The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara

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How does the Lewis Armistead and Winfield Hancock relationship define the war in The Killer Angels?

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Before the Civil War, Lewis Armstead and Winfield Hancock are the best of friends. When the American Civil War reaches them, they end up on opposite sides of the battle fields. Lewis Armstead ends up fighting on the Confederate side of the war, and Winfield Hancock ends up fighting on the Union side of the war. The two are devastated about the chance of having to face each other in battle, as they care deeply for one another. Unfortunately, they end up having to fight a battle against each other. This sad reality was the case for many people who fought in the American Civil War, as Confederate and Union lines were drawn by politicians who only had economic and political interests in mind.

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The friendship of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead symbolizes the ways in which the Civil War drove apart not only states but also friends and families. Hancock, who was from Pennsylvania, fought in the Mexican-American War and was a quartermaster under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston in California when the Civil War erupted in 1861. Armistead, who was from Virginia, also served under Johnston in California and became fast friends with Hancock and his wife, Almira. 

Though Hancock was a Democrat, he remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, while Johnston became a Confederate General. Armistead also joined the Confederacy. During the decisive battle of Gettysburg, Hancock earned renown as a corps commander who helped repel Pickett's Charge. Armistead, by then a Brigadier General, was wounded while serving in Pickett's brigade and died two days later. Armistead told Major Bingham, who was on Hancock's staff, that he regretted his choice to go against Hancock, and, while dying, Armistead gave Bingham a bible to give to Hancock's wife, Almira. Hancock heard of his friend's injury and was also wounded in the thigh but survived. The destroyed friendship between Hancock and Armistead, as well as their eventual peace before Armistead died, signifies the way in which the country was divided by the Civil War.

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The American Civil War has always been described as one in which brothers often fought brothers and where friends often met face-to-face on the battlefield. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain claims that the war is about

“Killing of brothers. This whole war is concerned with the killing of brothers.”

Such was the case of Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead and Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Before the war, they were best friends, "closer than brothers," and Armistead seems to have had a spiritual if not romantic connection with Hancock's wife, Mary. Armistead, a brigade commander in Major General George Pickett's infantry division, has long worried that he may one day face off against Hancock on the battlefield. He wants to see Hancock one last time, but not under fire. Armistead even considers crossing enemy lines to pay Hancock a visit under a flag of truce, a notion suggested and approved by his corps commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet. But Armistead doesn't...

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consider it proper, and instead he hopes that Hancock's Union corps will not be engaged when Armistead's men are sent into action. But such is not the case: In a simple twist of fate, Hancock's II Corps will defend the center of the Union line on the final day of battle, and Pickett's division--with Armistead's brigade--will take direct aim at Hancock's men. Armistead is distracted at the time of the attack; he is thinking of his last meeting with Hancock's wife, remembering his farewell: "It may be for years, it may be forever." And it is Hancock's men who fatally wound Armistead, who manages to ask a Union officer to take him to see his friend. But Hancock has also been badly wounded, Armistead learns, and Armistead

"... sends his regrets. Will you tell him... how very sorry I am..."  (Friday, July 3, 1863--Chapter 4)

One man dies--Armistead--and one man lives--Hancock--joining the tens of thousands of other Gettysburg casualties in blue and grey, but Americans all.

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