I just finished reading Michael Shaara’s book, The Killer Angels. My eyes chanced across it while browsing in our local used book shop, and something about the cover of the book captured my attention. I also noticed that it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1975), so it probably had some literary merit. Consequently, I packed it along with me on my recent trip to Texas. By the time our plane landed at DFW, I had zoomed through almost a third of the book. It ended up being a highly engaging novel, which also yielded some intriguing historical perspective.
The thing that really hooked me was the author’s listing of the book’s cast of characters. Most of these “characters” were famous Civil War generals. Shaara’s descriptions reminded me a bit of Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures (one of my favorite books of all time). It just used figures from the Civil War instead of figures from the Bible. The author takes enough artistic license that one cannot call his writing “non-fiction.” Still, it’s well-grounded in historical record. It uses real people with real stories, but with fictional connective tissue to somehow make it more plausible, more tangible. I consider myself a student of history; still, I genuinely learned new things from this novel.
I learned about the relationships between generals (on opposing sides of the conflict). I understood more of the reasons for the conflict. Shaara’s depictions of the military commanders provided sympathy with their decisions in battle. And I was able to visualize the Battle of Gettysburg in ways that I’ve never been able to see before. I hope that I can visit the historical site sometime in the future, to fully understand the lay of the land, now that I’ve read this book.
The Killer Angels is an impressive work of research and an impressive work of writing. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys American history. I don’t know if it really reshaped my understanding of the Civil War. Or of war, in general. But it provided an even-handed approach to the subject. And it kept me engaged, as a reader.