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Michael Shaara was born in 1928 in
Jersey City, New Jersey. He made his name writing pulp science fiction
in the 1950s. He later began writing mainstream
fiction and was published in many magazines. During a visit to Gettysburg,
Shaara saw the battlefield and learned about the battle and its
significance. He returned home with the idea to write a historical
novel based on the battle. Most historical novels use fictional
characters in historical settings, but Shaara chose to write about
the real-life participants in the battle, such as Robert E. Lee
and Joshua L. Chamberlain. This unusual decision gives the novel
a much more epic tone, but it also causes problems with historical
accuracy. Because it uses real rather than invented characters, The
Killer Angels is in many ways more similar to Shakespeare’s
historical plays in its style and tone than it is to other American
historical novels, such as Stephen Crane’s work about the Civil
War, The Red Badge of Courage. Shaara died of a heart
attack in 1988.
Published in 1974, The
Killer Angels never enjoyed commercial success in Shaara’s
lifetime. But to the surprise of many, including Shaara, it won
the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Nevertheless, The
Killer Angels remained a relatively obscure novel until
it was adapted into the 1993 film Gettysburg, starring
Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels. With the release of the film, the
novel shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
Since then, Shaara’s son Jeff has written two more Civil War novels
that detail the events preceding and following his father’s book.
The Battle of Gettysburg, which the novel describes,
was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, with over 50,000 casualties
in the span of three days. Many historians have called it the high-water
mark of the Confederacy, when General Robert E. Lee hurled the entire
strength of his army at the Union forces in an attempt to end the
war by destroying his enemy. Lee had invaded the enemy territory
of Pennsylvania for the second time. The first invasion culminated
in the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Maryland, the previous
year. By invading, Lee put himself in a position to move toward
Washington, D.C. and take the capital. If he succeeded, the Confederate
States of America would likely win the war and gain the right to
declare themselves an independent country. But due to a series of
problems, the Confederates were forced to retreat from Gettysburg
with terrible losses and never again would move into Union territory.
The battle has long held a great fascination for Civil
War historians. Scholars agree that, with the heavy casualties and
demoralizing defeat suffered by the South, the Battle of Gettysburg
was the turning point of the war—a loss from which the Confederacy
never fully recovered. But the Battle of Gettysburg also has other
unique characteristics. It was one of only two major battles fought
on Union soil. It involved a huge infantry charge, called Pickett’s
Charge, which ended in horrific losses. It was a major Union victory,
which at the time was rare. Most important, it was a Union victory
when such a victory was desperately needed. A Union loss at Gettysburg would
have put the capital in jeopardy. Finally, when we consider the
many memorable smaller struggles within the Battle of Gettysburg,
such as the legendary fighting on Little Round Top and Pickett’s
Charge, it is clear why the Battle of Gettysburg has become the most
famous of Civil War battles.
Shaara’s innovation is to write his fictional novel from
the perspective of the real-life generals and soldiers who were
involved in the battle. The epic scope that this innovation allows
him to achieve comes at the cost of historical accuracy, both in
the film and in the novel. But with the success of the film and
Jeff Shaara’s other Civil War novels, The Killer Angels is
now assured a permanent position in the American literary landscape.
As a novel that attempts to offer
a more lifelike and liquid retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg,
Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels portrays actual
historical figures and the actual events in which they participated
during the Civil War. While much of his characterization and novelistic
interpretation is based on careful study of letters, documents,
and historical texts, Shaara does take significant liberties in
his portrayal of the characters and their inner thoughts and emotions.
Because it is important to explore these characters and events from
both literary and historical angles, this SparkNote draws on both
the literary aspect of the novel and historical fact and credible
opinion regarding the Battle of Gettysburg.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Killer Angels!