The Killer Angels
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Technology and Strategic Development
The Battle of Gettysburg is viewed by many historians as a turning point between the old methods of warfare and the new methods, changes that were dictated by the development of new technologies such as repeating rifles and long-range artillery. The Civil War saw the first ironclad battleships and the last great infantry charge: Pickett’s Charge. The devastating losses of that charge—Pickett lost sixty percent of his division—marked the beginning of the end of the usefulness of infantry in major warfare. Cannons, grenades, tanks, planes, and missiles would eventually make infantry -relatively obsolete.
Longstreet’s continual insistence on defensive warfare and Lee’s continual resistance to it best illustrates the conflict within the changing nature of warfare. Shaara portrays Lee as a traditional soldier of the Napoleonic mold: a brilliant strategist but an outdated one. Longstreet, by contrast, is portrayed as a grim realist who recognizes the changing nature of warfare and wants to change to match it. He knows that the Confederate army can never successfully invade the North. The Confederate army is smaller than the Union army and always will be, and the officers do not know the Northern lands as well as they do their native Virginia. Longstreet wants to hide behind stone walls and in trenches and cut down the enemy as it advances, while Lee prefers to strike out in the open, honorably, and simply overpower the enemy with good strategic maneuvering. But Lee’s strategies are not as effective in a world using long-distance rifles and artillery.
The Obtrusiveness of Death in War
Although The Killer Angels reads like an adventure novel, it describes one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Civil War. As he awaits the next battle, Chamberlain remembers piling up corpses at a previous battle to protect himself from bullets. He instinctively orders his brother to plug a hole in the regiment line and realizes he may have ordered his brother to his death. Limbs are sawed off wounded men to save them from infection, but Kilrain still dies from amputation and blood loss. During Pickett’s Charge, soldiers are blown apart by artillery, “and here and there, tumbling over and over like a blood-spouting cartwheel, [was] a piece of a man.”
This is a world where death can come at any time, and the men all have to learn to deal with that uncertainty. Chamberlain and his men are particularly vulnerable, since they are not generals protected in the rear of their lines. But everyone is forced to face death. Lee is dealing with heart trouble, which will eventually kill him—he knows he is an old man and has not long to live. Longstreet has lost three children that winter to fever, while Chamberlain is scarred by the memory of Fredericksburg. Just as the battle begins, General John Reynolds is killed instantly by a sniper. And General Lew Armistead marches across the entire field during Pickett’s Charge only to be cut down at the end without ever meeting his friend Winfield Hancock. War novels may be read as adventure novels, but in real war there is death, and the hundreds of corpses that pile up over the course of The Killer Angels serve to remind us that Gettysburg was a real battle that left many men dead.
A Nation Divided
During the actual war the soldiers of the Confederacy and of the Union often tended to demonize one another. In order to be able to kill someone, the soldiers had to think of that person as less than human, or else the guilt could be unbearable. After the 1860s, the rise of Civil War nostalgia and Civil War enthusiasts gave the war a glossy, clean, glorified sheen. Both the North and the South are often presented as noble men fighting for their way of life—against slavery, or for federal control of states. But there are few examples of this demonization or hatred in The Killer Angels: it is a war between gentlemen. The lack of examination of these issues may be due to the fact that the novel focuses almost exclusively on men of the upper parts of society, particularly on the Confederate side: colonels and generals, never privates or sergeants.
As a character, Chamberlain illustrates the nation’s division. Chamberlain ruminates several times on a discussion he had with a Southern professor, and it is evident that Chamberlain himself is divided: on the one hand, he holds the Northern abolitionist belief that blacks deserve to be free, but on the other hand, he is troubled by the sense of revulsion that he feels at the sight of a black man early in the novel. The professor initially argued with Chamberlain, saying that blacks are subhuman, and, of course, Chamberlain disagreed. However, when seeing the injured black man, Chamberlain notices what he thinks of as the man’s animal-like qualities and wonders if the professor’s purported subhuman view is plausible.
Chamberlain suffers from a form of internal division, but it is fairly clear that his cause is not the expressed cause of the Union. The Union’s leaders, including Lincoln, never claimed to be fighting a war of liberation: they fought because they believed the Southern states were forbidden to secede. But Chamberlain fights for liberation, though most officers, such as Kilrain, do not. Kilrain, in fact, fights primarily to prove he is a brave man and perhaps also to bring down what he sees as overly aristocratic Southerners. But the most explicit symbol of this theme is the friendship between Lew Armistead and Winfield Hancock. Good friends that took different sides in the war, the two men participate in the same battle for the first and last time at Gettysburg. Throughout the novel, Armistead’s sundered friendship with Hancock serves as a reminder of the hard lines that the Civil War drew between Americans.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Loyalty is essential for an army to function well, as soldiers have to trust their officers in order to follow them successfully. The idea of loyalty appears many times in The Killer Angels: Kilrain is loyal to Chamberlain; Goree and Sorrel are loyal aides to Longstreet; and most important, the entire Confederate army is fiercely loyal to Robert E. Lee.
But loyalty can be a double-edged sword, as Longstreet learns. Despite his absolute certainty that Pickett’s Charge will fail and result in the death of thousands of men, he cannot bring himself to ask his fellow officers to turn against Lee. He knows that the other officers and the other soldiers would never follow him instead of Lee. But he cannot refuse to lead the charge himself because he is bound by his own loyalty to Lee and to Virginia—he is the best and only man for the job. Loyalty has helped bring about many of the Confederacy’s victories, but at Gettysburg it contributes to the loss.
Most of the primary characters in The Killer Angels are generals, or at least colonels. Each of these men is in command of a vast number of soldiers, and so each of their mistakes is magnified. The history of the Battle of Gettysburg consists of a series of tactical mistakes, and, in each case, the result is the death of hundreds, even thousands of men. For the Confederacy, the trouble begins early, when General J. E. B. Stuart, commander of the Confederate cavalry, fails to report promptly on the movements of the Union army. This absence prevents Lee from having accurate and timely information about the size and position of his enemy, and it allows the Union an unexpected element of surprise. The next mistake is Generals Ewell and Early’s failure to take the high ground when they have the chance. This mistake is partially Lee’s fault as well, since he does not make it clear how necessary it is to take the hill. The results are ultimately disastrous: without the high ground, the Confederacy must fight a losing battle when it chooses to attack. Later, Longstreet again has inaccurate knowledge of the Union position, and he is forced to lose hours of time by countermarching his troops to another position. Of course, the greatest failure is Pickett’s Charge, which, in hindsight, was one of the worst tactical decisions of the Civil War. The charge cost thousands of lives and, in the opinion of many historians, broke the back of the Confederate war effort.
Since much of the book is written from the perspective of the Confederate leaders, we are given a close look into the high society of the Old South. Lee and Pickett in particular are examples of the “Southern gentleman,” and represent values that they believe would be erased by a Union victory. Historically, the Union army was much more ethnically diverse than the Confederate army, being filled with immigrants and the children of immigrants. While the Union commanders were primarily white Anglo-Saxons, they were not necessarily rich white men. The Southern commanders, on the other hand, were primarily rich white men of British ancestry, with a few exceptions such as Longstreet, who was not as wealthy and was part Dutch. In The Killer Angels, this motif manifests itself in a few ways. For Buster Kilrain, the war is less about freeing slaves than it is about leveling the social playing field: “The point is that we have a country here where the past cannot keep a good man in chains, and that’s the nature of the war. It’s the aristocracy I’m after. ‘All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a cockroach, ah.’” On the other side, Arthur Fremantle, the British observer, can think of nothing better than seeing the Confederacy win and preserve the class system inherited from the Old World—to him, the point is that the people of the South “do it all exactly as we do in Europe. And the North does not. That’s what the war is really about. . . . The Northerner doesn’t give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country. . . . Of course, the South is the Old Country. They haven’t left Europe. They’ve merely transplanted it. And that’s what the war is about.”
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Lee’s Heart Trouble
There is historical evidence that Robert E. Lee may have suffered from heart trouble during the Battle of Gettysburg and that he may even have had a mild heart attack. Shaara uses this fact to develop a minor, but powerful theme: Lee’s heart has been broken by the war. Longstreet at one point reminds Lee that when they became officers in the United States army, they swore to defend all of the United States. They have even led many of the Union soldiers. Now, they are killing them. Lee has been forced to choose between his beloved Virginia and his country, and to him that is no real choice: his first duty is always to Virginia. But the decision has left him heartbroken, and as the war drags on his heartbreak only becomes worse. At one point in the novel, Lee tells Longstreet that the true sadness of the career soldier is the obligation to order men to their deaths. The war has taken a heavy toll on Lee, both physically and mentally, and both are a part of the pain Lee constantly feels in his chest.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!