The Killer Angels
by Michael Shaara
This July marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the subject of Michael Shaara's 1975 Pulitzer Award-winning masterpiece. I read it about ten years ago and was absolutely mesmerized. Even though it's a fictionalized account of the battle, it doesn't seem to stray far from the facts, and most of the characters in the book were real people.
The title comes from one of the characters, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, recalling a time he quoted from Hamlet to his father: "What a piece of work is man...in action how like an angel!" His father's response was, "Well, boy, if he's an angel, he's sure a murderin' angel."
Shaara leads us through the events of the three-day battle, which took place July 1-3, 1863. I never really understood the battle until I read this book. Famous places like the Devil's Den and Little Roundtop seem real, and the people involved come alive in his prose. This is a masterful book, one that alternately moved and horrified me. It is one of those books that once read will not be forgotten.
At least one of my ancestors fought in that battle and was wounded, so I have a personal connection, though the only time I visited the battlefield park was when I was too young to remember it.
Since I can't be there for the reenactment on this sesquicentennial occasion, I dug out my copy of the DVD to watch tonight. The movie Gettysburg, starring Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels, is based on Shaara's book, and I think everyone involved did a great job of bringing it to screen. The only odd note was the counter-intuitive casting of Martin Sheen as General Robert E. Lee, but he does his usual fine acting job. The real star of the movie though, in my mind, is Jeff Daniels, who seemed to channel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The physical resemblance between the two is eerie, and the interplay between Daniels and C. Thomas Howell, who played Lawrence's brotherThomas, is quite touching. The pointless, insane pageantry of Pickett's Charge always makes me cry.
Wikipedia has more information on both The Killer Angels and Gettysburg.
A perfect choice if you're looking for a good book or movie to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Happy Independence Day!