I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of reading historical fiction. I hate how it’s not footnoted, how it’s not clear what the sources are, how it’s not obvious what is real and what is the product of the author’s imagination. However, I had been promising my dad that I would read The Killer Angels for about ten or twelve years now, and as it’s a little faster read than the other literary promise I made him (yes, Dad, I will tackle The Lord of the Rings again someday!), I decided to give this book a go.
The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional recount of the Battle of Gettysburg. Fought in the Pennslyvania countryside in July 1863, this Union victory is as ingrained in the American consciousness as the pivotal battle of the Civil War. News of the South’s retreat from Gettysburg came out just as news came from Vicksburg, Mississippi, that the city had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The war, which had looked so bleak for the North, had turned a corner after July 4, 1863.
Shaara follows men on both sides, introducing the reader to men whose names should be familiar: Lee, Longstreet and Pickett for the South; Chamberlain, Meade, and Hancock for the North. He details the horrors of war — piles of bodies, rotting horseflesh, hunger, heat, exhaustion, fear — and illustrates the glories — honor, camraderie, bravery, loyalty. He puts you in the minds of the men, and even if you don’t come away agreeing with them, you understand why they fought, what they were fighting for, and why they made the decisions they made.
I have to admit I was extremely entertained. I am not a military historian but I understood the troop movements, the charges, the victories and the losses better than I have ever understood a battle before. I closed the book with an understanding of not just what happened, but why. I was impressed by Shaara’s evenhandedness, as he favored neither side explicitly and succeeded in simply telling a story from multiple perspectives.
My issue with the book is, again, the issue that I have with historical fiction: where is the line between Shaara’s imagination and the actual historical fact? The narrative brings you into the minds of General Longstreet, General Lee, Colonel Chamberlain, but what of it comes from the men’s letters and what of it comes from Shaara’s suppositions? He states at the outset that his book draws heavily on the letters of the men who served and not other people’s interpretations of the battle. And surely, footnoting a novel at the end of every paragraph to point out why the author knows that Lee thought this or Chamberlain thought that would get tedious to the casual reader. However, my doubt caused me to think that what I really need to do is read more on Gettysburg. I need to finally read the biography of Lee I bought two years ago that draws on his own letters as well. I need to do my research and see what is true about the characterization of these men.
And perhaps that is what historical fiction is all about — finding an element of a story that intrigues you to go out and read more about the actual event. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that say that Gettysburg is what first captured their imagination about the Civil War, and how many people say this book is what led them into a life of re-enacting, of academia or simply of being a “Civil War Buff.” So if this book, this short, readable book, can do that, it has succeeded.