Study Guide

The Killer Angels Mortality

By Michael Shaara

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It wasn't the dying. He had seen men die all his life, and death was the luck of the chance, the price you eventually paid. What was worse was the stupidity. The appalling sick stupidity that was so bad you thought sometimes you would go suddenly, violently, completely insane just having to watch it. (1.3.84)

Buford, the Union General who holds back the Confederates while the rest of the Army arrives, sees stupidity as being worse than death—probably because stupidity leads to such totally pointless deaths. It's true that death is a price everyone needs to pay—but do they have to pay it for nothing, for some commander's bonehead mistakes? Now that's scary.

Piled-up bodies in front of you to catch the bullets, using the dead for a shield; remember the sound? Of bullets in dead bodies? Like a shot into a rotten leg, a wet thick leg. All a man is: wet leg of blood. Remember the flap of a torn curtain in a blasted window, fragment whispering in that awful breeze: forever, never, forever. (2.4.20)

Joshua Chamberlain is remembering the Battle of Fredericksburg, which was kind of like the Union Army's version of Pickett's Charge: they were slaughtered as they charged up a hill toward the Confederates. In Chamberlain's eyes, this seems to make human life less valuable: people start to seem just like pieces of meat.

Once Chamberlain had a speech memorized from Shakespeare and gave it proudly, the old man listening but not looking, and Chamberlain remembered it still, 'What a piece of work is man… in action how like an angel!' And the old man, grinning, had scratched his head and then said stiffly, 'Well, boy, if he's an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel.' And Chamberlain had gone on to school to make an oration on the subject: Man, the Killer Angel. And when the old man heard about it he was very proud, and Chamberlain felt very good remembering it. (2.4.28)

Even though human beings are supposed to be all that and a bag of vintage 1865 potato chips—you know, the most advanced species on earth—they're capable of committing horrible acts, of wreaking havoc and bloodshed all over the globe. This is the meaning behind the title The Killer Angels.

He thought of Jackson hit in the arm at Chancellorsville: died a slow death. Let us cross over the river. (3.5.1)

Longstreet remembers the death of Stonewall Jackson, the famous Confederate General, who was accidentally shot by his own troops at the battle of Chancellorsville. His last words were, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees." (Death is sometimes envisioned as crossing over a river.) What do you think of the tragic irony of being shot by your own troops?

He did not want to spoil their night. And yet suddenly, terribly, he wanted it again, the way it used to be, arms linked together, all drunk and singing beautifully into the night, with visions of death from the afternoon, and dreams of death in the coming dawn, the night filled with a monstrous and temporary glittering joy, fat moments, thick seconds dropping like warm rain, jewel after jewel. (3.5.241)

Longstreet sees the end approaching—he senses that the Cause may be doomed. So, out of character, he has a moment of nostalgia when he remembers how the army used to be, when victory still seemed like a very real possibility. He notes the temporary nature of those pleasant moments with the other soldiers, just before death swept in.

The men came here ready to die for what they believed in, for their homes and their honor, and although it was often a terrible death it was always an honorable death, and no matter how bad the pain it was only temporary, and after death there was the reward. (3.6.77)

These are Lee's thoughts. They contrast pretty strongly with Kilrain's opinions: whereas Kilrain believes that death is the end, Lee is a Christian, and he thinks that there's something better in the afterlife. Does belief in an afterlife make fighting in a war easier? If you think that death is the very end, and there's nothing after that, then does that make death more frightening?

It was not bad to be an old man, drifting. Soon to see the Light. He wondered what it would be like to enter the Presence. They said there would be a fierce blinding light. How could they know, any of them? He wondered: Do you see all the old friends? At what age will they be? Will I see my father? (3.6.82)

These are more of Lee's religious reflections on death. He's suffering from heart trouble, which gives him even greater reason to consider his mortality. How do these many reflections on death affect your experience of the novel? Do they make individual characters' death seem more real to you?

And there on the rock, sitting staring down at the long line of dark men shapeless under dark trees, he felt for the first time the sense of the coming end. They were dwindling away like sands in a glass. How long does it go on? Each one becoming more precious. What's left now is the best, each man a rock. But now there are so few. We began with a thousand and so whittled down, polishing, pruning, until what we had yesterday was superb, absolutely superb, and now only about two hundred, and, God, had it not been for those boys from the Second Maine… But the end is in sight. Another day like yesterday… and the Regiment will be gone. In the Union Army that was the way it was: they fought a unit until it bled to death. There were no replacements. (4.1.60)

Chamberlain confronts the brutal reality of war: even though his regiment has seen such intense combat, they're not going to get much of a break. The war might even annihilate them entirely. (Fortunately, this didn't happen—Chamberlain lived to become a Brigadier General and receive the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.)

Sometimes he believed in a Heaven, mostly he believed in a Heaven; there ought to be a Heaven for young soldiers, especially young soldiers, but just as surely for the old soldier; there out to be more than just that metallic end, and then silence, then the worms, and sometimes he believed, mostly he believed, but just this moment he did not believe at all, knew Kilrain was dead and gone forever, that the grin had died and would not reappear, never, there was nothing beyond the sound of the guns but the vast dark, the huge nothing, not even silence, just an end… (4.3.51)

In thinking about Kilrain's death, Chamberlain momentarily sees things the way Kilrain would see them: no afterlife and no divine spark. If Kilrain is right, though, does this make war more horrible? Or is death frightening no matter how you look at it?

The energy failed. He felt himself flicker. But it was a long slow falling, very quiet, very peaceful, rather still, but always the motion, the darkness closing in, and so he fell out of the light and away, far away, and was gone. (4.4.112)

General Armistead's death is like a candle going out—he feels the deep energy of life start to dissolve and finally disappear. Does this passage suggest that Armistead is moving on to heaven, or a better place, or another consciousness… or is it just death, plain and simple?

The train rain came in a monster wind, and the storm broke in blackness over the hills and the bloody valley; the sky opened along the ridge and the vast water thundered down, drowning the fires, flooding the red creeks, washing the rocks and the grass and the white bones of the dead, cleansing the earth and soaking it thick and rich with water and wet again with clean cold rainwater, driving the blood deep into the earth, to grow again with the roots toward Heaven. (4.6.27)

The end of the book finds meaning in death. All the lives lost during the battle help restore the land, with the blood sinking into the earth. Since the next day is the Fourth of July, this imagery implies that the deaths in the battle are going to help bring America back to life—dooming the Confederate Cause and ending their hopes of secession, but also ushering in a new era of unity. Even more importantly, it's going to help in freeing the slaves.

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