Michael Shaara wrote Killer Angels to illustrate to the world that America does have a past that it is proud of and holds sacred. The book tells the events of the three most important days of the Civil War. Through vivid characterizations and brilliant detail, Shaara brings to life the events of the Civil War in a novel of historical fiction. Killer Angels explores Gettysburg through the eyes of the men that were there, the tragedies that could have been avoided, the devastation on both sides.
Very early in the book, Colonel Joshua Chamerlain bows his head and thinks, "A man who has been shot at is a new realist, and what do you say to a realist when the war is a war of ideals?" That question summarizes the dilemma and the tragedy of the American Civil War. Shaara's novel spans a four-day period and revolves around three major figures: for the Confederacy, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Lieutenant- General James Longstreet, head of the army's First Corps and Lee's second in command; for the Union, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, ranking officer of the Twentieth Maine Infantry Regiment, which was part of the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. During the battle, each exercises command at one of three different levels - army (Lee), corps (Longstreet), and regiment (Chamberlain), and only Chamberlain actually leads soldiers in combat. As the battle unfolds, Shaara gradually reveals for each what is hidden from public view: the inner thoughts and feelings behind decisions of critical import.
Shaara attempted to draw the reader into the plight of the soldier along with the challenge of being a leader. His view was often sentimental and draws skepticism in depicting how soldiers saw the war and army life, with its comradely and outdoorsy appeal as well as its sorrow and terror. “Yet you learn to love it. Isn’t that amazing? Long marches and no rest, up very early in the morning and asleep late in the rain, and there’s a marvelous excitement to it, a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee…” . Somehow I find this romantic view of war highly unlikely. But Shaara redeems himself in his depiction of leadership in the Civil War. Shaara does a masterful job of bringing the complex and unresolvable issues to the reader through the thoughts and arguments of the participants. The conversation on causes and conscience between a Union Colonel and his master Sargent fills the best two pages of the book and explains the title, too. [188-9] There’s no better summary of their relationship than when the proud and practical Sergeant says, "Colonel, you're a lovely man. I see at last a great difference between us, and yet I admire ye, lad.