American Culture

Telling History vs. Making Art: Killer Angels, real and fictional

Part five in a series.

In my last post, I began to discuss Michael Shaara’s aesthetic choices for constructing The Killer Angels as he did, and how he adopted a Lost Cause-interpretation of Robert E. Lee as a central choice for his novel.

Where Shaara deviates significantly from Lost Cause tradition, though, is his choice to make Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet a hero of the novel. Longstreet was Lee’s left hand and second in command. However, Lost Cause advocates, particularly Confederate generals Jubal Early and Fitzhugh Lee, scapegoated Longstreet (and others) for the Southern defeat at Gettysburg—all in an attempt to absolve Lee and preserve his Marble Man status. Longstreet didn’t help his own case after the war by becoming a Republican, accepting various government jobs, and criticizing Lee. History has not been kind to Lee’s “Old Warhorse.” Shaara’s sympathetic treatment of him in The Killer Angels almost single-handedly resurrected public interest in Longstreet’s controversial career.

On the Federal side, Shaara focuses on cavalryman John Buford and, most significantly, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Infantry. Posted at the far left flank of the Union army on a piece of topographically important ground, Chamberlain’s men had to beat back a series of Confederate attacks on July 2, 1863. “You cannot withdraw,” Chamberlain’s commander tells him in the novel. “Under any conditions. If you go, the line is flanked. If you go, they’ll go right up the hilltop and take us in the rear. You must defend this place to the last.”

The action as depicted in the novel and, later, in the movie Gettysburg, and as recounted in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, has become the stuff of legend—in fact, “far more legend than history,” says historian Tom Desjardin. “Shaara’s novelized version of Chamberlain’s day at Gettysburg exceeds by any measure the historical fact of the event.”

But Desjardin points out that Shaara isn’t attempting to chronicle Chamberlain’s day. Rather, he says Shaara “meant to expose a wonderful, glorious, and tragic past to a generation of Americans still soured on the idea of war as a just and honorable entity. He sought perhaps to reinstill a sense that America and Americans had once been something more noble and honorable than the legacy of Vietnam made them seem.”

Those ideas, very much in keeping with the heroic deeds of valor central to the Reconciliation Tradition but given a 1970’s spin, drive an agenda far different than the objective conveyance of facts a historian would advocate. “Novels are not bound by fact,” Desjardin says. “They have an emotive quality that only fiction can provide and often must provide in order to succeed.”

“Shaara’s story is told so well, his character portrayals are so believable, that the unknowing reader might believe what they are reading is history,” writes historian Scott Hartwig, the National Park Service’s acknowledged expert on Gettysburg. Hartwig had to discard initial prejudices against the book as a historian—“or tried very hard to,” he admits:

and found that there was more to this novel than met the eye. It held deeper meaning than simply to tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, and it was beautifully written…. Still, the number of people who read this novel and came away thinking they had read a history of the battle, annoyed me.

The blurry line between fact and fiction in The Killer Angels is best exemplified by Buster Kilrain, a fictitious sergeant in the 20th Maine who serves as Shaara’s personal voice (for more on Kilrain, check out this piece). “It does not seem to bother people that the character is a middle-aged, overweight private who follows his commanding officer around telling him what to do while calling him ‘darling,’” says Desjardin. The fictitious Kilrain interacts with the historically real characters because Shaara needs him, as a literary device, to do so. If Chamberlain is the American hero in the classical style, Kilrain contrasts against him as the modern everyman, too cynical for his own good yet someone who can still see the value in Chamberlain’s goodness and appreciate it. Shaara’s myth-building uses Kilrain’s voice to help sculpt Chamberlain’s heroic stature:

You are damned good at everything I’ve seen you do, a lovely soldier, an honest man, and got a good heart on you too, which is rare in clever men…. The strange and marvelous thing about you, Colonel darlin’, is that you believe in mankind, even preachers, whereas when you’ve got my great experience you will have learned that good men are rare, much rarer than you think.

In service to his myth-making, Shaara isn’t afraid to subvert facts. For instance, on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg, he repositions the 20th Maine squarely behind the Union center along Cemetery Ridge. “[A] lovely spot,” a lieutenant tells Chamberlain as the regiment gets ready to move. “Safest place on the battlefield. Right smack dab in the center of the line. Very quiet there.” Most readers know the area won’t be quiet at all, so not only does Shaara create a touch of irony that serves as a foreboding end-of-chapter cliffhanger, it positions his hero to witness the climactic Pickett’s Charge. “We’re right in the path,” Chamberlain thinks as the Confederates hit. “Would not have missed this for anything, not anything in the world.”

“This is pure fiction,” says Hartwig. In reality, the 20th Maine was positioned some three-quarters of a mile away from the battle—but because Shaara literally is creating “pure fiction,” the move to Cemetery Ridge serves several artistic functions and contributes to the myth of his noble hero.

Shaara’s son, Jeff, has not inserted himself as a Kilrain-style literary device into his own Civil War books the way his father did—as a stylist, he’s not nearly that sophisticated—but he otherwise takes similar liberties with his characters. “If you have read any of my books, you know that these stories are driven not by events, but by characters,” he writes in the introduction to his most recent novel, A Blaze of Glory, about the battle of Shiloh. “For me, the points of view of the characters in this story are more appealing than the blow-by-blow facts and figures that are the necessary products of history textbooks…. [M]y goal is not to offer a complete detailed history of the event. If that’s what you seek, then by all means, read Shelby Foote or Jim McPherson. I hope that when all is said and done, you will accept that what I am trying to offer you is a good story.”

Nonetheless, Shaara professes to engage in “painstaking (and voluminous)” research, making “a strenuous effort to be historically accurate, to get the facts straight.” As a result, he almost seems to begrudge the fact that his book “has to be described as a novel because there is dialogue, and you are often inside the thoughts of these characters.” He tips his hand further in the introduction to Gods and Generals, his first novel, which he dedicates to “those who learned their American history in often impersonal textbooks.” The implication is that they’re about to learn some history from him.

When his readers walk into the Jackson Shrine, I’m delighted that the book has inspired them to stop. From that point on, the onus rests on me to be sure they leave with the story set straight.

Next: The Civil War’s great storyteller