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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
The Battle of Gettysburg is viewed by many historians
as a turning point between the old methods of warfare and the new
methods, changes that were dictated by the development of new technologies such
as repeating rifles and long-range artillery. The Civil War saw the
first ironclad battleships and the last great infantry charge: Pickett’s Charge.
The devastating losses of that charge—Pickett lost sixty percent
of his division—marked the beginning of the end of the usefulness of
infantry in major warfare. Cannons, grenades, tanks, planes, and missiles
would eventually make infantry -relatively obsolete.
Longstreet’s continual insistence on defensive warfare
and Lee’s continual resistance to it best illustrates the conflict
within the changing nature of warfare. Shaara portrays Lee as a
traditional soldier of the Napoleonic mold: a brilliant strategist
but an outdated one. Longstreet, by contrast, is portrayed as a
grim realist who recognizes the changing nature of warfare and wants
to change to match it. He knows that the Confederate army can never
successfully invade the North. The Confederate army is smaller than
the Union army and always will be, and the officers do not know
the Northern lands as well as they do their native Virginia. Longstreet wants
to hide behind stone walls and in trenches and cut down the enemy
as it advances, while Lee prefers to strike out in the open, honorably,
and simply overpower the enemy with good strategic maneuvering.
But Lee’s strategies are not as effective in a world using long-distance
rifles and artillery.
Although The Killer Angels reads like
an adventure novel, it describes one of the bloodiest battles in
the history of the Civil War. As he awaits the next battle, Chamberlain
remembers piling up corpses at a previous battle to protect himself
from bullets. He instinctively orders his brother to plug a hole
in the regiment line and realizes he may have ordered his brother
to his death. Limbs are sawed off wounded men to save them from
infection, but Kilrain still dies from amputation and blood
loss. During Pickett’s Charge, soldiers are blown apart by artillery,
“and here and there, tumbling over and over like a blood-spouting
cartwheel, [was] a piece of a man.”
This is a world where death can come at any time, and
the men all have to learn to deal with that uncertainty. Chamberlain
and his men are particularly vulnerable, since they are not generals
protected in the rear of their lines. But everyone is forced to
face death. Lee is dealing with heart trouble, which will eventually
kill him—he knows he is an old man and has not long to live. Longstreet
has lost three children that winter to fever, while Chamberlain
is scarred by the memory of Fredericksburg. Just as the battle begins,
General John Reynolds is killed instantly by a sniper. And General
Lew Armistead marches across the entire field during Pickett’s Charge only
to be cut down at the end without ever meeting his friend Winfield
Hancock. War novels may be read as adventure novels, but in real
war there is death, and the hundreds of corpses that pile up over the
course of The Killer Angels serve to remind us
that Gettysburg was a real battle that left many men dead.
During the actual war the soldiers of the Confederacy
and of the Union often tended to demonize one another. In order
to be able to kill someone, the soldiers had to think of that person
as less than human, or else the guilt could be unbearable. After
the 1860s, the rise of Civil War nostalgia
and Civil War enthusiasts gave the war a glossy, clean, glorified
sheen. Both the North and the South are often presented as noble
men fighting for their way of life—against slavery, or for federal
control of states. But there are few examples of this demonization
or hatred in The Killer Angels: it is a war between gentlemen.
The lack of examination of these issues may be due to the fact that
the novel focuses almost exclusively on men of the upper parts of
society, particularly on the Confederate side: colonels and generals,
never privates or sergeants.
As a character, Chamberlain illustrates the nation’s
division. Chamberlain ruminates several times on a discussion he
had with a Southern professor, and it is evident that Chamberlain
himself is divided: on the one hand, he holds the Northern abolitionist
belief that blacks deserve to be free, but on the other hand, he
is troubled by the sense of revulsion that he feels at the sight
of a black man early in the novel. The professor initially argued
with Chamberlain, saying that blacks are subhuman, and, of course,
Chamberlain disagreed. However, when seeing the injured black man,
Chamberlain notices what he thinks of as the man’s animal-like qualities
and wonders if the professor’s purported subhuman view is plausible.
Chamberlain suffers from a form of internal division,
but it is fairly clear that his cause is not the expressed cause
of the Union. The Union’s leaders, including Lincoln, never claimed
to be fighting a war of liberation: they fought because they believed
the Southern states were forbidden to secede. But Chamberlain fights
for liberation, though most officers, such as Kilrain, do not. Kilrain,
in fact, fights primarily to prove he is a brave man and perhaps
also to bring down what he sees as overly aristocratic Southerners.
But the most explicit symbol of this theme is the friendship between
Lew Armistead and Winfield Hancock. Good friends that took different sides
in the war, the two men participate in the same battle for the first
and last time at Gettysburg. Throughout the novel, Armistead’s sundered
friendship with Hancock serves as a reminder of the hard lines that
the Civil War drew between Americans.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Killer Angels!