As I came to the final chapters of “Killer Angels” I asked myself, what took me so long to read this?
Naturally, we have seen the movie, more than once. The movie “Gettysburg” is one of those rare pieces that keeps true to form to the written novel. In fact much of the dialogue I recognized as word-for-word taken from the book itself.
I really liked the way the author shifts point-of-view from the Northern to the Southern generals, back and forth and back again. The drama of these three July days in 1863 is inescapable as we read each succeeding chapter. John Buford, a Union cavalry officer, is an especial favorite of mine. According to some history buffs the author may have taken liberties with Buford’s decision to stand and fight, questioning whether his motivation was truly to protect the ‘high ground’ for the Union (and thus initializing the battle of Gettysburg). However it does make for a great story.
This author had an incredible talent for getting inside the thoughts and heads of both Union and Southern officers, and brings scenes to life from the Civil War.
“He rode slowly away to inspect the ground in front of him, between him and the Rebels. If we made a stand here, how long do you think we could hold? Long enough for John Reynolds to get here with the infantry? How long would that take? Will Reynolds hurry? Reynolds is a good man. But he might not understand the situation. How do you make him understand? At this distance. But if you hold, you at least give him time to see the ground. But how long can you hold against Lee’s whole army? If it is the whole army. These are two very good brigades; you built them yourself. Suppose you sacrifice them and Reynolds is late? For Reynolds will be late. They’re always late.”
Being familiar with the movie did not at all take away from the pleasure of reading this dramatic, well-written book about the Gettysburg Civil War battle. Generals Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, (and on the North) John Buford and Colonel Chamberlain are brought to life. The reader can feel the tension as the officers and staff interact, making their decisions whether to attack or retreat, where the best ground is, even how the weather will affect the approaching battle.
“Longstreet said, “Sir.” He shook his head, groping for words. Lee waited.
“Sir, there are some things I must say.”
Lee nodded, again without expression, immobile. The staff had moved back; the two Generals were alone. Longstreet said, “Sir. My two divisions, Hood and McLaws, lost almost half their strength yesterday. Do you expect me to attack again that same high ground which they could not take yesterday at full strength? With so many officers lost? Including Sam Hood?”
According to a NY Times article, the author submitted his manuscript to fifteen publishers before it was finally accepted. Although the novel won the Pulitzer Prize the year following publication (1974), the book itself was not well known until after the movie came out several years later.
Anyone familiar at all with the battle of Gettysburg of course will recognize the major scenes in the book; the 20th Maine and their defense of Little Round Top, the necessity of disciplinary action when Jeb Stuart fails to scout out the position of the North, the doomed march of General Pickett’s charge. Somehow the author is able to make it all seem fresh and new with his descriptive, engaging writing.
“He remembered with awe the clean green fields of morning, the splendid yellow wheat. This was another world. His own mind was blasted and clean, windblown; he was still slightly in shock from the bombardment and he sat not thinking of anything but watching the last light of the enormous day, treasuring the last gray moment. He knew he had been present at one of the great moments in history. He had seen them come out of the trees and begin the march up the slope and when he closed his eyes he could still see them coming. It was a sight few men were privileged to see and many who had seen it best had not lived through it. He knew that he would carry it with him as long as he lived…”