The Killer Angels

From Academic Kids

The Killer Angels (1974) is a historical novel by Michael Shaara that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. The book tells the story of four days of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War: June 29, 1863, as the troops of both the Union and the Confederacy move into battle around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and July 1, July 2, and July 3, when the battle was fought. Each day is told from the perspective of the commanders of both armies: Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet for the Confederacy, and Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford for the Union, with each chapter describing the emotion-laden decision of these officers as they went into battle. Maps depicting the positioning of the troops as they advanced add to the sense of authenticity as decisions are made to advance and retreat with the armies. Through their voices, the author succeeds in conveying not only the excitement and horror of the largest battle in the history of North America, but also the causes of the Civil War and the motivations that led old friends to face each other on the battlefield.

The novel is sometimes compared to Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage for its depiction of the war, but Shaara emphasizes the decisions, motivations, and actions of generals and colonels in the battle more than the common soldiers. Shaara explained that he was aiming to produce an epic military study modeled after William Shakespeare's Henry V. His choice for a specific subject was inspired by a family vacation that Shaara took to the site of the battle in 1966. Shaara's son Jeffrey Shaara expanded the story by adding a prequel, Gods and Generals and a sequel, The Last Full Measure.

The Killer Angels was a source for the screenplay for the 1993 movie, Gettysburg. (See Gettysburg (movie).)

Publication of The Killer Angels and release of the movie have had two significant influences on modern perceptions of the Civil War. First, the actions of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry on Little Round Top have achieved enormous public awareness: visitors touring the Gettysburg Battlefield rank the 20th Maine monument as their most important stop. Second, since Shaara used the memoirs of General James Longstreet as a prime source for his history, the book has renewed the modern re-evaluation of Longstreet's reputation, damaged since the 1870s by the Lost Cause writers, such as Jubal A. Early.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf described The Killer Angels as "the best and most realistic historical novel about war that I have ever read." In addition, the filmmaker Ken Burns has mentioned the influence of the book in developing his interest in the Civil War and his subsequent production of the PBS series on the subject.

Further Reading

  • Hartwig, D. Scott, A Killer Angels Companion, Thomas Publications, 1996, ISBN 0939631954.

Preceded by:
no award given
Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction Succeeded by:
Humboldt's Gift
by Saul Bellow
(1976 winner)

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