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Literature / The Killer Angels

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"Well, boy, if [man]'s an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel."
"This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home. It isn't the land—there's always more land. It's the idea that we all have value, you and me, we're worth something more than the dirt. I never saw dirt I'd die for, but I'm not asking you to come join us and fight for dirt. What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other."
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

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 commanders, including General John Buford and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on the Union side, Generals 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 1993, 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.

As of 2014, the book is in its 112th printing.


  • Achey Scars: John Buford has some old wounds that still bother him.
  • 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, will invoke the Bible.
  • Attack Pattern Alpha: Out of ammunition and knowing that the next Confederate assault will overrun his position, Chamberlain briefs his officers on the "right wheel forward" maneuver that will, he hopes, break Rebel morale. That and the naked bayonets on his men's muskets.
  • 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 leads to it being destroyed.
  • Big Brother Instinct: It comes through in shades for Chamberlain towards Tom. A few moments throughout his narration he notes Tom's relative youth and goes out of his way to let him rest when he can and to keep him out of danger. In one of the moments when he can't and orders Tom to fill a hole in their line, he's later horrified he used his brother in this way and realizes that his concern for Tom's safety is a liability.
  • 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.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Chamberlain still hasn't figured out how best to wear his. He insists on Tom not casually calling him Lawrence, which makes sense (being a mere colonel instead of a godlike general, Chamberlain worries more about the perception of favoritism) but he also avoids riding his horse as much as he can because he wants to set an example to the men on the long, hot march. His part of the novel opens with him recovering from heatstroke after doing this and being scolded by Kilrain... and being scolded again when he continues to dismount.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Lee presents a non-supernatural case based on troop morale. Clever tactics, superior numbers etc. do not matter as much as the troops' belief that they will win. If they think they will win then they will attack with courage and overwhelm the enemy.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Joshua "Stick your bayonets and charge" 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.
  • Dated History:
    • Lee ordered Stuart to attack the Federal right flank and be prepared to disrupt the defense against Pickett. Thus the famous charge was not so reckless as assumed. A pincers attack from front and rear would have disrupted the defense of the ridge and destroyed Meade's army, but the Federal cavalry defeated Stuart and disrupted this part of the plan.
    • 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.
    • In a later chapter, Chamberlain's told by another character that General Meade wanted to retreat after the second day but was talked out of it by his corps commanders. Although this was accepted as true by historians for a long time, it's now believed to be a fabrication by Daniel Sickles, who feuded with Meade for years after the war over Sickles' decision to move troops to the Peach Orchard.
    • In the years since, some military historians have questioned if losing Little Round Top would have been as disastrous for the Union as stated here because the hill would have made a poor seat for artillery (reducing its ability to disrupt the rest of the Union line), the number of Confederate troops available to hold it would probably not have been adequate, and Lee wrote of it as an obstacle rather than an objective. However, this is analysis in hindsight from the Union's perspective; the men defending it on that day certainly believed it was critical to hold at all costs.
    • The portrayal of Meade as a General Failure. Meade was severely reprimanded by Lincoln for failing to pursue Lee's army after the battle—however, the idea that he was so timid he was ready to withdraw on Day 1 was a slander put about by Dan Sickles in order to paint Sickles' decision to move to the Peach Orchard as the decisive move that won the battle (and deflect criticism for his reckless disobedience).
  • 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.)
  • 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."
  • 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 alone with a rifle after the failure of Pickett's charge, 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 Cemetery 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:
    • For decades, Longstreet was the man who had lost the battle for the Confederacy because he had dared to criticize Lee, told his fellow Southerners to accept that Black people were equal citizens now, and led Black troops against terrorists from the "White League", all of which were unforgivable crimes to the Lost Cause.note  This novel essentially allowed Longstreet to tell his own side of the story by using his memoirs as a primary source—bringing to light Longstreet's account that he attempted to persuade Lee not to do the things that the Lost Cause pinned on Longstreet for decades. Although historians have since suggested that the novel (and subsequent film) have exonerated him a little too much, it is acknowledged to be a far more accurate depiction of his qualities than had previously been accepted.
    • The novel brought Chamberlain from a minor Union officer not well-known outside of Maine to a prominent figure for his determined refusal to give in on Little Round Top—he certainly caught the attention of Ken Burns, who further immortalized him in The Civil War later.
  • Hold the Line: Basically the sum of Chamberlain's job on Little Round Top. He's on the end of the army's flank so if he retreats the rest will be vulnerable. He is told that he cannot retreat.
  • 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. It's exemplified by J.E.B. Stuart, who first asks to know which officers have complained about him (presumably so he can duel them) and then tries to resign when the enormity of Lee's disappointment hits him. Lee has to snap that there just isn't time for such displays.
  • 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. (In the days after the period covered by the book, Lee did offer to resign over the defeat, but it was declined.)
  • Large Ham: General Pickett is known for his flamboyant and energetic manner. He's also a very animated and entertaining storyteller.
  • Mary Tzu: Invoked. Fremantle thinks Lee must be a deviously cunning and brilliant strategist for the victories he has won. In contrast, 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.
  • Mirroring Factions:
    • The armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia have a lot of similarities. 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. The major sticking point, in his opinion, is that distasteful slavery.
  • 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 
  • Noble Confederate Soldier: Any Southern character with a point-of-view section is going to either not like the idea of fighting for slavery or not mention it entirely. Longstreet does understand that it is the cause, even if it isn't his cause, but the book sidesteps the abduction and enslavement of free Black people the Confederates found and instead plays up the Confederates as brave, tragically misguided patriots who were beholden to their home states. Pickett, Kemper, and the enlisted men Tom Chamberlain meets use the phrasing of "states' rights" (or rahts), which was the reason the Lost Cause popularized after they lost the war and the idea of "we wanted to keep treating people as livestock" became a lot less defensible.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Lee most prominently. It is lampshaded 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.
    • Lee appends the words "if practicable" when he orders Ewell to take Culp's Hill. Every other Confederate officer understands this as a standard bit of courtesy because Lee doesn't like to outright order generals of a similar social standing. Ewell takes it literally and decides it isn't practicable, which enrages Trimble to the point of asking to resign rather than continue under Ewell's command (Lee doesn't accept).note 
  • The Quiet One: Longstreet and Buford are remarkably laconic.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The enlisted on both sides have this trope; although the Union boys are much better equipped the narration also states how much more diverse they are. The Confederate army is made up mostly of volunteers from many backgrounds and Longstreet laments the few professionals he has to work with.
  • Rated M for Manly: It's a historical war story after all. Women only appear in memories of wives.
  • Red Shirt: Buford doesn't know much more about his lieutenants than their names. He avoids getting to know them in any more detail than that because they die so frequently.
  • Self-Destructive Charge: Pickett's division is ordered to walk a mile over open ground against a Union position that Lee falsely believes is ill-defended. The division suffers over fifty percent casualties, a number that includes practically all the generals, and leads Pickett himself to say "I have no division" when Lee orders them to be organized for the retreat.
  • 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 Dated History, 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.