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Daytime, Taneytown, Pennsylvania, a town near
Gettysburg. Harrison, a Confederate spy, discovers a large mass
of Union troops moving north. The Union troops are moving dangerously close
to the Confederate army. Harrison returns in the middle of the night
to the Confederate camp and reports his discovery to General James
Longstreet. Longstreet is skeptical at first, but Harrison convinces
him that he has actually seen the Union troops. Longstreet quickly
wakes up General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army.
Lee is also skeptical, since he has sent General J. E. B. Stuart
out with his cavalry to keep an eye on the movements of the Union
army. But Longstreet believes that Stuart is out joyriding. Longstreet
presses Lee to get the army moving west. Lee agrees, deciding to
move toward a town called Gettysburg.
Daytime, several miles south of Gettysburg. Union Colonel
Joshua L. Chamberlain is awakened by Buster Kilrain, a former sergeant who
was demoted to private after assaulting another officer. Kilrain informs
him that their regiment, the Twentieth Maine, has just received 120 men
from the Second Maine, which has been disbanded. The new men are
mutineers, having expected to be sent home after the disbanding
of their regiment. The men are now being kept under guard, and Chamberlain
has orders to shoot any man who does not agree to march. Chamberlain
is joined by his younger brother, Tom, also a member of the Twentieth
Maine. Chamberlain obtains food for the mutineers, then meets with
their leader. The leader tells him that the mutineers are tired
of the war and the inept Union generals who have been running it,
and they want to go home. Chamberlain knows he cannot let them go,
but he also cannot bring himself to shoot them. He tells them his
predicament, then gives a stirring speech in which he asks them
to join the Twentieth Maine. All but six men agree.
Michael Shaara has a difficult task in front of him as
the novel begins. The Killer Angels is generally
referred to as a “historical novel,” but most historical novels
are simply set in a certain time period and do not deal directly
with the actions of people who really existed. For instance, Stephen
Crane’s classic Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, follows
a fictional soldier through several battles. The Killer
Angels is more similar to the historical plays of William
Shakespeare—Shaara gives a dramatized account of history, using
characters and events drawn from real life. As such, parts of the
book, especially the dialogue and the thoughts of the characters,
are Shaara’s creation, not based on documented history. Shaara based
his characterizations primarily on the letters and memoirs of the
soldiers and officers involved in the battle, but there is no way
of knowing exactly what these officers really thought or said.
These two chapters introduce three of the
book’s most important characters: Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain.
The Confederate point of view swings back and forth from Lee to
Longstreet. Lee is an old man, a gentleman and a classic soldier
of an earlier era who is brilliant in the type of tactics he was
taught. Longstreet is something of a visionary, a man who is very
aware of the changing nature of war as machines and defensive warfare become
more important. Their differing perceptions of the nature of war
form the backbone of the difficult relationship between these two
men. Longstreet adores his commander, and he finds it difficult
to argue with him. Ultimately, Longstreet always backs down in an
argument with Lee, because he knows that he could never have the
support of the army the way Lee does. But Longstreet is stubborn,
and he constantly tries to convince Lee to fight defensively, encouraging
Lee to move his troops to a different battlefield rather than fight
the Union army on terrain that puts the Confederacy at a disadvantage.
Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain is practically the only
Union voice in the novel. Chamberlain is not a general, as are most
of the major characters on the Confederate side. He is only a colonel,
the leader of a regiment. There are a number of reasons that the
novel follows Chamberlain’s point of view when presenting
the Union side. In the years following the Civil War, it became
more and more apparent that the war had been decided at Gettysburg.
It was the high point of the Confederacy, when the Confederate army,
flushed with success, actually invaded Union territory. If Lee had
been successful in destroying the Union army or capturing Washington,
D.C., the North would have had to admit defeat, and the Confederacy
would have been established as a new country. But the Union won
the Battle of Gettysburg, and the battle itself was largely determined
by the Battle of Little Round Top. Holding the extreme left flank
of the army, Chamberlain led his regiment, which had run out of
ammunition, down the hillside in a bayonet charge against the Confederate
forces. The charge succeeded in repelling the Confederates, and
Little Round Top was saved. As the years went by, the fighting on
Little Round Top became more and more legendary, and by choosing
to center on Chamberlain, Shaara focuses on one of the most popular characters
of the battle.
Furthermore, the real Chamberlain led a fascinating
life. He was a professor at Bowdoin College at the time of the war,
left the college to fight, and distinguished himself as an excellent
soldier by the end of the war. It was Chamberlain who accepted the
surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox. Chapter 2 establishes
the contrast between Chamberlain the college professor and Chamberlain
the soldier. He is an unusually educated and thoughtful man compared
with many other soldiers. For many, he is the easiest character
with whom to identify, since he is not only a citizen-turned-soldier,
but also only a colonel, not a higher-ranked commander or general
like the other principal characters. In contrast, Lee and Longstreet
represent heroic, almost mythical figures. Chamberlain, while also
a source of nostalgic glory, is still a common citizen thrown into
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Killer Angels!