I just reread Michael Shaara’s classic novel of the Civil War, The Killer Angels (1974.) It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and was wildly popular with readers from across the political spectrum; it remains one of the great novels of the Civil War. It’s a fascinating story, beautifully told, but rereading it in a time of political polarization that rivals the political climate of the 1850’s, there is a new level of poignancy, not so much about that ancient battle, but about how we, the reading public, have changed.
Today, conservatives and even grumpy liberals bemoan the prissy falsity of PC speech, and it is loathsome, but it is easy to forget how bad, and how recent, the bad old days were.
History moves at different speeds across America. As a Yankee, I think of 1974, the year The Killer Angels was published, as modern times; The Velvet Underground and the Beatles had already come and gone, the moon landing was history, the great March on Washington was more than a decade in the past, and Martin Luther King himself had been dead for six years. Modern times.
Yet, much of the country was still rooted in the old days. The last of the “Whites Only” signs had only just been taken down in the South. I know they were still commonplace in the mid-1960’s South Carolina, so maybe some were still up, for all I know.
Flagrantly racist politicians like Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, and George Wallace were still national figures, right wing to be sure, but hardly lunatic fringe. Those old boys didn’t need any dog whistles; you could still campaign on an explicit segregationist platform in a fair-sized chunk of the US in 1974. Did I say 1974? Thurmond, who was already a right-wing bogeyman to my parent’s generation when I was a toddler in 1955 was still one of South Carolina’s Senators in 2003, still an unregenerate segregationist. I had to look that date up more than once to be sure I was understanding it; it seems incredible that the World Trade Center fell while Strom Thurmond was still a senator, but it’s true. Back in 1974, a lot of the country was barely out of the 1930’s.
The novel is about the Battle of Gettysburg, not about desegregation, but that is the complex social background against which the book appeared. Politics only figures in the novel where relevant, but it’s the Civil War, so politics are often highly relevant. While the Southern officers and soldiers are treated sympathetically, The Cause, as it came to be called, is not.
No Southern character ponders the morality of the war beyond claiming to be obliged to defend their homes or to express their pain at having violated their oaths of loyalty to the United States. The Southern officers call it “violating their oaths” but the traditional word for it is treason, and the Yankees understand it this way.
It is the Union characters, particularly the most admirable among them, who reason passionately about why they are fighting; it is always, first and last, to extirpate slavery and the wanna-be aristocracy that defends it. They are bewildered and amazed at the moral obtuseness of their Southern counterparts and their elaborate avoidance of calling slavery by its rightful name.
The novel was written in and for a world that is now gone, telling the story from a perspective that would be hard to get away with today. I suspect that the center of gravity of its fan base has shifted to the right, not because anything in the book would appeal to alt-right types, or even to conventional right-wingers, but because of declining appeal for liberal readers. So many on the Left today would suspect that any interest in the Civil War masks sympathy with the South or at the very least, an unwholesome fascination with “toxic” masculinity.
The story is told from the point of view of commanders, with more or less equal attention given to both sides. Shaara was born in 1928 and his writing assumes a civility that is gone now, a willingness to trust that the author, even when portraying the Southern officers sympathetically, is not an advocate of their cause. It’s a bad time for historical fiction. Decades of mass entertainment and the Internet have made us simpler; today, our historical heroes must mouth the values and politics of the 21st Century Blue States, or they’re incomprehensible.
Rereading is particularly poignant for me because the first time I read The Killer Angels, I had just missed by a whisker (which I barely had) being drafted into the least popular war in American history. The book came out the year after the US finally extricated itself from Vietnam’s own war between North and South (our involvement ended in mid-1973) and the war would not end for the Vietnamese until 1975.
Like many young Americans, I was passionately pro-civil rights and mortally opposed to our involvement in Vietnam, but not a pacifist by principle. People claimed to be against the war because it was wrong, but it wasn’t that simple. For the Berrigan brothers, maybe, but not for most of us. I think most people were moved more by the sheer pointlessness of it than by the wrongness of it, per se. America has been in plenty of morally sketchy fights that aroused no such public ire. The thing that made Vietnam different was that it was devoid of any story that gave it meaning. Nobody seriously believed the Tonkin Gulf Incident was a legitimate casus belli or that fair elections had ever been what we were after, or that South Vietnam would be any kind of bulwark against Communism. We weren’t saving Democracy, or rescuing anyone, or even taking over a country we wanted. It just seemed brain-dead pointless. It was clear that we were only staying because no president wanted to be the first to lose a war. The standing joke was that we should simply declare victory and leave, which was essentially what we ultimately did.
The Civil War has never been like that, then or now. It has always had a story and there have always been people with an interest in denying that story. Shaara, though his Southerners are as human and sincere as his Yankees, deals throughout the book with their quietly cynical denial that slavery was the cause. The lie was incipient even during the war and still flourished in the South in the 1970’s. It probably still does.
People got hot about what you called the war in those days. I remember my father “explaining” to me when I was a kid that it is “The Civil War” and not the goddamn “War Between the States” when I innocently used the name for it I’d heard in school. Fifty years later I can still remember him pounding his fist on the table as he patiently “explained” it. People cared back then because “War Between the States” meant it was about a high minded struggle over the rights of the states v federal rights, while “Civil War” meant it was about the righteous use of force to abolish a monstrous institution. The gap is unbridgeable.
What it was about for the Union is expressed succinctly by Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 The Battle Hymn of The Republic. She wrote it at the beginning of the war and it was wildly popular. Its climactic line is “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Can you get any clearer than that?
It was a rawer issue then. It seems like ancient history now, but in the 1970’s, although there were no former slaves still alive, there were plenty of people around whose parents had been slaves. The children of slaves are all gone now, but a child who was a slave at the end of the Civil War could easily have had children who would have been no older than I am now in 1974. It’s not that long ago. There were plenty of people around then who’d known family members who had been slaves as adults. My own grandparents were alive then, and they knew Americans who’d been slaves.
It was the same on the White side, too. The Civil War vets were all dead by 1974, but plenty of old people in the South had personally known old geezers who’d fought the Yankees. The South kept it alive in a way that the North did not. The War (other than Gettysburg) wasn’t fought in the North, and the North was never a country of one people, the way the White South was. From the very first, the Civil War has been a part of Southern identity in a way it has never been for the North.
The absence of the word “slavery” from the Southern discourse is a recurring theme in The Killer Angels, in that the Southerners always call their slaves “servants” and fight only for “their rats,” never to preserve “their peculiar institution.” Yet, throughout the book, the Yankees, though many have never seen a black person, know exactly what the War is about. Surely the most beloved character in the book is Joshua Chamberlain, at the time an idealistic young college professor turned Union officer who is placed by fate on the extreme left of the Union lines, a point from which the retreat of his men could mean the loss of the entire Union position. It is Chamberlain who gives the novel’s most eloquent expression of the almost holy mission of the North to extirpate slavery, and his Sancho Panza, a hard-drinking Irish career sergeant, gives the working man’s version of the same views. It’s not a pro-Confederacy book.
It is a feature of modern wars—and the Civil War is arguably the first major modern war—that they are rarely won or lost by any one battle. Modern economies and militaries are simply too large for a single battle, however devastating, knock a country out. Modern countries generally have to be beaten into exhaustion but Gettysburg came within a whisker of being an exception to the rule. Until that battle, the South might still have won, perhaps even within days, had Lee withdrawn and instead, maneuvered his army between the Union forces and the Washington DC. Support for the war in the North was never perfect; the South probably never could have beaten the Union, but seizing the Capitol might have been enough to bring a negotiated peace. Instead, Lee bets the farm on Gettysburg, and the magnitude of the loss and the consequent loss of the ability of the South to threaten Washington DC meant that, although the killing was only half over, the defeat of the Confederacy was all but inevitable.
The battle continues to fascinate students of war because again and again, it turned on the actions or choices of a single person: Union General John Buford’s lonely decision to make a stand on the Chancellorsville road committed both sides to battle and fatally stalled Lee’s advance; Buford’s actions were possible because of J.E.B. Stuart’s failure to remain in contact with Lee’s army, which left the Confederate forces to blindly stumble into battle on ground chosen by the enemy; Chamberlain’s heroic decision, his regiment out of ammunition and vastly outnumbered, to charge against a vastly superior attacking force instead of retreating, thereby saving the Union left flank, very likely the battle, and possibly the entire war (the action earned him the Medal of Honor); and ultimately, Lee’s decision, passionately opposed by Longstreet, to bet everything on an impossible charge uphill against the heavily defended Union Center (the famous Picket’s Charge was part of this attack.)
In July of 1963, The Union Army and the Union’s industrial capacity were growing by the day, and manpower, in which the North had always had a large advantage, was swelling with the flood tide of Irish immigration, even as the Southern economy and manpower were dwindling. This was no secret to the Southern leadership; the invasion of the North was an admission of as much, a desperate, last gamble. For the South, there was no real hope of winning after that, just two long years of not knowing when to quit.
No history of an event of such magnitude can ever be without bias, nor should it be—the point of history is to find meaning, not simply to lay out the facts. What would simply laying out the facts even mean? Which facts? Which versions of which facts? There are too many of them, and even if you could somehow lay them all out neutrally, what good would it do? Neutral reporting of raw facts would only shift the burden of finding meaning among them from the semi-qualified author to the entirely unqualified reader.
It would be a great shame if this book lost it’s audience because it doesn’t attempt to put 21st Century political platitudes into the mouths of 19th Century soldiers. It was never a book for the South—it acknowledges the humanity of the Southerners, but it celebrates the victory of the Yankees, the preservation of the Union, and the extirpation of slavery. It is worth remembering that while slavery flourished in 19th Century America, so did the Abolishonist Movement and the country’s willingness to fight a devastating war to suppress it. We should remember that.