The Killer Angels: Theme Analysis
As revealed in the disagreement between Longstreet and Lee, there is a difference in approach to military tactics. Longstreet has studied the art of war and is convinced that defensive warfare is now the best strategy. Because of the development of weaponry, offensive tactics result in too many casualties for the attacker. It is better to defend and lure the attacker in. Longstreet has even invented a “transverse trench” to serve defensive tactics but has not yet persuaded anyone to make use of it. (He does not explain what it is.) Longstreet thinks the war is being fought in an old-fashioned way, with tactics echoing the Napoleonic era from fifty years ago. He does not think highly of these outmoded methods and the myths of glory they embody. “They all ride to glory, all the plumed knights” (p. 270), he thinks sarcastically of the Confederate officers who still believe in the old ways.
Longstreet’s fellow officers are not convinced that defensive tactics are worthwhile, and even think there is something “vaguely shameful” (p. 142) about them. Armistead concedes that Longstreet may in theory be correct, but he says that their particular army is ill-suited to “slow dull defense” (p. 69). All they know how to do is attack.
Lee is also reluctant to pursue a defensive approach. He did so in the defense of Richmond but was derisively referred to as the King of Spades (referring to the digging involved in preparing a position to defend). Lee’s instinct is to attack. However, on the second and again on the third day of battle, Lee’s offensive tactics backfire, and on each occasion the Confederate assault on the enemy position is repulsed, with heavy casualties. Longstreet is thus proved correct; his ongoing disagreement with Lee forms one of the main themes of the novel.
On the Union side, Buford is well versed in defensive warfare. He has no patience with the old-fashioned idea of the “glorious charge.” Buford has been in the Indian wars, and he knows that if the Indian faces a charge such as that, “he’d drop behind a rock or a stump and shoot your glorious head off as you went by” (pp. 43-44). Buford has made sure he has equipped his men with the latest weaponry, “repeating carbines” (p. 44), and he believes that even though they number only 2,500, if they dig in behind a fence they can hold off anyone for a while.
The splitting apart of North and South is brought home at the individual, human level, by the emphasis the novel places on how many of the officers and men involved on both sides are former comrades. Many fought together in the war against Mexico, from example, from 1846 to 1848. Longstreet confesses to Lee that he is troubled sometimes by the feeling that “They’re never quite the enemy, those boys in blue” (p. 201), and Lee understands his meaning. They used to command some of the very soldiers who are now fighting against them. In some cases, friendships continue across the North-South divide even though the dispute has come to war. This is illustrated by the friendship between the Confederate Armistead and the Union man, Hancock. Armistead once made an oath in which he asked God to strike him dead if he ever took up arms against his friend. Now, at Gettysburg, Armistead must charge a position defended by Hancock.
In other cases, families are divided by the war. On the Union side, John Gibbon, of Hancock’s Corps, has three brothers fighting on the Confederate side. Chamberlain thinks of Gibbon as he reflects on how he had to put his own brother Tom in danger to close up the line. “Killing of brothers. This whole war is concerned with the killing of brothers” (p. 325), he thinks. These interlocking relationships that span the warring sides give a vivid picture of the United States as a big family divided against itself.
Joy of Battle
Although the novel does not shirk from presenting in some detail the carnage of the war, it also reveals a paradox: with death all around them, and wounded soldiers screaming in pain, many of the participants feel a peculiar elation. They are not bloodthirsty, but they do love the experience of battle. This is most apparent in the figure of Joshua Chamberlain, who is as much in the thick of it as any soldier. He tells his brother Tom of the exhilaration he felt at the Battle of Fredericksburg. “There was an exultation, a huge delight: I was alive” (p. 294). Immediately after the successful bayonet charge of the Twentieth Maine, Chamberlain feels “an incredible joy” (p. 250).
Chamberlain is not the only character to exhibit such sentiments. As the battle starts on the final day, Pickett gestures toward the guns and says to Armistead, “Isn’t it marvelous?” (p. 333); Pickett regards war as “God’s greatest game.” In the thick of battle on that last day, Armistead, like Chamberlain, feels “a moment of incredible joy” (p. 348).
These sentiments contribute to the widespread feeling, apparent on both sides, that war can be a glorious, even beautiful thing, the death and destruction that it causes notwithstanding. It is notable, however, that two of the principal characters, Lee and Longstreet, do not express such a view.