The Best Book Ever Written About the Civil War: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Reviewed by Jon Thompson
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: On January 12, 2005, the subject of The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable’s annual Dick Crews Debate was “What is the best book ever written about the Civil War?” The article below is the text from one of five presentations made that evening.

Best book? Does that mean best research? Best scope? Best style? Biggest audience? Best reviews?

General Grant once said that in most battles two sides hammer at one another, and then the victory would usually go to the side that could put together just one more assault, one more attack. Now think about that! If we asked Grant to name the best Civil War book, he would stare at us with a twinkle in his eye and say, “The Little Engine That Could.”

I considered defending Bruce Catton’s two-volume biography of Grant for its narrative style and impeccable research, but rejected it since Catton’s A Stillness At Appomattox had already been selected, and we didn’t need to debate two books by Catton.

I considered defending Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body for its beautiful language. Raise your hand if you have read it. That’s exactly why I rejected it…too few have read it.

I considered defending Frank Haskell’s A Narrative Account of Gettysburg, written just weeks after the battle, but rejected it because the style is stilted and it’s a laborious read.

Thus, I selected Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of 1974, The Killer Angels.

Why do I believe The Killer Angels is the best book ever written about the Civil War?

Because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Pretty deep, huh? Wonder where we got that bit of wisdom? Jefferson? Franklin? No, it was Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Heaven help the society that takes its wisdom from movies.

But really, it’s simple reasoning. We in this room are passionate about the Civil War, but what about those poor souls out there, millions of them, who don’t even know there was a Civil War? We walk proudly in the light of the true knowledge, while they stumble pathetically in the darkness.

My friends, history must be made palatable. Not inaccurate, not exaggerated, but palatable. And The Killer Angels makes history palatable.

The Killer Angels was published more than one hundred years after the Battle of Gettysburg…and in just a few short years sold more than two and a half million copies!

Why? Because it describes Civil War combat as no other book ever has: vividly, graphically, and accurately…

Because it takes the reader into the minds and hearts of the soldiers, to know their thoughts and feel their emotions, to know their ideas and ideals, their fears and frustrations, their dedication, their courage, their sense of duty…

Because it tells the story from both sides and, therefore, appeals to both sides…

Because you feel what it must have been like on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863…

Because you feel what it must have been like to march with Pickett’s Virginians on July 3rd, 1863…

Because it has a human touch that other Civil War books lack…

Because it captures the glory and the horror and the heartbreak that is war!

The Killer Angels takes the reader to Gettysburg and makes the reader privy to the thoughts and conversations of the soldiers. Shaara used the words of the men, themselves, and drew from their letters and documents. Yet he discloses to the reader only as much as they knew at the time…and apparently none of them knew very much. Historians peruse the events, both passionately and dispassionately, at their leisure through the years. But battles are fought by mortal men, using only the knowledge and resources available to them in that compressed moment of time.

The Killer Angels lets the reader experience and feel those pressures, frustrations, and limitations that the real soldiers faced.

One critic said that The Killer Angels is a great work of historical fiction, but fiction is not and never will be history itself. I should hope not, for the storyteller possesses the immense power to capture the imagination of the reader. To get people to read history, you must excite them about history! And that’s what The Killer Angels does!

I have truly lost count of the number of books I have read about Gettysburg. But I have never forgotten the first book I read about Gettysburg: The Killer Angels.

A final nugget of wisdom. As some of you know, I teach language arts to eighth graders. Perhaps the most overused sentence in an eighth grade book review is: it made me feel like I was right there! Ah, from the mouths of babes.

Don’t ever tell my students what I am about to say. The Killer Angels makes you feel like you’re right there…at Gettysburg…fighting the Civil War.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

From the publisher: In the four most bloody and courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies fought for two conflicting dreams. One dreamed of freedom, the other of a way of life. Far more than rifles and bullets were carried into battle. There were memories. There were promises. There was love. And far more than men fell on those Pennsylvania fields. Bright futures, untested innocence, and pristine beauty were also the casualties of war. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece is unique, sweeping, unforgettable—the dramatic story of the battleground for America’s destiny.