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The Killer Angels

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Thousands of books about the Civil War line bookstore and library shelves. While each serves to argue different perspectives and faults, most have homogenous basic points. Two of these were General Robert E. Lee was a God among men, and that the brunt of the blame for the confederate loss at Gettysburg lies with General James Longstreet. In Michael Shaara’s book, The Killer Angels, Shaara takes these theories and tips them on their head. Shaara gives a compelling argument by humanizing the celestial Lee, and placing a great deal of the blame for the loss of Gettysburg, and thus the war, on his shoulders.

In the beginning of the novel, Shaara states that his motives for writing the book were to give the perspective of being there. Shaara made a point to draw our attention to this. A lot of the war is about the legacy of the characters that fought it, rather than the experience of enduring it. It is this perspective that separates Shaara’s novel from many of the others who have written similar novels. Instead of Lee being the gallant general who lead his brave men into battle, he is listed among several other generals who were just as much a part of those three fateful days as he was.

When the novel begins the night before the battle commences, Shaara starts the story by showing the conundrum that Lee begins with. Only a few short weeks earlier Lee had lost his most crucial, and important officer, Stonewall Jackson. Shaara introduced, right at the start, Jackson’s replacement, General James Longstreet (Shaara’s central character with Col. Chamberlain) , and the spy he has hired, Sorrel. Shaara demonstrated early that without Jackson, Lee doesn’t have the luster that most believed him to have. Lee’s scout, J.E.B. Stuart is no where to be found. Lee doesn’t even know that the Union army is practically on top of him. It was the night before a battle he didn’t even know he was about to fight.

Day one of the battle only continued Lee’s lack of strength. Before the fighting even started Lee told Longstreet to stay close, and that he couldn’t afford to lose him. Shaara chose to show a fear of loss. In addition to this, Lee also tells General Ewell to take the high ground… if possible. He had come to depend on Jackson so heavily for his judgment, especially in these types of circumstances, that he passes the same assumption onto his other officers. This is a grave mistake; Ewell didn’t take the hill when all the other generals under Lee thought that he should have. It is a critical error that will later cost them the battle due to the Union keeping possession of the high ground, thus having the advantage.

The Confederates were able to drive the Union off of McPherson’s ridge and win the first day of the battle. However, the Union still held the high ground of East Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill. This still gave the Union a substantial advantage of high ground the next day. This situation is made worse upon the knowledge of the bedlam of the Union army in fighting the first day of this battle.

General Buford was holding off the Confederate army with a very small number of men. He gambled on the quick response of General Reynolds, who was approaching behind them. Fortunately for Buford, he gambled correctly. Reynolds arrived just in time, but was almost immediately killed. Later when the Union’s XI commanded by O.O. Howard arrived around midday, the Union army was in utter chaos. However the Union army only sustains a small tactical loss, and still held high ground.

Lee realizes that he needed that high ground and begins to show a loss of confidence in his men after this mistake. Longstreet had been mulling over a battle strategy that Shaara showed much favor to. Longstreet wants to move the army southeast to cut the Union off from Washington D.C. This would have forced the Union army into an offensive position and given the Confederate army a substantial advantage. Longstreet’s idea of an offensive-defensive battle strategy was innovative for his time. He thought that taking a defensive position behind a tree or in a trench could result in several more enemy casualties. However, Lee chose to listen to the rest of his men and discount Longstreet’s idea all together. They believed that the moral within their ranks will plummet should they be told to retreat back into the defensive position that Longstreet suggests.

Shaara seems to agree heavily with this idea, and he continues to show how much Lee’s rejection of this plan dismayed Longstreet. However, it is hard to predict if this was in fact a good idea. J.E.B. Stuart still had not shown up at the scene, they had no cavalry to guide them into position, but Shaara believes that it is because Lee would rather loose the battle than loose his dignity.

The next morning Lee and his generals gather to put together a strategy. Longstreet continues to tell Lee about his plan. However, Shaara depicts Lee as still more concerned about his legacy. Shaara thinks that he is over confident from his battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and believes that he can win the war there in Gettysburg. And he wanted to win on a frontal assault.

When the second day of battle ensues, Longstreet realizes that the Union army had actually come down off of Cemetery Ridge and occupied the peach orchard. With no troops on Little Round Top or Round Top,

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