The Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara,

Book cover of The Killer Angels

Book description

“My favorite historical novel . . . a superb re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg, but its real importance is its insight into what the war was about, and what it meant.”—James M. McPherson
In the four most bloody and courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies fought for…

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Why read it?

13 authors picked The Killer Angels as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

I have never been brought so close to a battle and a battlefield experience as when reading this book.

The horror, tension, excitement, valor, and regret of warfare are clearly depicted. The motivations for fighting for a terrible cause are examined. The determination to see things through to the bitter end is in evidence. It is a blueprint for writing warfare and helps the reader understand the excitement and tension in leading troops to the fear and futility of being on the line.

Best of all, Shaara has been able to bring life to Lee, who so often is referred…

This is the most extreme book on this list, as it is essentially straight history that is fictionalized. 

The author does an unparalleled job of bringing the Battle of Gettysburg and its actual participants to life. He used careful readings of letters and other accounts to piece together a vision into the principal characters’ thinking and motivations. 

The narrative technique of using many people’s perspectives on overlapping events is not new, but here is used with uncommon dexterity and illustrates how many events and people factored into how the battle unfolded. You experience the battle not only dynamically, but from…

This story may seem out of place on a list like this one, but allow me to put this second Pulitzer Prize winner into context.

Set at the climax of the Civil War, this book is at once about the forced adoption of new social ideals and the rules we use to govern ourselves. Lay on top of that foundation a story about generals being too slow to come to grips with much more powerful technologies and the delicate storytelling of Shaara, and you have the makings of an amazing story. 

This is my favorite book that delicately deals with…

From Bruce's list on technology adoption through history.

Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels describes the unbelievable sacrifice that occurred at Gettysburg, and the men willing to make it. 

It mimics in so many ways the terrible destruction and killing that occurred in Minnesota just the year before and the ultimate defeat and destruction of the Dakota, and later, Lakota people.   

Shaara gives the first detailed account of the First Minnesota, who charged Lee’s line in order to save the “high ground” for the Union. Only a very few men in the entire regiment survived, leaving just one to write a brief account of their heroic action. It was…

In Shaara’s telling we learn the intellectual and spiritual grounding by which men lead themselves to give “their last full measure.” If a book of brilliant conversations between a New England academic commanding officer and an uneducated Irish immigrant top sergeant does not explain the choice to you then you may never learn it.  

Perhaps it is most simply put in the title which comes from a conversation between the two men. The professor from Bowdoin College says simply, “Man is an angel.” To wit his British-trained top sergeant responds, “Colonel, darlin’, if man is an angel he is a…

From Sam's list on the measure of a man.

Killer Angels is perhaps one of the better-known Civil War books. It is told from multiple points of view in both the Confederate and Union armies, and in that way, brings to dramatic life all three days of the battle of Gettysburg. Shaara’s novel is peopled almost exclusively by historical personages and so blends history and fiction in an extraordinarily readable form. It is also important to note that Killer Angels is the best fictional study we have of what is quite probably the most important battle in American history. 

This most lyrical of war novels beautifully reveals what drives men to face death for a cause and manages that while ratcheting up the action and drama of the greatest battle ever fought on American soil. To me, Shaara is the gold standard of historical fiction authors and he populates The Killer Angels with memorable characters, both real and fictional. The better-known soldiers such as Lee and Longstreet are there at Gettysburg, but the true hero of this story is an obscure former professor from Bowdoin College, Joshua Chamberlain, who knows exactly what he’s fighting for. Colonel Chamberlain and his…

This amazing Civil War novel blew me away. The viewpoints shift between the men and leaders on both the Union and Confederate sides. Friends facing friends across a battlefield. Moral dilemmas abound. What does it feel like to be in the heat of battle? This novel personalized the Battle of Gettysburg by diving into the hopes and dreams of the men who fought and died there. I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize. Fantasy readers in particular will appreciate the battle scenes, but also the tactics and, as I seem to mention a lot in these notes, the…

Killer Angels is considered a must-read of American Civil War historical fiction, focusing on four different officers (Longstreet and Lee for the South and Buford and Chamberlain for the North) over the course of the Battle of Gettysburg. Gettysburg is widely considered the turning point of the Civil War (in tandem with Vicksburg) with an astronomical number of casualties over the course of three days. Shaara brings the officers to life and one finds themselves understanding the interpersonal relationships and the personalities of the men ordering tens of thousands of soldiers to sacrifice themselves. If you have any interest at…

When I visited the Gettysburg Battlefield for the first time, I mentioned an interest in seeing where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had fought. “There’s more to Gettysburg than Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain,” sniffed the tour guide, who apparently had become tired of hearing people like me talk up the heroism Union colonel—a story many of us had learned from the pages of this 1974 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Killer Angels is an engrossing book and, despite the misgivings of my tour guide, remains one of the best ways to learn about the men and the motives behind…

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