Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 829
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.
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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 ground that Buford had admired. Lee wants to drive the shaken Union troops from their position, but his subordinates cannot mount an attack before nightfall. Later, Lee and Longstreet discuss the situation; Longstreet, convinced of the tactical advantages accruing to a defender, advises that Lee maneuver to find a strong defensive position, but Lee wants to fight the enemy where he is. Chamberlain’s regiment, including the mutineers, is among the Union forces still headed for Gettysburg.
The next morning, Longstreet again unsuccessfully urges Lee to fight defensively. Instead, Lee decides that Longstreet’s troops should attack the Union left, taking it by surprise if possible. Meanwhile, Union troops continue to deploy. Longstreet’s assault is delayed as his men countermarch to avoid observation. The Confederates discover Union troops in unexpected positions, but Longstreet does not adjust his movement to the new situation, and the attack begins according to Lee’s orders.
As it does, Chamberlain’s regiment occupies a position on a rocky hill on the extreme Union left. Chamberlain must hold this position, or the whole army will be jeopardized. In desperate fighting, Chamberlain improvises brilliantly and successfully. Intense fighting also occurs to his right. Repeatedly, Confederate troops almost break the Union lines, but they ultimately withdraw with heavy casualties. After nightfall, the Union commander, General Meade, considers withdrawal but is dissuaded by his corps commanders. Many Confederates celebrate their near victory, but Longstreet, weighing its cost, again urges disengagement and maneuver. Lee promises to consider Longstreet’s proposal.
On the morning of July 3, against Longstreet’s continuing advice, Lee decides to attack the Union center with Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps. Pickett rejoices, believing that with this attack, his troops will win the war. Far less sanguine, Longstreet can only hold his tongue. Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s surviving troops move to a position behind the Union center—“the safest place in the Union army,” they are told. Pickett’s attack is preceded by a prolonged, intense artillery exchange, and Chamberlain hugs the ground as shells burst around him. When Confederate ammunition runs low, thousands of attacking troops step off in exact array, as if on parade. Chamberlain, recognizing their deadly intent, nevertheless perceives their beauty. As they approach the Union lines, their ranks are decimated by cannon fire and musketry. Armistead with a handful of followers reaches the Union lines. Mortally wounded, he sends his friend General Hancock an apology for the attack, in which Hancock, too, has been wounded.
The remnants of the attackers, including Pickett, return to their own lines. Longstreet hears Lee telling these survivors, “It is all my fault.” Anticipating a possible counterattack, Lee orders, “General Pickett, I want you to reform your division.” Pickett, pointing into the smoke, replies, “General Lee, I have no division.” The battle is over. In the aftermath, Longstreet tells Lee that he thinks the Confederacy cannot now win the war, and Lee replies that they will continue to fight because that is what soldiers do. The next day is the Fourth of July.