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The Killer Angels

Michael Shaara

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

One of the major conflicts in the novel is the disagreement between Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet on how they should fight the battle. What does each man think the army should do and why? What is significant about Longstreet’s plan?

The most overt conflict in The Killer Angels, aside from the battle itself, is the argument between Lee and Longstreet over whether to use offensive or defensive tactics. Longstreet has come to understand the modern nature of warfare: he realizes that new technology, such as long-range artillery and repeating, breech-loading rifles, means the old strategies of war can no longer work as well. A single man armed with a good rifle and in a defensive position—behind a tree, for instance—can kill at least three men charging toward him from across a field, says Longstreet. That means that 1,000 men can kill 3,000 charging across the same field. Longstreet argues that even more men can be killed if the defender is aided by artillery. Longstreet believes that fortified, defensive positions are the best way to win a battle, and so he suggests that Lee move the Confederate army to a position southeast of Gettysburg, so the Confederates come between the Union army and the Union capital, Washington, D.C. This strategy will force the Union army to attack to protect the capital, and if the Confederates dig in to a defensive position, they can simply destroy the Union army as it attacks. Longstreet’s strategy is remarkably modern in theory, and Shaara portrays Longstreet as a man who is ahead of his time.

Robert E. Lee, however, is a more traditional soldier, and he believes he can destroy the Union army—even in a fortified, high ground position—if he simply puts his men in the right places. After two days of battering the right and left flanks of the Union army, he finally tries to break through the center with Pickett’s Charge. He believes this tactic will allow him to cut the Union army in two and then destroy the confused pieces that remain. But Lee underestimates the Union artillery, secured in the high ground of Cemetery Ridge, which utterly demolishes the Confederate soldiers as they attempt to cross the field. Pickett’s Charge was the last great infantry charge—never again would so many men slowly march across a field to strike their enemies. Advancements in artillery and rifle technology ended the age of such strategies, and Pickett’s Charge, whether or not a wise plan, marked the end of this era.

2. The main characters on the Confederate side are all generals: Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett, and Lew Armistead. But the main character on the Union side is a colonel, Joshua L. Chamberlain. Why would the author choose to use Chamberlain instead of the Union generals?

There are numerous reasons why Shaara might choose to focus on Chamberlain. Part of Shaara’s decision may be a lack of action on the part of the Union generals. They spend most of their time directing defensive maneuvers, which are perhaps less interesting than Lee’s plans to attack the Union flanks. The Union commander, George Meade, does not even arrive until the night of July 1. Furthermore, Meade does not have a fraction of the reputation of other Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant, or even John Hooker or George McClellan, and he certainly cannot compare to Robert E. Lee, whose reputation overshadows almost all other Civil War figures except Grant. Another interesting general, Reynolds, is killed just as the battle begins, cutting off another potential character. Lee and Longstreet grow to be legends in their own time, and each becomes even more famous in the nostalgic fervor that eventually surrounds the Civil War. Meade, on the other hand, develops a reputation, probably unfairly, of being a rather poor general who got lucky at Gettysburg, and was eventually replaced by Grant. The Union also lacks flamboyant characters like Pickett. This does not mean that Shaara would not have been able to write a good story from the perspective of the Union generals—it just explains, partially, why he may not have chosen to do so.

Shaara’s focus on Joshua L. Chamberlain is much easier to explain. Chamberlain was never an obscure figure to Civil War historians. After the Battle of Little Round Top, Chamberlain became even more famous for receiving the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox. There, he ordered his men to salute their vanquished foes. He later served as the governor of Maine and the president of Bowdoin College, and received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Little Round Top. Finally, Chamberlain wrote a series of memoirs on his experiences during the war, giving even more information about the now-legendary Battle of Little Round Top. Chamberlain was a college professor who left his job in order to serve his country. He represents the ideal citizen-soldier, an intellectual who voluntarily leaves his comfortable civilian life to become an excellent soldier. The fact that Chamberlain is well educated allows Shaara to examine the thoughts and motivations of the Union soldiers during the war.

3.

Why did the Confederate army lose the Battle of Gettysburg?

In The Killer Angels, General John Buford, the Union cavalry commander, is quick to seize the high ground. Specifically, he tries to protect Seminary Ridge and the hills behind it: Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top. The Union yields Seminary Ridge, but manages to hold on to the rest of the hills. These hills are excellent defensive positions: they allow officers to see much of the surrounding area, they are covered with rocks and trees that can block bullets, and artillery has a greater range when fired from high positions. Robert E. Lee is annoyed with General Ewell for not seizing Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. Chamberlain’s regiment defends Little Round Top, having been ordered never to retreat. The high ground is one of the major elements of the Union victory.

Furthermore, without J. E. B. Stuart, Lee has no information about the movements of the Union army or the geography of the surrounding area. As a result, strategic planning is very difficult for Lee, particularly since he is in unfamiliar, Northern territory. First, Pickett’s Charge—Lee’s attempt to completely destroy the Union army—fails, since the Confederate artillery attack prior to the charge misses most of its targets, leaving the Union with almost all its batteries. Second, Lee vastly underestimates the power of the Union position. The Union artillery mows down the advancing Confederate soldiers, killing or wounding nearly sixty percent of them.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Is Longstreet wrong to obey Lee’s orders, even though he disagrees? Should he have tried to get the other generals to help him change Lee’s mind? Why doesn’t Longstreet try to take command from Lee?

2. Why is Chamberlain so bothered about having his brother serving with him in his regiment? Why would he want to order his brother out of the regiment?

3. Author Michael Shaara changes some of the historical facts about the battle—for instance, he puts Chamberlain in the middle of the Union line during Pickett’s Charge, when in fact Chamberlain was more than a mile south at the time. Why do you think Shaara does this? Do you think it is good or bad to change the facts in a historical novel?

4. Discuss how the issue of slavery is dealt with by the characters in The Killer Angels. Be sure to cite examples from both Confederate and Union characters.

5. Discuss death and the way it is dealt with by the characters in The Killer Angels.

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Options for book report

by lcstrasser, October 08, 2013

Possible on doing something is better than nothing. Because the Calvary scout did not do his job the rest of the confederate side was blind to the upcoming battle. Also the general whom was ordered to attack the union on top of the hill failed to do so which also contributed to the failure of the confederates in this battle.

other Note: chamberlain is very tactically well rounded and was smart enough to win the battle defensively, general lee's over aggressiveness ended up being his downfall.

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1 out of 3 people found this helpful

who didn't do his job?

by martha1spur, May 27, 2014

The cavalry scout, Harrison, did his job. It was General J.E.B. Stuart who didn't track the Yankees.

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1 out of 1 people found this helpful

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