The Killer Angels (1974) is a historical novel by Michael Shaara that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. The book tells the story of the four days of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War: June 30, 1863, as the troops of both the Union and the Confederacy move into battle around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and July 1, July 2, and July 3, when the battle was fought. The story is character driven and told from the perspective of various protagonists. A film adaptation of the novel, titled Gettysburg, was released in 1993.
The title: J.L. Chamberlain, a major character, recalls reciting to his father the speech from Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man...in action how like an angel!" The father comments, "Well, boy, if he's an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel."
In late June 1863, General Robert E. Lee leads his army into Pennsylvania. By threatening Washington, D.C., he hopes to draw the Union army into battle and inflict a crushing defeat, which will bring an end to the war. Harrison, a spy, tells General James Longstreet, Lee's friend, that the Union army is drawing near. They go to Lee, who is reluctant to trust a spy, but has to, because his usual source of intelligence, Jeb Stuart's cavalry, is out of touch. He sets out to meet the enemy.
At the road junction of Gettysburg, Confederate infantry encounters the Union cavalry of General John Buford. He seizes the high ground and holds it against a Confederate attack at dawn on July 1. Troops of General John Reynolds come to support Buford. Reynolds is killed and the Union troops are pushed back, but at nightfall they entrench on high ground while the Confederates celebrate what appears to them to be another Lee victory.
Longstreet is filled with foreboding. On July 2, he tries to persuade Lee that the Union position is too strong. He urges Lee to march away and make the fight on more favorable ground. But Lee orders a flanking attack on the Union position. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine is told by his superiors that he occupies the end of the Union line, and that he must hold at any cost. In a brilliant, costly action, Chamberlain succeeds in repulsing the Confederate attack.
On July 3, Lee orders a frontal assault on the center of the Union line. Knowing it is doomed, Longstreet argues against it. But Lee is confident and Longstreet despairs. General George Pickett leads the charge, which is turned back with heavy losses. A shaken Lee orders retreat. Chamberlain is now confident of Union victory.
Beginning with the famous section about Longstreet's spy Harrison gathering information about the movements and positions of the Federals, each day is told primarily from the perspectives of commanders of the two armies, including Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet for the Confederacy, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford for the Union. Most chapters describe the emotion-laden decisions of these officers as they went into battle. Maps depicting the positioning of the troops as they went to battle, as they advanced, add to the sense of authenticity as decisions are made to advance and retreat with the armies. The author also uses the story of Gettysburg, one of the largest battles in the history of North America, to relate the causes of the Civil War and the motivations that led old friends to face each other on the battlefield.
- Robert Edward Lee (Commanding general, Army of Northern Virginia)
- James Longstreet (Lieutenant General)
- George Pickett (Major General)
- Lewis Addison Armistead (Brigadier General)
- John Bell Hood (Major General)
- Isaac Ridgeway Trimble (Major General)
- James Lawson Kemper (Brigadier General)
- Henry Heth (Major General)
- Jubal Anderson Early (Major General)
- James Ewell Brown Stuart (Major General)
- Richard Stoddart Ewell (Lieutenant General)
- Ambrose Powell Hill (Lieutenant General)
- Richard Brooke Garnett (Brigadier General)
- Moxley Sorrel (Lieutenant Colonel)
- Walter H. Taylor (Major)
- Arthur Fremantle (Lieutenant Colonel, British Coldstream Guards)
- Henry Thomas Harrison (Confederate spy)
- Joshua L. Chamberlain (Colonel)
- John Buford (Brigadier General)
- Thomas Chamberlain (Lieutenant)
- Winfield Scott Hancock (Major General)
- William Gamble (Colonel)
- John Fulton Reynolds (Major General)
- George Meade (Commanding general, Army of the Potomac)
- Ellis Spear (Captain)
- Buster Kilrain (Private, former Sergeant; the only fictional character)
Publication of The Killer Angels and release of the movie have had two significant influences on modern perceptions of the Civil War. First, the actions of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry on Little Round Top have achieved enormous public awareness. Visitors touring the Gettysburg Battlefield rank the 20th Maine monument as their most important stop. Second, since Shaara used the memoirs of General James Longstreet as a prime source for his history, the book has renewed the modern re-evaluation of Longstreet's reputation, damaged since the 1870s by the Lost Cause writers, such as Jubal A. Early.
General H. Norman Schwarzkopf described The Killer Angels as "the best and most realistic historical novel about war that I have ever read." The filmmaker Ken Burns has mentioned the influence of the book in developing his interest in the Civil War and his subsequent production of the PBS series on the subject. The book has also been cited by Joss Whedon as the original inspiration for his science fiction/Western hybrid series Firefly.
Awards and nominations
The Killer Angels received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Killer Angels has been required reading, at various times, at the US Army Officer Candidate School, The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment Officer Qualification Course, and The Basic School for Marine Officers (TBS). It is one of only two novels (the other being Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer) on the U.S. Army's recommended reading list for Officer Professional Development.
The Killer Angels was the source for the screenplay for the 1993 movie Gettysburg. Much dialogue in the movie comes directly from the book.
The Firefly science fiction television series was developed by Joss Whedon after reading The Killer Angels. Homage to Shaara's novel was paid in the series' final episode, "Objects in Space".
Singer-songwriter Steve Earle included a song on his 1999 bluegrass album, The Mountain, called Dixieland, sung from the point of view of the character Buster Kilrain.
A stage adaptation by Karen Tarjan was originally produced at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago in 2004, and again in the Fall of 2013. The adaptation was subsequently produced at Anchorage Community Theatre, the Wayside Theatre in Virginia, the Heritage Theatre in Maryland and Mother Road Theatre in New Mexico.
- ^ "Chamberlain" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Eishen, Thomas, Courage on Little Round Top, Skyward Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1-881554-38-4.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Knopf, 2013, ISBN 0-307594-08-4.
- Hartwig, D. Scott, A Killer Angels Companion, Thomas Publications, 1996, ISBN 0-939631-95-4.
- Smithpeters, Jeff, To the Latest Generation: Post Cold War Civil War Novels in Their Contemporary Contexts, doctoral dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2005. The dissertation argues that The Killer Angels is a response to the Vietnam War and to a longing for the leadership of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.