The Killer Angels

Over summer I watched for the third, or possibly fourth time, the Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War. It’s a great piece of film-making about a great war. Though the war pre-dates all but the most rudimentary photographic technology, the program brought the events and the personalities to life. Excerpts from diaries and letters were read aloud while blurred and sepia photos showed the battles, and more particularly the aftermath, often with a tune from the time being played in the background. It was a seminal piece of film-making, now much imitated, and always compelling viewing, no matter how many times before.

The American civil war was a great and terrible war. It was great in the sense of scale and history-making. A people divided and fought on conflicting principles, often friend against friend, brother against brother. Resting on the outcome was American, and possibly world, history. Had the south won then America would have remained divided, two countries at least within the one mass of land, and possibly a third out west. Slavery would have gone on, and southern aims vindicated.

It was terrible in the sense that the carnage was probably greater than any war before it. Not only was the loss of life great on either side, the suffering endured by disease, by cruel conditions, and by deprivation, was very great. America did well to survive the war without deeper scars.

It was a war notable also for the commanding characters it brought to the fore – Abraham Lincoln, of course, an awkward personality by many accounts, but clearly also a wise and deeply humane individual. In the South, there was Robert E. Lee, revered by all combatants it seems, a gracious, chivalric general who had the habit of winning battle after battle against the odds. Behind him were other great names like ‘Stonewall’ Jackson I grew up reading about and James Longstreet. On the Union side, there was US Grant, the man who ultimately won the war for the North, and eventually, to become president; and a favourite of mine, William Tecumseh Sherman.

I know a fair bit about the war and more than any other battle about Gettysburg. While there were huge battles before Gettysburg, and after, Gettysburg is the battle that made all the difference. It was the battle upon which the whole crux of the war came to hang: win here and the way was likely clear to Washington for Lee, and war itself likely won; lose and the last chance for final victory would be gone.

History tells us that Lee, and the South, lost at Gettysburg after a mighty confrontation replete with moments of great heroism and tragedy.

This is fresh in me now because I am reading a marvellous fictionalised book on the battle called The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. It’s not often I admire a book so much.

The book tells the story of the battle through the eyes of selected key participants – Lee is there, and Longstreet, Joshua Chamberlain – a key figure familiar to viewers of the Ken Burns doco – is there also, as are about half a dozen others. Both the characters and their inner workings are observed with exquisite detail. We get inside their head, feel them as much as men, as individuals, as we do soldiers and generals. Their frailties are exposed, their driving beliefs, their basic decency and their occasional doubts. You realise on reading how finely poised so much of what we read of history.

History is something done, dry because it is inscribed in time now, never changing. This book takes us into history as it is being made, and in the hours leading to it. You realise reading how things might have been different had someone spoken up, if someone had been less brave or more, had Lee perhaps listened to his doubts, had Longstreet disobeyed, had Chamberlain acted less brilliantly, or if Buford been less determined. You think that if Stonewall Jackson had been alive still and in command of the corps that Ewell so timidly led then Gettysburg might have been won by the South on that first afternoon. You read wondering why Lee was so persistent and stubborn in attack when it seems so deluded too – but then you understand also because you are inside his mind. You think that if Lee had listened to Longstreet then the outcome would have been different too, a different battle, and more likely a different victor.

It’s quality writing of the highest order. It reminds me some of Cormac McCarthy. It has some of that same clipped stream of consciousness to it. Though there is little fancy in it, there is a mesmerising beauty much as in the writings of McCarthy. Like McCarthy, there is an authenticity to it that makes you think it must have been this way. Though we don’t know the minds of men altogether, we can know their character. And the thoughts, words and actions flow from that character, true in actual fact or not, it seems real.

Gettysburg was such a momentous moment in history, the coming together not just of armies and great characters, but of fates. Before Gettysburg, the North was on the run and seemingly on the brink of overall defeat, despite the overwhelming superiority of men and materiel. I never realised that so much until now. The battle of Gettysburg changed history, and this is how it happened.


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