The Killer Angels Characters
by Michael Shaara

Start Your Free Trial

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Download The Killer Angels Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Shaara uses multiple points of view. Most of the characters who are his centers of consciousness are Confederates, although if the novel has an individual hero, it is Chamberlain. Ultimately, however, the novel’s focus is collective, and the story’s closing reference to the Fourth of July underscores Shaara’s understanding, like Abraham Lincoln’s, that what happened at Gettysburg was a pivotal experience in the life of the nation.

Many historical figures at Gettysburg are presented only as flat characters in the novel. A character so flat that he is almost transparent, General Meade, the commander of the Union Army, hardly appears at all. Another example is the English observer Freemantle, who is always presented as awkward-looking and utterly uncomprehending. One simple memory of Hancock figures frequently in Armistead’s thoughts, and Hancock himself appears later in a brilliant cameo, sitting elegantly astride his horse, reassuring his troops in the midst of the artillery barrage that has Chamberlain lying flat on the ground.

The novel’s central characters are more fully developed. Shaara graphically and realistically describes the sensations of Lee’s heart disease and implies that Lee’s respect and affection for Longstreet have roots in his own physical weakness as well as in his appreciation of Longstreet’s solid merit. Lee’s aristocratic ethic shows in his distaste for Longstreet’s spy and his insistence that his troops treat Pennsylvania’s civilians properly, regardless of past Union behavior in Virginia. His sensitivity shows in his restrained reproach of his delinquent cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart. Deeply committed to command, Lee wants to repeat the success of Chancellorsville, where he gambled against great odds, attacked, and won. With another victory, Lee might win the war. He does not understand that his problem at Gettysburg is not that he has lost his trusted right hand, Stonewall Jackson, who was killed at Chancellorsville, but that not all the Union commanders that he faces can be counted on to be as inept as his opponent at Chancellorsville was.

Longstreet has been controversial in the history and mythology of Gettysburg, recognized by some modern commentators as a tactical genius far in advance of his time but blamed by many of his contemporaries for uncooperativeness with Lee at Gettysburg and disloyalty to Lee’s memory after the war. Shaara’s portrait is strongly sympathetic. Longstreet remembers not Chancellorsville (where he did not fight) but Fredericksburg, where his well positioned troops cut down attacking Yankees in great numbers. The events of Gettysburg prove him right about the superiority of defensive tactics, but the vindication comes at a price Longstreet can hardly bear: the blood of many of his men; defeat in a battle that need not have been lost; loss of any prospect for victory in the war; and loss of his respect, if not his affection, for Lee.

Chamberlain’s character is even more fully realized than Longstreet’s. Younger, less experienced, and closer to his men than the other major characters, Chamberlain is just as focused as they on the responsibilities of command. When challenged, he improvises brilliantly, first with the mutineers and then in the desperate fight on the Union left. After this fight, he remembers plugging a hole in the line with his younger brother Tom; he begins to recognize his true, hard soldier’s vocation—a vocation not unlike Lee’s.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

To emphasize the gulf between the cultures who sent their armies to Gettysburg, Shaara concentrated on the two highest-ranking commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee and Longstreet, while he chose relatively little-known but intensely capable figures to speak for the North: Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain, commanding the Twentieth Maine Regiment, and General John Buford of the United States Cavalry. Each man won his place in this novel through tragic irony ; dead black eyes in a regal ghostly face...

(The entire section is 3,233 words.)