I knew that The Killer Angels had to be on my list of Books I Should Have Read Before Now. This celebrated novel about the Civil War is a must for any devotee of American history. What I didn’t expect is that I would find it fascinating and a great read, even though I don’t particularly like war stories.
An hour by hour account of the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels is told from the viewpoint of several generals and other officers who led troops into this conflict. As such, it is a psychological drama that recreates the thoughts, emotions and personalities of Robert E. Lee, Lewis Armistead, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, John Buford, etc. Perhaps the most poignant of these is General James Longstreet, who knew the Confederate offensive (“Pickett’s Charge”) was doomed but had to back his leader.
The Killer Angels includes 18 maps, identifying the divisions and brigades on either side and their placement on the battlefield. I quickly learned that warfare in that era was a game played for very high stakes on three-dimensional terrain, where capturing and holding a hill gave one side a great advantage. Since the Battle of Gettysburg was fought over a three-day period, there were many shifts of fortune and movements around the landscape, but the Union Army of the Potomac established and kept that edge against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. It was the turning point of the war, and, in all, there were nearly 50,000 casualties.
Reading The Killer Angels, I became immersed in the desperate circumstances — horrifying yet intriguing, ultimately a game of life and death. As such, it is spellbinding, and I could see why the Civil War has so many aficionados and reenactors. In fact, I would like to visit Gettysburg someday and see the places described in the book. I am now reading James M. McPherson’s Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettyburg, in which the well-known historian takes you on a guided tour of the battlefield as it exists today and the controversies which still surround its stories of human error and national destiny.
This What-Are-You-Reading-Wednesday post was written by Nancy Conner, director of grants at the Indiana Humanities Council, and coordinator of Novel Conversations.