Study Guide

The Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels Introduction

Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels deals with what many would call the most important battle in American history—the Battle of Gettysburg—and makes it all personal. Shaara takes you right inside the minds of the officers on the field during the fight, giving you an up-close and deeply researched picture of the battle as it unfolded. More significantly, this novel helps explain why the war was fought, letting you see the central motivations of the characters and explore their ideas about what they were fighting for.

It's no wonder this baby won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974, the year it was published.

Originally, the Civil War was fought to keep the states together in one Union—at least, that was the stated goal. Abraham Lincoln, while he personally believed that slavery was wrong, said that he didn't intend to destroy slavery in the South; he just wanted to prevent its spread into new territories.

However, the goal of the war eventually changed to involve the actual abolition of slavery. After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, which was the second bloodiest battle of the war after Gettysburg, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, saying that the slaves in the rebellious states were now "forever free." (The slaves in border states that were still loyal to the Union would later be freed with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.)

Now that the war really was about slavery, Gettysburg became the battle that would decide the fate of the South's "peculiar institution," as slavery was called back in the day. The Union hero Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain—really the main character in The Killer Angels—represents the Northern, anti-slavery perspective in the book, but Shaara also lets us see what the Confederates believed they were fighting for—a way of life and a social order… even if it was all built on slavery. In fact, a sizeable part of the book takes us inside the heads of the two most important Confederate commanders—General Robert E. Lee and General James Longstreet, who both have complicated attitudes toward the war and the Confederate Cause.

The Killer Angels puts the central debate about the war front and center: was it a fight over slavery or a fight over "states' rights"? You get to see all the different perspectives, but in the end, one side seems to come out on top. If you know how the battle ended, you might be able to guess pretty easily…

What is The Killer Angels About and Why Should I Care?

"Killer Queen" is a song by the band Queen. The Killer Angels is an award-winning book by Michael Shaara. All confusion between the two should end right here.

While The Killer Angels shows us the tactics and the strategy of the Battle of Gettysburg and gives us special insight into the generals' decision-making over the course of three fateful days, the deeper question the book asks and answers is: "What was the Civil War all about?" If you live in the United States today, this is kind of an important question, since the Civil War totally remade American society, helping it become what it currently is.

It's possible that if the Confederacy had won a decisive battle at Gettysburg, the United States would now be two separate countries. But that didn't happen—and The Killer Angels is all about why it didn't happen. From the Confederacy's perspective, the events in the book unfold like a classical tragedy: Shaara charts General Lee's missteps as he attempts to direct the course of battle while struggling with ill health. The Southern Cause is overshadowed by a sense of impending doom.

On the other hand, the book also traces what a Union soldier would see as the triumph of freedom—the end of slavery and the birth of a new United States. What the Declaration of Independence promised—"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"—suddenly comes much closer to being a reality for people of all races and creeds.

If you can understand what America was like at that time, you can understand what America is like now—though The Killer Angels probably won't help anyone understand things like Kim Kardashian and GoGurt. As William Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The Killer Angels Resources

Websites

The Civil War Trust
This is a great resource for all kinds of information on the Civil War. We're talking everything and the kitchen sink here.

History Channel Site on The Battle of Gettysburg
If you're tired of all the Ancient Aliens episodes on the History Channel—don't worry. They still have some real historical things now and then. Like this.

The Gettysburg National Park Website
If you're thinking of going to see where this all went down, well, you can. It's a national park now.

Movie, Stage, or TV Productions

Gettysburg (1993)
This movie, based on The Killer Angels, is over four hours long. Jeff Daniels plays Chamberlain, and Martin Sheen plays Lee. Hey, Roger Ebert was a fan.

The Killer Angels (2004)
It might seem like a tough book to adapt for the stage, but it's apparently been done by Karen Tarjan.

Articles and Interviews

"Making 'Killer Angels'"
Michael Shaara spent seven years doing in-depth research and writing The Killer Angels. Before that, he'd worked as a boxer and a policeman.

Roger Ebert's Review of Gettysburg
Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and thought it had given him a real understanding of the Civil War.

Video

Video Summary of the Battle of Gettysburg
In case you don't have four hours to spare for the Gettysburg movie, historian Gary Adelman's got your back with this super-quick summary of the battle.

Guided Tour of Little Round Top
This is a guided tour of the hill where Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the entire Union line with their bravery.

Battle of Gettysburg Documentary
This hour-long documentary gives a pretty substantial and interesting look at the battle.

Chamberlain's Speech from Gettysburg
Jeff Daniels gives Chamberlain's rousing speech from the beginning of the book, when he tries to persuade some mutinous Mainers to fight for freedom and equality.

Jeff Shaara Discusses The Killer Angels
Michael Shaara's son Jeff is an author in his own right: he wrote a successful Civil War novel himself, called Gods and Generals. (Yup, there's a movie of that one, too.) Here, Jeff chats about his dad's book.

Audio

The Gettysburg Address
Although you won't get to see Lincoln giving his famous speech in The Killer Angels, you might as well brush up on this old staple of classroom memorization.

Gettysburg and Civil War Podcasts at Civil War Traveler
If you ever stop by the Gettysburg battlefield, you can take a tour on your iPod (or other device) using one of these.

Historian James M. McPherson Tours the Gettysburg Battlefield with NPR
McPherson is a big-shot Civil War historian, so it's worth listening to his take on things.

"Kathleen Malvourneen"
Here's a recording of the song from the movie Gods and Generals. In The Killer Angels, Longstreet and Armistead listen to a soldier sing it.

"Dixieland" by Steve Earle
This modern-day folk track is sung from the perspective of Buster Kilrain, the only fictional character from The Killer Angels.

Images

Joshua Chamberlain
Here's the man himself. Nice 'stache, right? They had Jeff Daniels play him in the movie, but maybe he looks more like Matthew McConaughey?

John Buford
Buford looks pretty intense—but we can totally imagine this dude riding on the plains out West, enjoying the freedom.

Robert E. Lee
Who else could possess this shaggy white mane?

General George G. Meade
We don't get to see much of Meade in the book, but this is what he looked like: another sweet beard.

James Longstreet
Yeah, but who had the sweetest beard of all? It would be hard to deny Longstreet the honor.

Arthur Fremantle
Fremantle looks less skinny than you'd expect after reading The Killer Angels.

Lewis Armistead
Here's the Confederate general who died tragically, breaking the vow he'd made to his best friend, Win Hancock.

Chamberlain's Bayonet Charge
The artist really makes the boulders look huge for this dramatic scene, with Chamberlain totally saving the day.

Pickett's Charge
This is it: the beginning of the Confederacy's epic defeat, illustrated.

The Stone Wall on Cemetery Ridge
This is the stone wall where the Union soldiers shot the approaching Confederates, as Pickett's division charged.

Little Round Top
This is the hill where Chamberlain saved the day—and maybe even the war. You can tell why the Confederates referred to it as "Rocky Hill"…

Michael Shaara
This is the author himself—a former boxer, paratrooper, and policeman.