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Thoughts: The Killer Angels

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I could stop there, since no other words would provide due credit and justice to this work, but, of course, I won’t.

Is there anything as effective in the contemplation of the human condition as war? If we can learn so much from the grace within a human being, there is surely as much to be considered from our monstrosity.

I have a special affinity for this period in history. It fascinates me, even since a very early age. To this day, I still find myself contemplating WHY men would raise up to kill their own countrymen, similarly as Tom Chamberlain fumbles with the idea that so many good men would slaughter and be slaughtered to preserve something as genuinely and plainly EVIL as slavery. Surely there is more to this conflict than slavery. Before 1861, southern citizens were fellow countrymen; people that any northerner would equate to themselves and the general American nobility. Slavery was not instituted in 1861. The war of “Northern Aggression” was not spurred by slavery, yet it was the reason many soldiers quoted when mustering the courage to charge into a line of fire.

WHY!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Here inlies the brilliance of Shaara’s book. One can study strategy, history, records, etc but there is always that hazy glass wall between the man of study and the men of war. Shaara puts forth a magnificently effective effort to introduce us to those of the past.

When the author discusses General Lee in the afterword as being the most revered military commander in American history, he is thinking of my own views on Lee. The greatest military mind of the age was coupled with the most refined moral and dignified convictions to create the force of Lee. As Shaara dictates, Lee would not raise a hand against Virginia. When secession was official, Lee made the hard choice to neglect his vow to the Federal army and to the United States of America and defend his home. The man had no cause. He did not fight to preserve political assertions of the Confederate government. Jefferson Davis be damned or glorified. It did not matter. He would not turn on his own sons and fellow Virginians. Could I have done that? Could I have put aside my own values? In most cases, it is honorable to fight for your own moral convictions. But would it not be considered selfish to not only stand by them at the risk of your family and home, but to LEAD the attack on them?

Yet, as we see in the relationship between Longstreet and Lee, this could have been the Union’s best asset. Lee was desperate to finish the war to the point of making poor decisions to reach that end. Gettysburg was likely the turning point of the war because Lee lost the composure to make sound military decisions and risked annihilation for the chance of squashing the conflict then and there. Lee often told Longstreet that it was all in God’s hands. If this were true, then I imagine God chose the best man to LOSE the war. Men needed to follow him, have faith in him…to honor him before themselves – to LOSE. That character, combined with an insatiable desire to end the war, would lead to Union victory. If Lee would have fought for the Federal Army, they would have been destroyed since Lee would have had a much harder time being the man he was against his home.

Longstreet’s European friend, Fremantle, said the Confederacy was fighting to, essentially, go back to a more European social structure. That this idea of class equality was nonsense, a failed experiment, and that noble hierarchy needed to be reinstated in America. Most men in the Confederate army WERE NOT FIGHTING TO PRESERVE SLAVERY! They fought to preserve their way of life which, unfortunately, and secondarily, slavery was a part of. In modern times, it’s become cliche to justify American wars and foreign conflicts by saying we’re preserving our way of life. Politically, this was why states seceded. Morally, like Lee, the Confederate leaders couldn’t turn on their people. The political justifications played no part.

Union officials, like Joshua Chamberlain, fought for the idea that America held a new promise quite the opposite of European nobility and class hierarchy.

By the way, I actually found myself relating to Chamberlain quite a bit as a read through the first half of the book. He’s assuredly an idealist, a scholar and a man with clear cut moral credence but little political and military prowess, at the time. The depiction of his legendary “Swinging Door” maneuver on Little Round Top swiftly brushed my ability to identify with him aside. That takes an instinctual courage and self-denial to accomplish.

Anyhow, he fought for the promise that each man would be judged by the content of their character. Equality was simply a true fact of humanity that held sway throughout the world. Governments like the Confederacy neglected this truth and that’s why the Army of the Potomac, specifically Joshua Chamberlain and Kilrain, fought. In my own opinion, I think this is a bit empty, hot air…bullshit. I believe, to my core, that this is a truth that people simply turn away from. Arguing its existence is a waste of time. The sky is blue, all men are equal. Yet if the Federal government was fighting for this ideal, why did it take another 100 years for Civil Rights? One can’t hold a government responsible for bigotry and hatred by her citizens. But legal protection of equality was a long way off from Gettysburg.

I commend Shaara on a masterpiece. I had known these historical figures but was meeting flesh and blood, fallible, emotional and lively PEOPLE. Because of Shaara’s talent, the idealism and majesty of this period resonates violently with the reader.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Michael Shaara

 

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