It’s been awhile since I posted a book, but I have been reading and listening to audiobooks. I just haven’t gotten it all posted. Recently I finished Killer Angels by Michael Shaara as an audiobook. In fact, I listened to it twice. There was too much to get it one time through. If you are interested in the American Civil War, even a little bit, you should read this book.
According to Shaara’s son in an interview at the end of the audiobook, his family was taking a normal family vacation when one of the places they stopped was the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Something caught at his father’s mind about the story of this place and the men who fought and died there. Already a long time author of short fiction and with one book under his belt, Shaara set out to find out the full story of the place and, following in the footsteps of Stephen Crane and The Red Badge of Courage, began to write a book to find out what it was really like to be there during the battle.
He did copious research on the men involved, tracked down their books, and their letters. He and his son returned to the battlefield to further identify spots and to dig through brambles looking for long forgotten markers placed to commemorate deeds and men who died there. It took him nearly a decade without a publishers advance to produce the book he wanted. However, his timing was terrible. The Vietnam War was nearing its end and nobody much wanted to read about war. Even after it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1974, production problems kept sales low. Over the years though it passed from person to person and slowly built quite a following. It was after reading this book that Ken Burns decided to make his landmark documentary on the Civil War and watching part of that series again recently, having read the book, I could now see fingerprints of the book in the series. It also has been one of the books mentioned to me most often by Civil War reenactors as an influence. The height of its ascendance was when it was made into the movie, “Gettysburg” in 1993.
The book itself seems to fit outside normal book categories. He won the prize for fiction, but many years of research and strong devotion to accuracy are also at play. He uses relationships and personalities as he found them, but shortens their words to keep their flowery language from sounding strange and forced to modern ears. Much seems to be accurate, but there is no way he could know the thoughts of men who died that day. I would very much like to see an annotated version of this showing what he could back up. It’s such a popular book, maybe someday we will see that version. I think it might be an early example of narrative nonfiction, a form that has only recently come into its own with books like Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio by Jeffrey Kluger.
The book itself takes several men on each side of the battle and shows what they were thinking and feeling and their perceptions of the battle. Sometime it backtracks a little bit to show you both sides of an incident, but mostly it sticks to a straight timeline, just switching perspectives. His two big had been forgotten discoveries were Buford and his unmounted cavalry and Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain who went on to be one of the most decorated and admired soldiers (by military men) in the North. He also spends a lot of time on best friends Generals Armistead and Hancock who ended up on opposite sides of the war. The southern side focuses on General Longstreet and I must say it raised him in my opinion. I have read two biographies on Lee and after reading this book as well, I really think the key to understanding him is a fundamental confusion over honor. There is a difference between valuing honor and valuing the appearance of honor. I think Lee really had the one while getting full credit for the other.
In short, this is one of those books that was on my list to read for a long time because it was mentioned to me so often. I think in this case most of those people saying you should read it are right (which is not always the case). It does an excellent job of showing both conditions on the ground and that these were real people who made up history not just names and dates.
UPDATED November 5, 2015: I added my current signature block and a couple of typos.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.