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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.
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.
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Killer Angels!