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Ladies and gentlemen, here he is: if there's a hero in this book, it's gotta be Joshua Chamberlain.
The Killer Angels is all about the battle between North and South, and Chamberlain's like a symbol of the North. Hey, this dude's from Maine, which is about as far from the South as you can get.
Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves: Chamberlain's attitude toward the South is complex. He's perfectly willing to kill Confederate rebels for the Union Cause—but he respects them. Even though they're ultimately fighting for slavery, he knows that many of the Southerners believe they are fighting for states' rights and traditions and a way of life that they've always known and cherished. Chamberlain acknowledges their bravery in fighting for what they believe in; the historical Chamberlain actually surprised the world when he ordered his soldiers to salute the Confederates when they surrendered at the very end of the war. It was a token of recognition, his acknowledgement that they'd fought bravely.
A professor of Rhetoric at Bowdoin College, Chamberlain might seem like an unlikely candidate for a super-soldier, but he's pretty deadly. Commanding the 20th Maine regiment, Chamberlain's already experienced a lot of fighting, and his battle experiences have honed his skills. The number of Maine men in his charge has decreased as more and more have been killed and seriously wounded. But the remaining soldiers are the cream of the crop, excellent fighters all.
Chamberlain's main moment of heroism comes with the fight for Little Round Top, an event that determines the course of rest of the battle. Little Round Top was rocky high ground—a great place to set up cannons and blast the Confederate line.
The moment of truth comes for Chamberlain when his troops have to defend the flank—the very end of the Union line—as the Confederates try to take Little Round Top. The fighting is bloody and intense. When the guys start to run out of ammo, Chamberlain, in a desperate yet totally successful last ditch effort, orders a bayonet charge, which drives back the Confederates and saving the day for the Union. It's an interesting contrast to Pickett's Charge—where Lee's all-out assault turns out to be totally foolhardy and unnecessary.
By the way, we did say bayonet charge: that means Chamberlain basically told his men to put some knifey things in front of them and run right into Confederate gunfire. Don't ask us how that worked.
Despite his great skill at warfare (Chamberlain would advance from colonel to brigadier general before the war was over), he's still fundamentally a scholar and a family man. He longs for and dreams about his wife when he gets a break between battles. He's looking forward to seeing his two kids, as well. His brother Tom accompanies him into battle; at one point, Chamberlain even uses him to help fill a hole in the battle line—something he feels guilty about for the rest of the novel.
Early in the book, Chamberlain gives a speech to his men, attempting to convince mutinous troops who've just arrived from the 2nd Maine Regiment that the Cause is worth it. Here's what he says:
"This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you'll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we're here for something new. I don't… this hasn't happened much in the history of the world. We're an army going out to set other men free." (1.2.140)
This is the same position Chamberlain will continue to stick with by the time the book ends, even though he cycles through some doubts and worries in between. He's a guy with high ideals, and he works hard to stick to them.
Throughout the novel, Chamberlain wrestles with his reasons for fighting. Is destroying slavery worth the cost of the war? Chamberlain's pretty sure it is, but he discusses these issues with his friend, Sergeant Buster Kilrain, who doesn't seem to care about slavery that much—he just wants to destroy the Southern aristocracy (Chamberlain's down with that, too).
At one point, Chamberlain even wonders if the Southerners are right in claiming racial superiority for whites. He remembers, for example, how he debated with visiting Southern guests who told him that he couldn't understand the race question until he'd actually lived among African Americans. But, after encountering a runaway slave and confronting his own potential feelings of racism, Chamberlain is able to acknowledge the former slave as a brother. As he tells Kilrain: "I don't really understand it. Never have. The more I think on it the more it horrifies me. How can they look in the eyes of a man and make a slave of him and then quote the Bible?" (3.2.103).
Chamberlain knows he's not perfect, and he knows that his ideals will be tested. Even though he wavers now and then, what characterizes Chamberlain is his strength in working through his doubts and prejudices. Holding on to ideals requires courage and self-mastery, both of which Chamberlain displays throughout the novel.
The title of the book comes from a speech that the real Chamberlain once gave entitled "Man: The Killer Angel." Yeah, yeah: it sounds like a Black Sabbath album title, but it does help cut to the conflicts and philosophical debates that form a good part of Chamberlain's nature. While Chamberlain is technically religious, he's caught (in the book, at least) between two different senses of life.
On the one hand, the idea that man is a "Killer Angel" stems from the Christian belief in original sin: humans were made in God's own image, but they have become depraved thanks to sin. They should be angelic, and still kind of seem that way sometimes—but their appetite for bloodshed is a little too overwhelming.
On the other hand, Chamberlain is affected by Kilrain's atheistic philosophy. According to Kilrain, humans have no divine spark and are essentially just "animal meat." This doesn't go well with Chamberlain's opposition to slavery, since Chamberlain thinks that the "divine spark" is the reason why all human beings are fundamentally equal. The Killer Angels doesn't really resolve this dilemma, but through Chamberlain, it shows how a thoughtful person might grapple with these issues.