The Killer Angels (1974)

by Michael Shaara

If you’re the sort who says you’d never read a war novel, you might want to put aside your bias to read The Killer Angels. Michael Shaara’s historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is often called the greatest Civil War novel ever.

Gettysburg, where more men fell than in any other battle of the Civil War, probably sealed the South’s fate even though the war continued for almost two more years. Shaara tells the story of those bloody three days through the military leaders—including Robert E. Lee and James “Pete” Longstreet of the Confederacy and, for the Union, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford—conjuring up their thoughts, feelings, and decision making based on their actual diaries and letters. Although he provides battle scenes, Shaara focuses not on action but on character, and in so doing he gives the war an emotional grip that might not have been possible with nonfiction. We see generals and colonels tired, hungry, uncertain, and sad; we admire them as soldiers who do their duty even if they don’t believe in the cause or, in Longstreet’s case, the strategy of his commanding officer.

After Michael Shaara’s death, his son Jeff wrote both a prequel (Gods and Generals) and a sequel (The Last Full Measure) to The Killer Angels, but few people think they measure up to his father’s achievement.


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