Summary—Chapter 1: Lee

Morning, Confederate camp west of Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee rises. He is having some slight heart troubles and is taking things easy. He discusses the military situation with his aide, Taylor, noting that General Stuart has not reported back with the position of the Union army, thus leaving Lee blind. Several of Lee’s officers want Stuart to be court-martialed for his failure to report on the Union army, but Lee is fond of Stuart, who has been an excellent soldier until now. Lee tells General Longstreet that he is Lee’s most valuable officer and must not risk himself near the front in battle. Longstreet reports that the new commander of the Union army is George Meade. Longstreet adds that he believes Union cavalry have occupied Gettysburg. He suggests that the Confederate army swing around to the southeast of Gettysburg and put itself between the Union army and Washington, D.C., cutting the Union soldiers off from the capital and forcing them to attack. Lee is annoyed by Longstreet’s stubborn advocacy of defensive tactics and refuses to use them. As the two ride out to start the day’s march, they hear the sound of artillery fire in the distance.

Summary—Chapter 2: Buford

Morning, Gettysburg. Confederate forces begin to attack General Buford’s cavalry. Buford leads his men on foot, like infantry. After the initial Confederate attack, Buford sends word of the attack to General Reynolds, who is heading toward Gettysburg with his infantry troop. Buford fervently hopes that Reynolds arrives at Gettysburg before it is too late—Buford has lost battles before while waiting for infantry to arrive. Buford orders his cannoneers to fire several shots. The Confederate infantry attack begins. Buford rides back and forth among his soldiers, directing the battle. The Confederates outnumber the Union soldiers, but the Confederates have been expecting a small militia, and their early attacks are easily repulsed by Buford’s men. Soon, however, the Confederates are attacking in droves, and the tide begins to turn. When Buford thinks he can hold out no more, Reynolds arrives and provides needed relief for Buford’s brigade. Just as Reynolds’s men move in, Reynolds is shot and killed. The attack continues without a commander, and Buford rides out to scout the other hills and make sure no Confederate forces are moving in on them.

Analysis—July 1, 1863: Chapters 1–2

Robert E. Lee is one of the most famous figures in the Civil War. A beloved general and the darling of Virginia society, Lee is fifty-seven years old at the time of the battle, and has less than a decade to live. He is having heart trouble, which eventually kills him. Some historians speculate that Lee may have suffered a mild heart attack during the Battle of Gettysburg, and Shaara works from that idea. This chapter also introduces the dynamic between Lee and Longstreet that will occupy much of their interaction: Longstreet fervently tries to persuade Lee to use defensive tactics against the Union army, and Lee constantly refuses to do so.

The Killer Angels probes the boundary between history and fiction. Shaara does not differentiate between what is factual in his writing and what is historical. The point of his novel is not to give a history of the Battle of Gettysburg. Rather, the novel is imaginative: it speculates on what it might have been like to participate in the battle and what the generals might have been thinking and feeling as it proceeded. Nonetheless, Shaara’s work is carefully researched and is usually faithful to the events of the war. Shaara’s attitudes toward his characters reflect his own interpretations of the historical figures. Longstreet emerges as one of Shaara’s most developed characters in the book. Shaara is very sympathetic to the idea of a visionary Longstreet who understands the nature of “modern warfare” and is years ahead of his time in tactics.

Historians—particularly D. Scott Hartwig in A Killer Angels Companion—have argued that this depiction of Longstreet is debatable, since Longstreet “offered no imaginative or dramatic changes in tactics during the war,” and only became an advocate for defensive tactics after watching the Confederate troops crush the Union troops at Fredericksburg by hiding behind stone walls and in trenches. Hartwig claims that Lee knew just as well as Longstreet how to fight the Civil War using modern weaponry. While a defensive posture might have worked for Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, it is by no means certain that it would have, and Shaara’s portrayal of Longstreet as a man ahead of his time is not necessarily accurate.

The developing dynamic between Longstreet and Lee suggests that their relationship is similar to that between a father and a son. Even though Lee is only eleven years older, Longstreet treats his commander with great respect and, when Lee is in pain or fails, with great sympathy. Ultimately, no matter how much he might disagree, Longstreet defers to Lee’s decisions. Shaara, like many historians, places the blame for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg squarely on Lee’s shoulders, as Lee himself does. In the process, Shaara removes much of the blame that Longstreet should have shouldered, making Lee’s failure that much more tragic: the great, legendary General Lee, the brilliant tactician, fails to win a battle that his best general could have won for him. Longstreet’s defensive tactics would not necessarily have worked, and Lee’s tactical decisions were not certain to fail. Some historians, like Hartwig, argue that many of Lee’s tactics were quite sound.

The battle actually begins in Chapter 2 when the Confederates attack Buford’s two cavalry brigades, who have dismounted and are fighting on foot. Buford’s troops are to the west of Gettysburg, blocking all the hills, including Seminary Ridge. Here, history provides Shaara with some high drama: General Reynolds was indeed killed by a sniper almost immediately after arriving with his men in Gettysburg. The loss of Reynolds robbed the Union forces of one of their best officers. Fortunately, Reynolds had ordered his troops into position before being shot, and the Union forces succeeded in preventing the Confederates from capturing the high ground.