Civil War historical fiction: ‘The Killer Angels’



Many people are familiar with the antebellum novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly,” written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. This story is credited with shining a light on the harsh conditions of enslaved African-Americans and being a harbinger of the Civil War that would soon erupt in this country.

Similarly, another novel that has attracted considerable attention over the years since its publication in 1936 is Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.” This book and the Hollywood film adapted from this story have largely shaped our perception of the Old South.

Fiction plays an important role in learning about historical events, by arousing interest and motivating further reading and investigation (see “Novels shape our understanding of the Civil War,” Coastal Point, Sept. 29, 2016). Over the next several weeks, I will share a few thoughts about my favorite Civil War novels — beginning with “The Killer Angels.”

Michael Shaara’s classic story about a battle that took place over three days at a small town in southcentral Pennsylvania named Gettysburg in July 1863 was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Shaara introduced to the public four main characters and a few secondary ones as well.

Most readers will likely be unfamiliar with the novel’s first main character, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. Prior to the war, he had been a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Another compelling, yet not particularly familiar, participant in this story is Brig. Gen. John Buford, commander of a Union cavalry division that rode into Gettysburg a day before the battle began. It was Buford’s job to locate the Confederate army that was believed to be marching across Pennsylvania somewhere along the 55-mile route between Chambersburg and Harrisburg.

The third main participant in this narrative is the physically imposing, yet personally reticent, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, a corps commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (ANV). He shouldered responsibility for a good deal of the Rebels’ offensive action during the second and third days of the battle.

The ANV commander Gen. Robert E. Lee is in the spotlight as the fourth main character in this drama about the South’s audacious attempt to gain a military victory in the North in order to separate from the Union. Lee was the architect of his army’s strategy and tactics in the attempt to defeat the Union army on this ground.

Individuals with lesser, but nonetheless interesting, roles include a daring Rebel spy named Harrison, an urbane British military observer traveling with the Rebels, named Fremantle, and a sensitive Confederate brigadier general named Armistead. While this narrative is considered historical fiction, all of the above-mentioned characters are actual persons, and their performance in the novel reflects real-life situations.

On July 2, Chamberlain’s Maine regiment was involved in a do-or-die struggle to defend a hill named Little Round Top against the 15th Alabama Regiment’s repeated attacks. Buford and his cavalry had already made their mark on July 1 by holding off a determined Rebel infantry attack down the Chambersburg Road outside of Gettysburg until Union infantry arrived to relieve the cavalry.

Shaara features Longstreet as a voice crying in the desert in an attempt to convince Lee, his commander, to adopt different tactics than those he decided to employ against the enemy. Lee, who had been successful in almost every prior engagement against this same Union army, felt confident that his methods would result in victory.

Michael Shaara captured the essence of the Battle of Gettysburg in novel form, and acknowledgement came from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where this book is required reading for its students. First published in 1974, this story became the basis for the film “Gettysburg,” produced in 1993.

The novel and film are considered classics by Gettysburg aficionados and frequently are the subject of online discussion about the characters and the roles they play in the book and movie, as well as in real life. Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” has popularized the Battle of Gettysburg, much like Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Civil War has for the entire four-year-long conflict.

Next on the agenda is Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” This novel, published in 1895, is seen as a realistic portrayal of how soldiers react in battle once the gunfire begins in earnest.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at or visit his website at

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point