Tell General Ewell the Federal troops are retreating in confusion. It is only necessary to push those people to get possession of those heights. Of course, I do not know his situation, and I do not want him to engage a superior force, but I do want him to take that hill, if he thinks practicable.
This passage is from July 1, Chapter 3. It is spoken by General Lee, and it is paraphrased from something the historical Lee said during the battle. Lee’s statement is well known to historians, as it represents a small error that may have cost him a potential victory. The phrase “if he thinks practicable” allows Ewell to choose whether or not to attack Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Many historians have argued that Lee’s orders were never truly that ambiguous—Lee wanted the hills taken, unless the entire Union army was sitting on them. But Ewell, overly cautious, does not take the hills, and the Union army quickly digs into them. “Stonewall” Jackson had been killed several weeks before Gettysburg, and Ewell had been chosen to replace him. Many historians believe that Jackson, who knew how to move his troops, and who knew Lee very closely, would have taken the hills without hesitation.
[A]wake all night in front of Fredericksburg. We attacked in the afternoon, just at dusk, and the stone wall was aflame from one end to the other, too much smoke, couldn’t see, the attack failed, couldn’t withdraw, lay there all night in the dark, in the cold among the wounded and dying. Piled-up bodies in front of you to catch the bullets, using the dead for a shield; remember the sound? Of bullets in dead bodies? . . . Remember the flap of a torn curtain in a blasted window, fragment-whispering in that awful breeze: never, forever, never, forever.
In this passage from July 1, Chapter 4, Chamberlain remembers the Battle of Fredericksburg. The passage shows Chamberlain’s impressions of his early combat. Unlike many others fighting, Chamberlain was a citizen rather than a career soldier. These early battles and the horror of piling up the corpses of his comrades to block bullets have made a strong impression on his mind. But Chamberlain is an intellectual who teaches in a college, so he remembers the horrors imaginatively, possibly exaggerating their gravity in his mind. Chamberlain’s struggle to deal with the horrors of war illustrates the difficulties that citizens-turned-soldiers had to face when they entered the war.
I was really thinking of killing him, wiping him off the earth, and it was then I realized for the first time that if it was necessary to kill them, then I would kill them, and something at the same time said: you cannot be utterly right.
These lines are spoken by Chamberlain in July 2, Chapter 2. The man he refers to is a fellow professor, from the South, who tries to convince Chamberlain that blacks are not really “humans.” Unconvinced by Chamberlain’s arguments, the professor asks Chamberlain, “What if it is you who are wrong?” Chamberlain is so enraged at the man’s racism that he wants to kill him, yet Chamberlain realizes that it is difficult to be so convinced of one’s correctness as to justify killing. The passage gives us the perspective of a Union intellectual on one of the causes of the war. Chamberlain has just met an escaped slave—he has come face-to-face with what he knows is one of the main reasons for the war. To his surprise, he finds himself mildly repulsed by the sight of the slave, and his reaction troubles him greatly. Many men on both sides felt that the war was being fought over the issue of states’ rights and the preservation of the union rather than slavery. Chamberlain’s deep contemplation of slavery and of his reaction to it, however, illustrates his understanding that one of the fundamental causes of the war is indeed slavery.
Chamberlain raised his saber, let loose the shout that was the greatest sound he could make, boiling the yell up from his chest: Fix bayonets! Charge! Fix bayonets! Charge! Fix bayonets! Charge! He leaped down from the boulder, still screaming, his voice beginning to crack and give, and all around him his men were roaring animal screams, and he saw the whole Regiment rising and pouring over the wall and beginning to bound down through the dark bushes, over the dead and dying and wounded. . . .
This passage is from July 2, Chapter 4. While The Killer Angels tells the story of a terrible, real-life battle, it is at its heart an adventure story, and there is no greater action scene in the novel than the charge of the Twentieth Maine down Little Round Top. For over an hour, the regiment has held off the Confederate soldiers attempting to climb the hill. They have hidden behind trees and rock walls and fired downward. But now they have run out of ammunition, and the Confederates are still coming. They have been told they cannot withdraw from the battle. Chamberlain sees only one chance: to charge down the hill, bayonets and swords aloft, and try to get the Confederates to flee. The plan works perfectly: the Confederates flee in terror from the screaming Union soldiers. It is a powerful moment, and this scene is also the centerpiece of the film Gettysburg. The novel and film have made the fighting on Little Round Top almost as famous as the Battle of Gettysburg itself.
Thing is, if anything bad happens now, they all blame it on you. I seen it comin’. They can’t blame General Lee. Not no more. So they all take it out on you. You got to watch yourself, General. . . . I saw you take all morning trying to get General Lee to move to the right.
This passage is spoken by Goree, an aide to Longstreet, in July 2, Chapter 5. It foreshadows the fact that Longstreet will eventually be blamed for the loss at Gettysburg. Longstreet’s memoir, which attacks Lee for not moving to the right at Gettysburg, inspires much of this blame. Longstreet soils the memory of one of the most beloved figures in Southern history, and his fellow Southerners scorn him for the rest of his life. Many soldiers in their memoirs refer to Pickett’s Charge as “Longstreet’s Charge.” For decades, Longstreet does indeed take an unfair amount of blame for the loss at Gettysburg. Even after twentieth-century scholars constructed a less biased view of the battle, Longstreet is still a more obscure general than Lee.
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