In the opening section, “To the Reader,” author Michael Shaara states that he wrote the book because he wanted to know “what it was like to be there, what the weather was like, what the men’s faces looked like.” He adds that since there were so many different historical interpretations of what went on at the Battle of Gettysburg, he based The Killer Angels primarily on the letters, journal entries, and memoirs of the men who were there.
In the Foreword, Shaara gives a brief description of the situation in late June 1863. General Robert E. Lee, after a string of victories, has led the Confederate army into an invasion of Union territory, mainly in Pennsylvania. His intention is to destroy the Union army once and for all and then offer peace to the President of the Union, Abraham Lincoln—with the understanding that the Confederacy be recognized as an independent country.
Shaara then describes the main characters and gives a little of each man’s background and personal history. The most important are General Robert E. Lee, Confederate General James Longstreet, Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Major General George Meade, commanding general of the Union army.
In “To the Reader,” Shaara says that his desire to understand the war from the perspective of someone who participated in it is the same as that of Stephen Crane, the author of another famous Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Crane’s novel, written only a decade or so after the Civil War, is an important precursor to The Killer Angels, since it was the first fictionalization of the war.
Shaara’s list of characters provides some necessary information about the key players, but the character traits and background history we are given here are also included in the novel itself. Some of the novel’s perspectives and biases are hinted at here. For instance, Shaara introduces nine Confederate characters, but only five Union characters. In fact, with the exception of a few early chapters about John Buford, Joshua Chamberlain is the only Union voice we encounter in the novel. By contrast, there are chapters centering around five different Confederate characters, including a spy and a military observer from England who is visiting the Confederates, and the novel contains many more chapters from the viewpoint of the Confederates than it does from the Unionists.