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.”