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 Longstreet a hero of the novel. 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.[1] 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.”[2] Shaara’s sympathetic treatment of him in The Killer Angels almost single-handedly resurrected public interest in Longstreet’s controversial career.[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

“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 Hartwig.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] “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.[11] 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.[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14]

“This is pure fiction,” says Hartwig.[15] 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 newest 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.”[16]

Nonetheless, Shaara professes to engage in “painstaking (and voluminous)” research, making “a strenuous effort to be historically accurate, to get the facts straight.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.”[19] 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


[1] Dick Ewell, like Longstreet, has been roundly blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because of his failure to take Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. It is perhaps the most second-guessed decision of the war. Shaara squarely comes down on the side of Ewell’s critics, which results in one of my favorite scenes in the novel when General Isaac Trimble rages to Lee about Ewell’s weakness (pp. 140-2). Although I love the scene, I actually side with Ewell, who made a smart choice. (See my cover story for the August 2010 issue of Civil War Times, “Richard Ewell at Gettysburg”: http://www.historynet.com/richard-ewell-at-gettysburg.htm.)

[2] Hartwig, 34.

[3] Desjardin, 182.

[4] Michael Shaara, 210.

[5] Desjardin, 146. His chapter “Constructing the Consummate Gettysburg Hero” outlines the curious growth of the Chamberlain myth.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hartwig, 1.

[9] Hartwig, v.

[10] For more on Kilrain, see “Steve Earle, ‘Dixieland,’ and the Irresistible Charm of Buster Kilrain” on 1 September 2011 at Emerging Civil War: http://emergingcivilwar.com/2011/09/01/steve-earle-dixieland-and-the-charm-of-buster-kilrain

[11] Desjardin, 179. Along those same lines, readers of Cold Mountain seem willing to exercise similar tolerance for the deeply thoughtful Inman. “All this philosophizing seems rather unlikely for a twenty-five-year-old farmer from the North Carolina mountains,” says historian Ray Morris. Likewise, “[b]elieving that a seriously wounded soldier was able to cover such an improbable distance requires a tolerance for artistic license,” Paul Ashdown adds–yet the real-life Inman did make the 550-mile trek. (A Cold Mountain Companion, pp. 13, 45-46.)

[12] Michael Shaara 178-179.

[13] Michael Shaara, 282.

[14] Michael Shaara, 311.

[15] Hartwig, 22.

[16] Shaara, Jeff. A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh. New York: Ballantine Books, 2012. Pg. xi-xii.

[17] Jeff Shaara, Blaze, xii.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jeff Shaara, Gods, x.

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

  1. Tom says:

    Quite good analysis! I enjoyed Killer Angels, but noted some of the inaccuracies. Still, for most people, it is the closest thing to a history book they will ever get! ;)

    • Thanks, Tom. I agree, Killer Angels is a fantastic novel. As a work of art, it’s fantastic; as a work of history, it’s flawed. The tension there, though, isn’t the fault of the readers. I think it’s actually more on us, as historians, who hold art up to standards we shouldn’t, and we often get annoyed at readers who don’t know any better (well, not every historian does, but a lot of them do). It’s a matter of overcoming some professional biases and unfair expectations, I think.

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