.
  • Fighting Irish: Kilrain and his demotion for punching an officer while drunk.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The Union wins, and the battle is one of the major points that turns the tide in their favor. (General Grant captured Vicksburg at right around the same time, securing the Western theater.)
  • Friendly Enemy: Generals can name men on either side that they served with in West Point and/or Mexico. The friendship of Armistead and Hancock is given particular weight.
  • Frontline General: Longstreet. Lee warns him against his habit of going too far forward. He also rides out after the failure of Pickett's charge with a rifle, although that has more to do with his rage and grief.
  • Funny Foreigner: A small troupe of brightly-uniformed observers from different European countries. Colonel Fremantle is the only one anyone really interacts with since he's the only one who speaks fluent English.
  • Geo Effects: The importance of the high ground. Buford grabs and holds it on Day 1. On Little Round Top and Cemetary Ridge, the Confederates are forced to charge uphill against positions their artillery couldn't clear.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Longstreet dwells often on the death of three of his children in a scarlet fever epidemic.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: This novel did a lot to rehabilitate the reputation of James Longstreet, who had become a scapegoat for the Confederate loss thanks to the Lost Cause.note  It also highlighted the efforts of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford as crucial for the Union's victory.
  • History Marches On:
    • J.E.B. Stuart was blamed for leaving Lee's army blind in enemy country as was thought accurate at the time. Although Lee did rebuke Stuart for leaving the body of the army, Southern cavalry was responsible for raiding, not reconnaissance, and some historians now consider him to have become another scapegoat for the Lost Cause.
    • Fremantle was more of a tourist rather than an official representative of the government and did not wear his uniform, although he did write that book about how the Confederacy was sure to win.
  • Honor Before Reason: In full display on the Confederate side, and Lamp Shaded by Longstreet who muses that "honor without intelligence" could lose them the war.
  • Hot-Blooded: General Pickett, who is champing at the bit to send his boys into battle after being relegated to the back of the line for some time.
  • Ironic Nickname: Shy widower Lewis Armistead is called "Lo" for "Lothario."
  • It's All My Fault: General Lee says this repeatedly when he meets the retreating remnants of Pickett's division.
  • Large Ham: General Pickett is known for his flamboyant and energetic manner. He's also a very animated and entertaining storyteller.
  • Mary Tzu: Invoked. Longstreet thinks that Lee's victories have a lot more to do with luck, incompetent Union generals, and the incredible loyalty of his men than military genius. He seems to be proved right when Lee orders an assault on the Union center in the mistaken belief that it had been weakened by the battle on the flanks.
  • Mauve Shirt: Buster Kilrain, Colonel Chamberlain's Lancer, was created by Shaara for the novel and was subsequently used by Shaara's son in Gods and Generals. He dies in the hospital after being wounded on Little Round Top.
  • Meaningful Name: "Kilrain" is actually a stealth Title Drop: Killer Angels.
  • The Men First:
    • Chamberlain reminds every messenger or general he meets after the action on Little Round Top that his men need to be fed.
    • Hancock rides along the Union line after the sudden Confederate bombardment to restore morale. He is wounded after they get their nerves back.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Chamberlain orders Tom to fill a hole in the line at Little Round Top. Afterwards, he is horrified at how easily he put his brother in mortal danger and thinks he should send Tom away.note 
  • Not So Different:
    • The armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia. This is a major theme of the book.
    • Colonel Fremantle finds a great similarity between England and the honor-bound, aristocratic society of the South.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Lee most prominently. Lamp Shaded by Fremantle, who uses Lee as evidence for the South's similarity to England.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Buford sees exactly how Lee's army can crush the Union at Gettysburg if the Union doesn't move quickly, so he personally acts to take possession of the high ground.
    • Longstreet is a few decades ahead of his time in his strategic thinking and urges Lee to conduct a defensive campaign, and if not that, to not attack the entrenched center of the Union lines. Oddly enough, Lee historically did originally hope for his invasion of the North to spur the Army of the Potomac into attacking him on ground of his choosing, but Meade refused to take the bait and Lee ended up making the error he'd been planning for his enemy to make against him.
  • Opt Out: The deserters of the 2nd Maine were arrested for trying to do this after a debacle with their term of enlistmentnote  and becoming entirely fed up with officers who "couldn't pour pee out of a boot with instructions written under the heel." Colonel Chamberlain convinces most of them to take part in the coming fight.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Stuart's absence deprives Lee of vital intelligence on Union movements, resulting in a battle before he was ready.
  • The Quiet One: Longstreet and Buford are remarkably laconic.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The enlisted on both sides, although the Union boys are much better equipped.
  • Rated M for Manly: Women only appear in memories of wives.
  • Self-Destructive Charge: Pickett's Charge.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: The title is derived from one: What a piece of work is man, in action, how like an angel. Chamberlain's father remarked that man would have to be a killer angel.
  • Shown Their Work: Although some of it is now subject to History Marches On, the novel is quite accurate and is either recommended or required reading for a number of military institutions.
  • Switching P.O.V.: With one narrator per chapter, so that readers see the Battle of Gettysburg from multiple perspectives, both Union and Confederate. Michael Shaara did this trope so well that his son Jeff Shaara has copied the technique in every one of his own novels.
  • The Strategist: Longstreet has a defensive, trench-digging campaign in mind for the Confederates' invasion into the North. Lee refuses these ideas.
  • Take a Third Option: The 20th Maine can't shoot back, having spent their ammunition and they can't retreat, which would allow the rebels to flank the whole line. Chamberlain deals with it by having his men fix bayonets and charge the rebels, knowing that they don't have the strength to push back.
  • War Is Hell: A major theme. Chamberlain dwells on his horrific memories of Fredricksburg, Buford makes a point of not getting to know his lieutenants too well because they die so often, Pickett's Charge....
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Each historical character gets a paragraph at the end detailing what happens to them after Gettysburg.
  • Worthy Opponent: Lee refuses to call the Union troops the enemy, calling them "those people," as he was reputed to have done historically.
  • You Shall Not Pass: Basically the sum of Chamberlain's job on Little Round Top.
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