I may possibly have been the last Civil War enthusiast yet to read The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, a historical novel I have heard repeatedly referenced by historians, battlefield guides, reenactors and Civil War buffs of virtually every stripe. Now I can officially proclaim that I have read it too! But what took me so long?
I was actually reared on historical fiction – Michener, Clavell, Vidal – and I read voraciously in this arena, which had a profound effect upon my intellectual development with regard to both history and literature. Later, as I determined to become a historian, I deliberately eschewed this genre. Why? Because quality historical fiction tends to deeply ingrain its impressions in the synapses: to this day I have to vigorously resist identifying as authentically biographical the characters of Burr and Lincoln that Gore Vidal so brilliantly conceived in those marvelous eponymous historical novels.
The Killer Angels was actually pressed upon me by a friend who had often nagged me to read it. Finally, he mailed me a copy, which thus enforced a sense of guilt and obligation upon me. I still did not turn to it immediately, but I did take it along with me on a recent trip. My Master’s Degree in History was conferred at a ceremony held in National Harbor, Maryland, and it seemed fitting that my next stop post-commencement should be in the realm of the multiple Civil War battlefields at Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was in that vicinity, overlooking a tranquil pond on the deck of a rented 1830s-era log cabin in Spotsylvania, with a cup of coffee in the early morning sun just prior to a battlefield tour, that I began The Killer Angels. And I could not stop reading it.
As promised by its many fans, it is an outstanding read on a variety of levels, not least in its talent for recreating the time and circumstances, effortlessly placing the reader in that milieu to walk with the characters on those crucial days that saw what was the largest land battle in North America. A complex yet engaging storyline that never grows dull, perhaps its greatest strength is in its skilled characterizations that truly bring colorful animation to a long-dead cast of otherwise monochromatic figures. The grand scale of Gettysburg is resurrected, as well as what this battle would mean for each side in a clash that while hardly deciding the war nevertheless placed a pronounced exclamation mark in the course of how its narrative would be writ ever afterward.
Although the characters were exceedingly well drawn, I did not need to fear that I would confuse fiction for biography here, since I have previously read more than a little about central players such as Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain. I have visited the battlefield, once with a guide in my car and on foot, and again on a walking tour with the legendary Ed Bearss. I had not believed that a novel set on those grounds on those days would hold much value for me, but in this I was mistaken: Shaara’s deliberately understated prose that deftly wove history with literature made me “feel” the events there as I never thought possible. I was indeed stirred in a way I never could have anticipated.
In the end, I do not regret waiting this long to read this fine novel. While I am thankful that I had a firm historical foundation in place prior to entertaining the drama, I am yet even more grateful then for that drama. If it turns out that I was not truly the absolute last person to read this book, I would urge those who have taken my place to pick up a copy: you truly will not regret it.