June 16th Reflection: The Killer Angels as a Humanitarian Approach to the Gettysburg Address

The Killer Angels as a Humanitarian Approach to the Gettysburg Address

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on the afternoon of November 19th, 1863, arguably one of the most famous speeches ever made in the US history, was a finely constructed short speech in which he talked about the history, the war, and his political understandings and pursuits. Michael Shaara’s fictional novel about the American civil war, The Killer Angels, brought our sight to the war as well as this notable historical event, and is, in my opinion, more or less a humanitarian approach to the war as well as the Address that followed the war. As a fiction the novel is bound to have a different take of the historical event, the Battle of Gettysburg, and thus a close-up comparison between these texts is necessary.

The Gettysburg Address is essentially focused on Lincoln’s personal political wills and wishes. It starts with the mentioning of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation, and states that the nation is dedicated to the equality of its people. Then it makes a transition into the narration of the war that is happening at the moment and justifies the cause of fighting this war. Finally Lincoln concludes that, even though the commemoration itself may be well forgotten as time flows, the deeds that the men have done on this field shall be preserved. We are in memory of the dead and shall keep the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Taking a literal analysis of this text, we may see that there has been a strong assertion on the legacies of the ground: “[W]e cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.” By using a parallel, Lincoln asserts that we have done little compared to the people who contributed their own lives into protecting the sacred land. This commemoration of the sacrificed serves as a step to the final call for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – the political wish of Lincoln, as well as the founding fathers.

In explanation of Lincoln’s address, Richard Brookhiser’s book, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, gives an insight on the Gettysburg Address. In the chapter God the Father, Brookhiser gives a brief recount of Lincoln’s life as well as his political beliefs. Lincoln was a supporter of the spirits of America’s Founding Fathers, but he was also aware that the Founding Fathers “had harbored a wen or a cancer: slavery(Brookhiser 188)”, and this was an untended deadly legacy. Brookhiser further suggests that Lincoln turns to “God the Father” for help on these legacies, but he also witnessed God’s cruelness. He then sought out light against the dark; later on, “[a]fter letting go of the founding fathers he had faced God the Father directly (Brookhiser 197).” The Gettysburg Address was Lincoln’s commemoration for the sacrifices as well as his call for the pursuit of what he believed in.

Compared to the Gettysburg Address, Michael Shaara’s novel, The Killer Angels, is remarkable in its portrayal of the generals in the American civil war, as well as the development of the Battle of Gettysburg by date. Because the story is told from the perspectives of several generals from both sides, it does not serve for the wills of only the winner, but reflects the different takes of the war from conflicting viewpoints. The most notable characteristics of this novel is that we may see the emotional shifts of each character, as well as feel the empathy that arises. Several examples from the novel may serve this point of view.

In the chapter that General Longstreet was talking to Col. Fremantle, while he recollects on General Robert E. Lee as well as thinking about the possible outcomes of his army’s fate on the second day, we may sense a strong feeling of unwillingness and discouragement. Longstreet was clearly having a major complaint on Lee but he had to obey his commander. As the novel goes:

“…… [A]nd Longstreet thought: should have spoken to Lee. Must go back tonight. But … let the old man sleep. Never saw his face that weary. Soul of the army. He’s in command. You are only the hand. Silence. Like a soldier.

“He will attack.

“Well. They love him. They do not blame him. They do impossible things for him. They may even take that hill. (Shaara 250)”

The fact that Longstreet is, in this scene, having a word on Lee while understanding he must obey his commander’s orders, serves to depict the general as a man in the middle of his dilemma; he was not satisfied nor confident, as he maintains that “[t]he tactics are simple: find the enemy, fight him (Shaara 250)” and that “‘Tomorrow we will attack an enemy that outnumbers us, an enemy that outguns us, an enemy dug in on the high ground, and let me tell you, if we win that one it will not be because of the tactics or because we are great strategists or because there is anything even remotely intelligent about the war at all. It will be a bloody miracle, a bloody miracle.’ (Shaara 251-252)” His talks are very emotion-based and it seems that he is trying to appeal to his listener with such an emotion that the attack tomorrow is bound to be a failure.

In this way, we may find out that author Michael Shaara, in his rendering of the novel, depicts his generals not as mere participants of that battle, but has built a more personal connection via the elaboration on their emotion. This makes the recount of the war more accessible and more understandable. The similar case happens in the last chapter of the book, when Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain went off into the night and watched the battlefield at dusk, as if it was “like the gray floor of hell (Shaara 341).” The chapter features Chamberlain’s reminiscence of the battle scenes, the horror of enemies marching toward him, and that he forgot the meaning of war. During his talk with his brother Thomas, he “was thinking of Kilrain: no divine spark. Animal meat: the Killer Angels(Shaara 343).” Chamberlain, as one of the major protagonists of the novel, delivers the message that the author is trying to send in this novel: the battle is not fought by “the North and the South”, but by people with true emotions; but they have to subdue to their animal instincts at the start of the battle and become killer angels.

The 1993 film Gettysburg, based largely on Michael Shaara’s novel, shares its concerns for humanity, as well as the commendation of heroic deeds. One of the most memorable scenes is that in which General Armistead talks to Col. Fremantle right before he led his army to charge at the Federal Army (at approximately 220min of the film). He speaks about the origins of many of the soldiers in his army, implying that a man should not be judged by the title of his ancestors, and states that every man here knows his duty, and they would make the charge even without an officer to lead them. They are all here because they are all sons of Virginia. This statement is accompanied with a piece of solemn non-diegetic music, and it is a moving episode of the film, especially as we recall the heroic sacrifices of his army as the charge began. The film director obviously emphasizes the courage that these men showed, with no preference as to which side they belong to. It is via such language of motion picture that we are presented with the sheer human valiance and feel the greatness of human emotion.

The Killer Angels, along with its film adaptation, Gettysburg, are attempts of the authors to recount the important historical events while addressing their own humanitarian concerns. Just as the Gettysburg Address is a speech about commemoration and political pursuit, The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara’s recount that evokes the common human emotions while reminding us the cruelness of war.



Works Cited:

  1. Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. Ballantine, 2008.
  2. Maxwell, Ronald F, et al., directors. “Gettysburg.” Warner Home Video, 2000.
  3. Brookhiser, Richard. “God the Father.” Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 187-198.


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