(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Killer Angels tells of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War. The novel has four parts: the armies’ convergence on Gettysburg; the first day of fighting, when Confederates push the Union forces back but fail to drive them from superior defensive positions; the second day, when the Confederates attempt to surprise and overwhelm the Union left; and the third day, highlighted by Pickett’s Charge against the Union center. On June 29, Robert E. Lee’s invading army is widely divided, living off the wealth of Pennsylvania. No one with the main bodies of the army knows where its cavalry is, or—since the cavalry is responsible for intelligence on the march—where the Union forces are. The pragmatic James Longstreet gets some information from a spy. Lee has an aristocrat’s distaste for information acquired thus, but he prudently decides to concentrate his army, and the roads dictate concentration at Gettysburg. In the meantime, Lee instructs A. P. Hill, commanding his leading corps, to avoid a general engagement.

In Gettysburg, Buford, with two brigades of Union cavalry, knows that Hill’s troops are coming. Buford likes the high ground south of Gettysburg, which would make a fine defensive position. Much further south, the young commander of the Twentieth Maine Infantry, former professor of rhetoric Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, takes charge of mutinous soldiers from another Maine regiment. Chamberlain, suffering the aftereffects of sunstroke, does not feel well. Neither do several other principals in the coming battle, including Lee, who suffers from heart disease.

On July 1, Buford’s troops confront Hill’s corps northwest of town. Thinking he faces only local militia, Hill presses on; the struggle intensifies, and Union reinforcements appear. Then a second Confederate corps arrives and assaults the Union right flank. The Union infantry’s commander, John Reynolds, is killed, and under the new assault, the Union troops flee. They reform south of town, on the...

(The entire section is 829 words.)