The Killer Angels Essays and Criticism
by Michael Shaara

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Shaara's Historical Material

Michael Shaara’s riveting novel about the Battle of Gettysburg presents in novelistic form some of the political and social factors that divided the North from the South during the Civil War years, and in the dialogue he carefully selects spokesmen on both sides who argue that their cause is the just and right one. In writing the novel, Shaara states in his note “To the Reader,” the author went back to the actual words of the men who participated in the battle, as recorded in letters and other documents. He states that to his knowledge, he changed no facts, and he adds, “Though I have often had to choose between conflicting viewpoints, I have not knowingly violated the action. . . . The interpretation of character is my own.” There is no reason to quibble with Shaara’s words; however, he does appear to have decided to present his material in a way that clearly favors the northern cause.

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Snobbish and bigoted he may be, but Fremantle has hit on something that was indeed one of the underlying causes of the war: the modernizing, industrializing, urbanizing North, with its rapid development of free-market capitalism, was perceived with dismay and suspicion by the predominantly rural, agrarian, tradition-bound South.

The northern cause is presented almost exclusively through the viewpoints of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his aide Buster Kilrain. Chamberlain adheres passionately to the American democratic ideal, the belief that all men have the right to freedom and the pursuit of their own destiny without coercion from the ruling powers. Chamberlain, who evokes the cause eloquently to the Maine mutineers, believes the North is fighting for the dignity of man in a country, unique in the world, where the individual matters more than the state. He is proud of the fact that in the United States, no man has to bow down to another. He regards an aristocracy as a “curse,” something that belongs to old Europe, and he is horrified to see what he thinks of as a “new aristocracy” transplanted from Europe into the South. For Chamberlain, the cause for which he is fighting transcends simple patriotism and attains a universal meaning: “The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.”

The other man who gives expression to the Union cause is Chamberlain’s devoted aide, Kilrain. The rough-and-ready former sergeant is a complete contrast to the eloquent, former professor Chamberlain. But as comrades in arms, their mutual respect and affection, coupled with the difference in their ages, enables them to be like father and son to each other. Separated by rank and education they may be, but they relate to each other with generosity and affection, an example of the ideal for which they are fighting, the basic equality of all men. Kilrain even attains a rough eloquence of his own in expressing his beliefs. Like Chamberlain, he dislikes aristocracies, and he expresses himself with venom that is foreign to his commanding officer: “It’s the aristocracy I’m after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a cockroach, ah.” He also says, “There is only one aristocracy, and that’s right here—” (he taps his skull with his finger). The rights of all men to make of their talents what they can rather than being born into a rigid social and cultural system in which who a man’s father is matters more than who a man is.

The only other Union character presented in any detail is Buford. Like Kilrain, he shares a dislike of a social system based on class. He is irritated by “the cavaliers, the high-bred, feathery, courtly ones who spoke like Englishmen and treated a man like dirt.” When a Confederate officer he sees in the distance takes his hat off to him, Buford grimaces; “a gentleman,” he thinks.

The southern attitude that Buford, Chamberlain, and Kilrain dislike can be seen right at the beginning of the...

(The entire section is 7,078 words.)