The Killer Angels:
I quickly learned, when I lived in the USA, that only two wars really counted in the American historical imagination – the Vietnam War and the Civil War. The French expulsion of our German mercenaries, quaintly known as the War of Independence, has become a myth. The great conflicts which fascinate us, and fill our literature, are far less important. To my shame, I never made the time to make a proper study of the Civil War.
Years ago, hurrying for a train at Washington’s Union Station, and having nothing to read, I bought a book I’d vaguely heard of, because of its connection with a film I had meant to see but hadn’t. the book was Michael Shaara’s ‘Killer Angels’ , the film ‘Gettysburg’ , is so long I still haven’t found time to see it. But I usually pack the book on any journey to the USA, in case I feel like re-reading it. And, once again, thanks to the poor selection of in-flight films, I found myself doing so last week.
At the book’s opening, the reader is given a marvellous view of the war, as it were from the sky above it. The opposing armies, and the great differences between them, are movingly and lyrically described, in a way that explains the nature of the quarrel better than anything I have ever seen. Shaara cleverly permits himself personal sympathy with the supporters of the Confederacy – a cause he does not share. He makes their motivation and undoubted bravery far easier to understand , as a result.
He also notes, in a brief but surprisingly moving aside, that the countryside in which the decisive struggle of the Civil War developed and resolved itself was (and is) extraordinarily lovely. Why does this seem to matter so? In my experience wars are almost always fought over heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes, but there is something particularly idyllic about the America of the 1860s, modern yet still lost in a Sylvan peace that the Union victory would almost entirely end. Yiou can still find the ghost of it – particularly in Virginia, near Thomas Jefferson’s small but captivating house, Monticello. The eastward view in autumn, of wave after wave of wooded hills pouring towards the Atlantic, was called ‘My Sea View’ by Jefferson himself, and it is possible, while looking at it on a still afternoon, to think yourself in 18th century, when no man’s house was close enough for you to hear his dogs barking.
One of the joys of living in the Washington suburbs was being on the fringe of a far wilder, older America than the mess of malls, cineplexes, mass-produced housing and Beltways which choked the immediate capital area. You could easily escape to the Blue Ridge, that extraordinarily wistful and serene place, where you can still find unself-conscious flag-shaded small towns, white wooden houses amid trees, utterly American in the summer heat yet (beneath all the New World appearances) rather English too. But beyond all this lies the Shenandoah valley, as beautiful as its name, a dreamland of forest and slowly sliding river, the last intimate, small-scale piece of landscape before the country opens up into the great flatness of the Midwest, with the Mississippi beyond. .
The beauty of the Civil War battlefields is a very moving thing. Apart from a fleeting glimpse of Manassas/Bull Run (the South tends to call them by the names of the nearest town, the North by the name of the nearest watercourse, where there’s a choice) , I have only properly been to one, at Fredericksburg in Virginia, and it is shocking to see how small the scene is, where so much dreadful death was inflicted, so much courage shown. You can still sometimes find spent bullets, and very ugly things they are too. Once one of those had ripped through you, the butcher-surgeons of 1860 would not be able to do much , except more harm. It’s one of the great tragedies of modern times that people didn’t see, in the industrialised carnage of the 1860s, a warning of the war to come in 1914.
It was behind the Blue Ridge, and in the Shenandoah valley, that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved northwards towards Gettysburg in the sweaty June days of 1863. Meanwhile, the Union Army of the Potomac was heading northwards on the far side of the Blue Ridge. Both were destined to meet at Gettysburg, where we all – sort of – know what happened.
What Shaara does, in his rather brief book, is to portray the most important figures in each army, generously and carefully, as they approach their rendezvous. He lets us know what they knew and understood, and what they didn’t know and couldn’t possibly have known. He enters the minds of men of that age and time, not seeking to give the sensitivities and foreknowledge they could not possibly have, and trying as far as possible to sue the language they would have used. . He describes, with extraordinary power and economy, the effects on Lee of the heart disease that would eventually kill him, and which may well have affected his judgement and performance when battle came. I wonder if Shaara himself suffered from the same thing, since the description is so penetrating.
He inserts among them the rather comical figure of a British Guards officer (convinced that the Confederacy will win, and secretly appalled by the rough manners of the courtly Southerners – rough by Pall Mall standards, anyway – they keep shaking hands, for goodness’ sake) , an enjoyable device for explain some things that might otherwise have been hard to get into the narrative. And there is a beautiful comment on the oddities of British manners from a gruff Confederate officer – ‘Talk like ladies – fight like wildcats’ – which contains a world of baffled incomprehension. Yet the British officer is overwhelmed to find that General Lee is more or less an English gentleman, right down to being an Anglican.
From the defence of Little Round Top to the useless, beautiful failure of Pickett’s Charge, he describes the decisive and often very moving events of this more or less wholly bungled battle in such a way that I felt I understood it properly for the first time. What amazed me was just how poor a job the legendary Lee actually made, how badly he was served by several of his generals and how he wrongly ignored James Longstreet, who could have saved him from defeat, even if he couldn’t have turned it into a victory.
The emotions of battle, for some a heightened sense of being alive so joyous that they seek it again and again, for some an abrupt end, for some a welcome chance to pay a debt of honour through death, for some a storm of hopeless tears, are also well set down. And behind it all, he notes how in many cases those fighting had true friends fighting on the other side, whom they had to fight but hoped not to kill, and in many cases longed to meet again in friendship. Heaven spare any of us from another Civil War.
I would be proud if I could have written anything a quarter as good. And I’m now determined to go to Gettysburg itself one day, and walk the haunted fields myself . I foolishly dismissed it from my mind, when it was just a morning’s drive away, by persuading myself that it would be a tourist trap – when in fact I know perfectly well that the USA’s National Parks are tastefully and intelligently preserved by people who care very much about their country. There is always much to be learned in the places where history was made.
I’ll have to add The Killer Angels to my reading list. Here is Peter Hitchens’ review: