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 attemptsto 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.