The Killer Angels
Analysis of Major Characters
General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate army, was one of the most beloved men in the American South, the darling of Virginia society. Lee is fifty-seven years old at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, and has less than a decade to live. He is having heart trouble, which will one day kill him. Some historians have speculated that Lee may have suffered a mild heart attack during the Battle of Gettysburg, and Shaara works from that idea. Lee is a brilliant tactician, but his traditional ideas frequently conflict with the more visionary policies of Longstreet, a Confederate general who constantly advises a defensive position.
Shaara characterizes Lee as a wise old man, a brilliant commander who knows he is nearing the end of his career. Lee fervently holds on to the traditional ways of combat even while recognizing the importance of Longstreet’s newer ideas. Lee inspires his troops—even as the wounded soldiers stagger back from Pickett’s Charge, they beg him to let them attack again. Lee’s presence alone helps keep Confederate morale high. But Lee’s confidence in his army leads him to overestimate his men, causing the disaster of Pickett’s Charge.
Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain
Chamberlain is the main Union voice in the novel. He provides a different view of the war than that of Lee or Longstreet, since as a colonel, he is significantly lower in rank than they. But Chamberlain is one of the most interesting Union soldiers of the Civil War, and certainly one of the most popular. Chamberlain led a fascinating life. He was a professor at Bowdoin College at the time of the war, left the college to fight, and distinguished himself as an excellent soldier by the end of the war. It was Chamberlain who accepted the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox. The novel tries to strike a delicate balance between describing Chamberlain as a college professor and as a soldier. Compared to many of his fellow soldiers, he is quite educated and thoughtful. For many, he is the easiest character with which to identify, since he is not only a citizen-turned-soldier, but is also lower ranked than the generals. Chamberlain is the idealized citizen-soldier, the man who chooses to forsake his comfortable job for his country and lives to become a renowned soldier.
Throughout the novel, Chamberlain constantly evaluates everything he sees, often poetically. He analyzes what he sees around him, and he has a much closer, more hands-on experience with the battle than many of Shaara’s other characters. He is also in a difficult position because his brother, Tom, is one of his aides. Chamberlain realizes during the novel that he may be required to order Tom into harm’s way, perhaps even to his death. Chamberlain is the soldier with the soul of a poet, and he provides the novel with some of its best and most insightful analysis of the feelings and motivations of Union soldiers during the Civil War.
General James Longstreet
After the death of “Stonewall” Jackson, Longstreet becomes Lee’s second in command. A stubborn man, depressed because of the recent death of his children, Longstreet enters the Battle of Gettysburg with high hopes of success, provided that Lee swings the Confederate army to the southeast and comes between the Union army and Washington, D.C. Longstreet knows that this strategy would make the Washington politicians force the Union commander, George Meade, to attack the Confederate army. If the Confederates dig into good ground, then they can simply destroy the Union army as it comes at them. The disagreement between Longstreet and Lee regarding this strategy, however, forms the main conflict between the two characters. Lee is continuously annoyed by Longstreet’s stubbornness, and Longstreet is depressed by Lee’s opposition to his defensive tactics.
Shaara portrays Longstreet as a man ahead of his time, someone who has seen the future of warfare and knows that it will be won through the proper use of technology. He envisions the fact that offensive warfare will become exceedingly difficult in the future. But this vision of Longstreet does not necessarily correspond to history. Longstreet became an advocate of defensive tactics after seeing how well they worked for the Confederate forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg—his belief in their efficacy did not come from some visionary understanding of the future of warfare. Longstreet had some advanced ideas, but few of them were put into effect, and those that were often failed. Lee’s decision not to follow his general’s advice was understandable as well: Lee had an impressive list of strategic victories prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. In this instance, Longstreet’s suggestion probably would have worked well, but Longstreet had made suggestions in the past that had not worked. Also, Lee’s strategies at Gettysburg were continually thwarted, sometimes by his own men. If Lee had with him at Gettysburg “Stonewall” Jackson, a man who understood Lee better than anyone else and knew how to move troops well, Lee’s strategies might very well have worked. When considered in relation to history, Shaara’s portrayal of Longstreet is decidedly too sympathetic. Longstreet takes little blame for the loss, when in fact his delays on the second and third days caused serious problems for the Confederate army’s attack.
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