One of the
major conflicts in the novel is the disagreement between Confederate
generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet on how they should fight
the battle. What does each man think the army should do and why?
What is significant about Longstreet’s plan?
The most overt conflict in The Killer
Angels, aside from the battle itself, is the argument between
Lee and Longstreet over whether to use offensive or defensive tactics.
Longstreet has come to understand the modern nature of warfare:
he realizes that new technology, such as long-range artillery and
repeating, breech-loading rifles, means the old strategies of war
can no longer work as well. A single man armed with a good rifle
and in a defensive position—behind a tree, for instance—can kill
at least three men charging toward him from across a field, says
Longstreet. That means that 1,000 men
can kill 3,000 charging
across the same field. Longstreet argues that even more men can
be killed if the defender is aided by artillery. Longstreet believes
that fortified, defensive positions are the best way to win a battle,
and so he suggests that Lee move the Confederate army to a position
southeast of Gettysburg, so the Confederates come between the Union
army and the Union capital, Washington, D.C. This strategy will
force the Union army to attack to protect the capital, and if the
Confederates dig in to a defensive position, they can simply destroy
the Union army as it attacks. Longstreet’s strategy is remarkably
modern in theory, and Shaara portrays Longstreet as a man who is
ahead of his time.
Robert E. Lee, however, is a more traditional soldier,
and he believes he can destroy the Union army—even in a fortified,
high ground position—if he simply puts his men in the right places.
After two days of battering the right and left flanks of the Union
army, he finally tries to break through the center with Pickett’s
Charge. He believes this tactic will allow him to cut the Union
army in two and then destroy the confused pieces that remain. But
Lee underestimates the Union artillery, secured in the high ground
of Cemetery Ridge, which utterly demolishes the Confederate soldiers
as they attempt to cross the field. Pickett’s Charge was the last
great infantry charge—never again would so many men slowly march
across a field to strike their enemies. Advancements in artillery
and rifle technology ended the age of such strategies, and Pickett’s
Charge, whether or not a wise plan, marked the end of this era.
The main characters on the Confederate
side are all generals: Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett,
and Lew Armistead. But the main character on the Union side is a
colonel, Joshua L. Chamberlain. Why would the author choose to use
Chamberlain instead of the Union generals?
There are numerous reasons why Shaara might
choose to focus on Chamberlain. Part of Shaara’s decision may be
a lack of action on the part of the Union generals. They spend most
of their time directing defensive maneuvers, which are perhaps less
interesting than Lee’s plans to attack the Union flanks. The Union
commander, George Meade, does not even arrive until the night of
July 1. Furthermore, Meade does not have
a fraction of the reputation of other Union generals like Ulysses
S. Grant, or even John Hooker or George McClellan, and he certainly
cannot compare to Robert E. Lee, whose reputation overshadows almost
all other Civil War figures except Grant. Another interesting general,
Reynolds, is killed just as the battle begins, cutting off another
potential character. Lee and Longstreet grow to be legends in their
own time, and each becomes even more famous in the nostalgic fervor
that eventually surrounds the Civil War. Meade, on the other hand,
develops a reputation, probably unfairly, of being a rather poor
general who got lucky at Gettysburg, and was eventually replaced
by Grant. The Union also lacks flamboyant characters like Pickett.
This does not mean that Shaara would not have been able to write
a good story from the perspective of the Union generals—it just
explains, partially, why he may not have chosen to do so.
Shaara’s focus on Joshua L. Chamberlain is much easier
to explain. Chamberlain was never an obscure figure to Civil War
historians. After the Battle of Little Round Top, Chamberlain became even
more famous for receiving the surrender of the Confederate forces
at Appomattox. There, he ordered his men to salute their vanquished
foes. He later served as the governor of Maine and the president
of Bowdoin College, and received a Congressional Medal of Honor
for his bravery at Little Round Top. Finally, Chamberlain wrote
a series of memoirs on his experiences during the war, giving even
more information about the now-legendary Battle of Little Round
Top. Chamberlain was a college professor who left his job in order
to serve his country. He represents the ideal citizen-soldier, an intellectual
who voluntarily leaves his comfortable civilian life to become an
excellent soldier. The fact that Chamberlain is well educated allows
Shaara to examine the thoughts and motivations of the Union soldiers
during the war.
Why did the
Confederate army lose the Battle of Gettysburg?
In The Killer Angels, General
John Buford, the Union cavalry commander, is quick to seize the
high ground. Specifically, he tries to protect Seminary Ridge and
the hills behind it: Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill,
Little Round Top, and Big Round Top. The Union yields Seminary Ridge,
but manages to hold on to the rest of the hills. These hills are
excellent defensive positions: they allow officers to see much of
the surrounding area, they are covered with rocks and trees that
can block bullets, and artillery has a greater range when fired
from high positions. Robert E. Lee is annoyed with General Ewell
for not seizing Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. Chamberlain’s regiment
defends Little Round Top, having been ordered never to retreat.
The high ground is one of the major elements of the Union victory.
Furthermore, without J. E. B. Stuart, Lee has
no information about the movements of the Union army or the geography
of the surrounding area. As a result, strategic planning is very
difficult for Lee, particularly since he is in unfamiliar, Northern
territory. First, Pickett’s Charge—Lee’s attempt to completely destroy
the Union army—fails, since the Confederate artillery attack prior
to the charge misses most of its targets, leaving the Union with
almost all its batteries. Second, Lee vastly underestimates the
power of the Union position. The Union artillery mows down the advancing
Confederate soldiers, killing or wounding nearly sixty percent of