58 pages 1 hour read

Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide


The Killer Angels is the best-known work of American author Michael Shaara. This historical novel was published in 1975 and, a year later, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel tells the story of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, which took place from July 1 to July 3, 1863. The story is told from the perspectives of several commanders from both the Union and Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, three of the most famous figures to emerge from the US Civil War. In 1993, director Ronald F. Maxwell adapted the novel into the film Gettysburg, one of the most historically accurate movies based on the Civil War.

When Shaara died, his son Jeff continued his legacy by publishing Gods and Generals in 1988 and The Last Full Measure in 2000. The former is a prequel to The Killer Angels, ending just before the Battle of Gettysburg. The Last Full Measure covers the last two years of the war, including Lee’s surrender. All three are written in the same style, with each chapter being told from the perspective of a different Union or Confederate commander, and all three are noted for their historical accuracy.

Plot Summary

The Killer Angels begins on June 29, 1863, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee discussing the position and movements of the Army of the Potomac with General James Longstreet based on information from a spy Longstreet hired. Lee sees that Gettysburg is a valuable position because it is a junction of several roads, so he decides to amass the Army of Northern Virginia there. Unfortunately, his cavalry commander, General J. E. B. Stuart, has not yet reported on the Union’s position, so Lee is forced to head into Gettysburg blind.

As Lee begins to assemble his army, the Union is also moving toward Gettysburg. Union General John Buford enters the town first with his cavalry and establishes his unit on the hills to the south of town, positioning the Union on the most advantageous ground in the area. As Buford watches from the top of Cemetery Hill, a unit of Confederate infantry enters Gettysburg from the west, only to retreat when they spot Buford’s brigades in the hills. Buford orders his brigades to dig in.

On July 1, Lee and Longstreet discuss their battle strategy. They know the Union Army is nearby, and while Lee wants to go on the offensive and possibly end the war, Longstreet believes they should take a defensive approach by moving to the southeast and positioning themselves between the Union Army and Washington, DC, allowing the Confederates to fight on ground of their choosing. Lee holds firm that fighting as they are now positioned is best, so the army continues to move into Gettysburg from the west and north.

The battle begins when the Confederate infantry, led by General Henry Heth, engages Buford’s cavalry, thinking that the soldiers are the local militia. When Heth realizes that he is facing two Union brigades, he increases his attack. Buford does his best to hold his line against Heth’s advance while waiting for support from General John Reynolds’s infantry, which is quickly approaching from the south. When Reynolds arrives, his men replace Buford’s on the line, but Reynolds is killed soon after getting into position. Lee enters Gettysburg, and soldiers from both armies stream into the area over the course of the day, the Union from the south and the Confederacy from the west.

By the end of the first day, the Union is dug into the hills to the south, cementing their position on the high ground. This concerns Longstreet, who knows that Lee wants to attack them from the west. He can see that the Union position is strong, so he continues to argue for moving the army south to ground of their choosing. Lee, however, is determined to stay and fight as opposed to moving around the Union. Lee is also angry that General Richard Ewell did not attack Cemetery Hill as ordered, thus preventing the Confederacy from taking the hills from the Union.

On July 2, two Confederate divisions, led by Ewell and General Jubal Early, attack the left flank of the Union line, hoping to weaken it before more Union reinforcements arrive. Longstreet, who continues to suggest they move to the southeast, submits to Lee’s command and moves his division into positions near Big Round Top and Little Round Top, about two miles south of Gettysburg. When he arrives, he sees that the Union Army has moved down and off the hills. The ensuing attack is a failure for the Confederacy with high casualties on both sides.

At the same time, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s unit, the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers, moves into Gettysburg from the south and takes position on Little Round Top. He is on the far-left flank of the Union line, and he is ordered to hold his position at all costs. His regiment faces numerous Confederate attacks, yet he and his men hold the line despite a lack of ammunition. Facing a desperate situation, Chamberlain orders his regiment to attach bayonets to their rifles and charge down the hill. This forces the Confederates to retreat.

Later that day, Stuart finally appears. Lee tells him that he has failed his mission and left the Confederate Army blind. Stuart is shocked and hurt and wants to resign, but Lee tells him that the army needs him and that they will not talk about the incident further. When Lee, Longstreet, and Stuart discuss their strategy for the next day, Lee wants to hit the center of the Union line, hoping to break it in two. Longstreet has serious doubts about this plan.

On the morning of July 3, Longstreet tries to convince Lee of the error in attacking from their current position. Lee refuses to reconsider. Despite knowing that some of his generals disagree with him, he orders Longstreet’s division to assemble and attack the center of the Union line first with heavy artillery and then with an infantry charge. Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s regiment moves from the left to the center of the Union line. Chamberlain’s regiment is hit by the artillery, but Chamberlain makes it through unharmed. Ultimately, the Union line drives the Confederates back, forcing them to retreat. The Union cheers their victory, and Lee orders the Confederate Army to leave Gettysburg under the cover of an approaching storm.