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The Killer Angels tells
the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. On
July 1, 1863, the
Army of Northern Virginia, or Confederate army, and the Army of
the Potomac, or Union army, fought the largest battle of the American Civil
War. When the battle ended, 51,000 men
were dead, wounded, or missing. All the characters in the novel
are based on real historical figures. They include General Robert
E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army; General James Longstreet,
Lee’s second in command; and Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, who
participated in one of the most famous segments of the Battle of Gettysburg,
the fighting on Little Round Top.
The story begins on June 29, 1863.
A spy comes to Longstreet and informs him that he has seen the Union
army moving nearby. This information surprises Longstreet, because
General J. E. B. Stuart is supposed to be tracking the Union army
with his cavalry. Longstreet thinks the Confederate army must quickly
move north to intercept the Union. The Confederates swing southeast
through the mountains and toward a small town called Gettysburg.
Miles south of Gettysburg, Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain
awakes to discover that his regiment, the Twentieth Maine, has a
hundred new members—mutineers from the Second Maine. Chamberlain
gives them a brief speech, asking them to continue to fight, and
all but six of the men join the Twentieth Maine freely.
In Gettysburg, General John Buford, leader of the Union
cavalry, rides into the town and discovers Confederate troops nearby.
He realizes that the two armies may end up fighting in the town,
so he takes his two brigades—approximately 2,000 men—and
positions the soldiers along the hills in the area. He knows that
having high ground is the key to winning the battle, since it is
easier to fight from above than below. In the Confederate camp,
Longstreet meets with George Pickett and several other generals.
On the morning of July 1, Lee
rises and curses Stuart’s absence. He is blind without Stuart, because
without him he has no idea where the Union army is. He meets with
Longstreet, who wants to swing southeast and come between the Union
army and Washington, D.C. Then, Longstreet says, the Confederates
can use defensive tactics and have a much better chance of winning
the battle. Lee refuses, because he wants to smash the Union army
aggressively in one decisive stroke.
Meanwhile, the battle begins at Gettysburg when the Confederates
attack Buford’s men. Buford holds the Confederates off until infantry
General John Reynolds arrives. Reynolds positions his troops and
fights the Confederates off, but he is soon killed. Lee arrives
in Gettysburg and finds the battle in full fury. Two other Confederate
generals arrive and send word to Lee that they have engaged the
Union troops, who continue to pour in from the south. Lee orders
his generals to attack. Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s regiment begins
to move northward toward Gettysburg.
The first day’s battle ends with the Union forces retreating
into the hills surrounding Gettysburg. There they dig in, setting
up cannons and defensive stone walls. Longstreet is nervous—he knows that
the hills are good defensive positions, and he knows that Lee plans
to attack them rather than swing the army southeast toward Washington,
D.C. Lee meets with his generals and is angry with General Ewell
for not following his orders and taking Cemetery Hill and Culp’s
Hill, thereby instead allowing the Union forces to retreat into
them. Ewell is a cautious general, perhaps too cautious. Meanwhile,
Buford returns to the Union camp to discover that he is being blamed
for the day’s loss.
On July 2, Chamberlain awakes
and his regiment begins moving north again toward Gettysburg. On
the way, his regiment discovers an escaped slave, and Chamberlain
muses on the reasons behind the war and his thoughts on race. Back
at Gettysburg, two of Lee’s generals—Ewell and Early—suggest that
the army strike the Union’s two flanks in order to weaken it. Lee
likes the plan, but Longstreet still wants to move southeast toward
Washington, D.C. Lee refuses, and Longstreet reluctantly agrees
to attack the Union’s left flank. As he leads his troops toward
the hills to the south of Gettysburg, Little Round Top and Big Round
Top, he discovers that the army has come down off the hills and
into the peach orchard at the bottom. He decides he has no choice
but to attack anyway, and a bloodbath on both sides is the result.
Chamberlain’s regiment finally reaches Gettysburg and
is placed on Little Round Top. Chamberlain is told that he is the
extreme left of the Union line, which means he can never retreat.
Chamberlain and his men hold the hill against numerous Confederate
attacks, but eventually they run out of bullets. Chamberlain orders
a bayonet charge, and his screaming regiment, charging down the
hill, frightens the Confederates into fleeing. The Union still controls
Little Round Top at the end of the day, and Longstreet’s men have
suffered heavy losses in the peach orchard. That night,
Stuart returns, and Lee scolds him for being absent. Lee then decides
on a plan for the next day: now that he has battered the two flanks
of the Union army, the middle must be weakened. He will charge through
the middle of the Union line and split the army in two, then destroy
each half individually.
The next morning, July 3, Chamberlain’s
men are moved to the center of the Union line, where it is supposed
to be safe and quiet. At the Confederate camp, Longstreet tries
to convince Lee one last time to swing the army toward Washington,
D.C., but Lee again refuses. He is intent on attacking his enemy.
Longstreet tells Lee that he is certain Lee’s plan is doomed to
failure, but Lee obstinately refuses to budge. Longstreet reluctantly
agrees to attack the center of the line and places Pickett in charge
of the assault.
The Confederates begin with an artillery barrage
in an attempt to weaken the Union artillery on the other side. Chamberlain
finds himself and his regiment in the middle of this bombardment,
much to his surprise, but he survives intact. Since the Confederate
artillery shoots too high, not much damage is dealt to the Union
batteries. The Confederate attack begins as the troops start marching
across the open field toward the Union troops. The Union begins
firing cannons, blowing huge holes in the Confederate line and killing
hundreds of men. When the Confederates come within range, the Union
soldiers open fire with their guns, killing hundreds more. Pickett
loses sixty percent of his division. The Confederates soon retreat,
and the Battle of Gettysburg comes to its bloody, spectacular end.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Killer Angels!