Study Guide

James Longstreet in The Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara

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James Longstreet

Man of Misery

In The Killer Angels, we see the Union perspective mainly through Colonel Chamberlain's eyes. But what about the Confederate perspective? Look no further than General James Longstreet, a Southern gentleman with some complex views on everything that's happening around him.

Of course, there's a huge difference between Chamberlain and Longstreet: Chamberlain reflects on slavery quite a bit, while Longstreet doesn't think it's worth thinking about, even though he does admit that it's the real cause of the war. Chamberlain goes from some minor hesitations and doubts to a fuller conviction of the worthiness of the Union Cause; Longstreet goes from a vague sense of foreboding and frustration to seeing that the Confederate Cause has been lost.

Here's a glimpse into the workings of Longstreet's inner monologue:

The war was about slavery, all right. That was not why Longstreet fought but that was what the war was about, and there was no point in talking about it, never had been. (3.5.197)

Longstreet, a South Carolinian of Dutch ancestry, has known pain and heartache in his life. Three of his children all died from disease during one terrible Christmas season, and since then, he's become more reserved and has stopped participating in the card games he used to enjoy so much. He wants to win but he's not a zealot for slavery or a person with a religious sense of the South's mission, like the deceased Stonewall Jackson was. Maybe that's one reason why Longstreet can see the faults in Confederate strategy more clearly than others can.

Saw It Coming a Mile Away

Before the battle starts, Longstreet is feeling pretty skeptical. General Lee thinks that taking an aggressive, offensive position against the North is wise, but Longstreet totally disagrees: "He had never believed in this invasion. Lee and Davis together had overruled him. He did not believe in offensive warfare when the enemy outnumbered you and outgunned you and would come looking for you anyway if you waited somewhere on your own ground" (1.1.53).

Part of Longstreet's tragedy is that he can see the disaster that's going to happen, but he can't prevent it. He's stuck in the course set by Lee and by fate, powerless to shift direction. He wants to swing the army around and try to cut the Union off from Washington, D.C., thereby separating them from Lincoln. But instead, Lee orders Longstreet to attempt to take Little Round Top—a brutal battle that doesn't win anything for the Confederates.

Considering what happened at Gettysburg, Longstreet was probably right. In his afterword, Shaara points out that Longstreet's theories about defensive warfare actually anticipated the trench warfare of World War I—though, considering that that was the bloodiest war up to that point in history, far exceeding the death toll of the Civil War, it might temper your sense of Longstreet's vision a bit.

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