Looking for a historical novel? I recommend Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This is a retelling of the battle at Gettysburg from the perspective of the Union and Rebel officers who were there, fighting for a cause that would shape our country. Shaara’s research and retelling bring historical figures like General Robert E. Lee and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain back to life in this book.
The novel opens with a spy riding to deliver a message to General Lee about movement of the Army of the Potomac, or Union Army. This information is unexpected to the Confederate Generals because General Stuart is supposed to be tracking and reporting on Union troop movement in the area. Lee and his second in command, General Longstreet, agree to move his troops, the Army of Northern Virginia, to the unknown and small town of Gettysburg, where there is a crossroads of many roads. Without Stuart’s information, Lee is making this decision with very little intel. Meanwhile, just South of Gettysburg, Colonel Chamberlain commands the Twentieth Maine and has just acquired the mutinous members of the Second Maine and convinces most of them to join the Twentieth. General Buford, leader of the Union cavalry, rides into Gettysburg and discovers Rebel troops. He has a knack for finding good battle positions and decides that the Union troops should position themselves on the hills in the area, a position that proved to be invaluable to the Union troops and one that Buford would get little credit for.
As the book progresses, the reader learns about the Rebel and Union troop strategies, positions, casualties, and officer personalities that determined the outcome of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. It is easy to fall in love with Robert E. Lee’s character and gentle nature, as well as lesser known officers in the war like Colonel Chamberlain who is a professor from Maine who struggles with having his brother under his command, General Longstreet who invented the trench, General Hancock of the Union who is a painter and fighting against his oldest friend, General Lew Armistead fighting for the Confederate. Their reunion will take place at Gettysburg, on Cemetery Hill. It is also easy to dislike characters, like Lieutenant General Stuart, who leads the Confederate Calvary and “has ridden rings around the Union Army”, but fails to report in time to General Lee, which seals the fate of the loveable Lee’s Virginian troops.
I do not have a great knowledge of the Civil War, especially specific battles, but Gettysburg is one that every American has heard about. Maybe you don’t know the specifics of the three-day battle, as I did not, but this book will cure that. Shaara paints a vivid picture of the battle scenes, as well as describing the putrid smells of death in July, the deafening sounds of war in 1863, and the sheer madness of battle. The terrain layout of the troops seems complicated, so thankfully Shaara has included maps with troop locations. Without these maps, I probably would have been lost.
Now I have a strong desire to visit Gettysburg with my family and see Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, and the old German peach orchard. I think you will too after reading this book. I recommend it for anyone looking for a historical novel or even for a student learning about Gettysburg.
“Nothing quite so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield.” – Colonel Chamberlain, Gettysburg