Daytime, Taneytown, Pennsylvania, a town near Gettysburg. Harrison, a Confederate spy, discovers a large mass of Union troops moving north. The Union troops are moving dangerously close to the Confederate army. Harrison returns in the middle of the night to the Confederate camp and reports his discovery to General James Longstreet. Longstreet is skeptical at first, but Harrison convinces him that he has actually seen the Union troops. Longstreet quickly wakes up General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army. Lee is also skeptical, since he has sent General J. E. B. Stuart out with his cavalry to keep an eye on the movements of the Union army. But Longstreet believes that Stuart is out joyriding. Longstreet presses Lee to get the army moving west. Lee agrees, deciding to move toward a town called Gettysburg.
Daytime, several miles south of Gettysburg. Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain is awakened by Buster Kilrain, a former sergeant who was demoted to private after assaulting another officer. Kilrain informs him that their regiment, the Twentieth Maine, has just received 120 men from the Second Maine, which has been disbanded. The new men are mutineers, having expected to be sent home after the disbanding of their regiment. The men are now being kept under guard, and Chamberlain has orders to shoot any man who does not agree to march. Chamberlain is joined by his younger brother, Tom, also a member of the Twentieth Maine. Chamberlain obtains food for the mutineers, then meets with their leader. The leader tells him that the mutineers are tired of the war and the inept Union generals who have been running it, and they want to go home. Chamberlain knows he cannot let them go, but he also cannot bring himself to shoot them. He tells them his predicament, then gives a stirring speech in which he asks them to join the Twentieth Maine. All but six men agree.
Michael Shaara has a difficult task in front of him as the novel begins. The Killer Angels is generally referred to as a “historical novel,” but most historical novels are simply set in a certain time period and do not deal directly with the actions of people who really existed. For instance, Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, follows a fictional soldier through several battles. The Killer Angels is more similar to the historical plays of William Shakespeare—Shaara gives a dramatized account of history, using characters and events drawn from real life. As such, parts of the book, especially the dialogue and the thoughts of the characters, are Shaara’s creation, not based on documented history. Shaara based his characterizations primarily on the letters and memoirs of the soldiers and officers involved in the battle, but there is no way of knowing exactly what these officers really thought or said.
These two chapters introduce three of the book’s most important characters: Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain. The Confederate point of view swings back and forth from Lee to Longstreet. Lee is an old man, a gentleman and a classic soldier of an earlier era who is brilliant in the type of tactics he was taught. Longstreet is something of a visionary, a man who is very aware of the changing nature of war as machines and defensive warfare become more important. Their differing perceptions of the nature of war form the backbone of the difficult relationship between these two men. Longstreet adores his commander, and he finds it difficult to argue with him. Ultimately, Longstreet always backs down in an argument with Lee, because he knows that he could never have the support of the army the way Lee does. But Longstreet is stubborn, and he constantly tries to convince Lee to fight defensively, encouraging Lee to move his troops to a different battlefield rather than fight the Union army on terrain that puts the Confederacy at a disadvantage.
Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain is practically the only Union voice in the novel. Chamberlain is not a general, as are most of the major characters on the Confederate side. He is only a colonel, the leader of a regiment. There are a number of reasons that the novel follows Chamberlain’s point of view when presenting the Union side. In the years following the Civil War, it became more and more apparent that the war had been decided at Gettysburg. It was the high point of the Confederacy, when the Confederate army, flushed with success, actually invaded Union territory. If Lee had been successful in destroying the Union army or capturing Washington, D.C., the North would have had to admit defeat, and the Confederacy would have been established as a new country. But the Union won the Battle of Gettysburg, and the battle itself was largely determined by the Battle of Little Round Top. Holding the extreme left flank of the army, Chamberlain led his regiment, which had run out of ammunition, down the hillside in a bayonet charge against the Confederate forces. The charge succeeded in repelling the Confederates, and Little Round Top was saved. As the years went by, the fighting on Little Round Top became more and more legendary, and by choosing to center on Chamberlain, Shaara focuses on one of the most popular characters of the battle.
Furthermore, the real Chamberlain led a fascinating life. He was a professor at Bowdoin College at the time of the war, left the college to fight, and distinguished himself as an excellent soldier by the end of the war. It was Chamberlain who accepted the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox. Chapter 2 establishes the contrast between Chamberlain the college professor and Chamberlain the soldier. He is an unusually educated and thoughtful man compared with many other soldiers. For many, he is the easiest character with whom to identify, since he is not only a citizen-turned-soldier, but also only a colonel, not a higher-ranked commander or general like the other principal characters. In contrast, Lee and Longstreet represent heroic, almost mythical figures. Chamberlain, while also a source of nostalgic glory, is still a common citizen thrown into war.