Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Battle of Gettysburg is viewed by many historians as a turning point between the old methods of warfare and the new methods, changes that were dictated by the development of new technologies such as repeating rifles and long-range artillery. The Civil War saw the first ironclad battleships and the last great infantry charge: Pickett’s Charge. The devastating losses of that charge—Pickett lost sixty percent of his division—marked the beginning of the end of the usefulness of infantry in major warfare. Cannons, grenades, tanks, planes, and missiles would eventually make infantry -relatively obsolete.
Longstreet’s continual insistence on defensive warfare and Lee’s continual resistance to it best illustrates the conflict within the changing nature of warfare. Shaara portrays Lee as a traditional soldier of the Napoleonic mold: a brilliant strategist but an outdated one. Longstreet, by contrast, is portrayed as a grim realist who recognizes the changing nature of warfare and wants to change to match it. He knows that the Confederate army can never successfully invade the North. The Confederate army is smaller than the Union army and always will be, and the officers do not know the Northern lands as well as they do their native Virginia. Longstreet wants to hide behind stone walls and in trenches and cut down the enemy as it advances, while Lee prefers to strike out in the open, honorably, and simply overpower the enemy with good strategic maneuvering. But Lee’s strategies are not as effective in a world using long-distance rifles and artillery.
Although The Killer Angels reads like an adventure novel, it describes one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Civil War. As he awaits the next battle, Chamberlain remembers piling up corpses at a previous battle to protect himself from bullets. He instinctively orders his brother to plug a hole in the regiment line and realizes he may have ordered his brother to his death. Limbs are sawed off wounded men to save them from infection, but Kilrain still dies from amputation and blood loss. During Pickett’s Charge, soldiers are blown apart by artillery, “and here and there, tumbling over and over like a blood-spouting cartwheel, [was] a piece of a man.”
This is a world where death can come at any time, and the men all have to learn to deal with that uncertainty. Chamberlain and his men are particularly vulnerable, since they are not generals protected in the rear of their lines. But everyone is forced to face death. Lee is dealing with heart trouble, which will eventually kill him—he knows he is an old man and has not long to live. Longstreet has lost three children that winter to fever, while Chamberlain is scarred by the memory of Fredericksburg. Just as the battle begins, General John Reynolds is killed instantly by a sniper. And General Lew Armistead marches across the entire field during Pickett’s Charge only to be cut down at the end without ever meeting his friend Winfield Hancock. War novels may be read as adventure novels, but in real war there is death, and the hundreds of corpses that pile up over the course of The Killer Angels serve to remind us that Gettysburg was a real battle that left many men dead.
During the actual war the soldiers of the Confederacy and of the Union often tended to demonize one another. In order to be able to kill someone, the soldiers had to think of that person as less than human, or else the guilt could be unbearable. After the 1860s, the rise of Civil War nostalgia and Civil War enthusiasts gave the war a glossy, clean, glorified sheen. Both the North and the South are often presented as noble men fighting for their way of life—against slavery, or for federal control of states. But there are few examples of this demonization or hatred in The Killer Angels: it is a war between gentlemen. The lack of examination of these issues may be due to the fact that the novel focuses almost exclusively on men of the upper parts of society, particularly on the Confederate side: colonels and generals, never privates or sergeants.
As a character, Chamberlain illustrates the nation’s division. Chamberlain ruminates several times on a discussion he had with a Southern professor, and it is evident that Chamberlain himself is divided: on the one hand, he holds the Northern abolitionist belief that blacks deserve to be free, but on the other hand, he is troubled by the sense of revulsion that he feels at the sight of a black man early in the novel. The professor initially argued with Chamberlain, saying that blacks are subhuman, and, of course, Chamberlain disagreed. However, when seeing the injured black man, Chamberlain notices what he thinks of as the man’s animal-like qualities and wonders if the professor’s purported subhuman view is plausible.