Better Angels: How the Civil War Novel ‘Killer Angels’ Displays Our Current Divisions
by
Edwin Forbes, View from the summit of Little Round Top at 7:30 p.m. during the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3rd, 1863, Oil on paper. Image: Shutterstock.com
This Independence Day, many of us will be enjoying good food, good company — and maybe even a good book. If you’re looking for something to read over the long weekend, I can think of no better choice than Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.

Written in 1974, Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes the reader to the bloodiest battle on American soil — a battle that ended, ironically enough, on the eve of Independence Day, 1863. As its paradoxical title implies, the novel seeks to display the divisions underlying this part of America’s past. Shaara’s characters show us the enduring tension in political life between unity and diversity — a tension we grapple with to this very day.

Cosmopolitans versus Nationalists. In The Killer Angels, the Union army embodies cosmopolitan diversity, combining “a polyglot mass of vastly dissimilar men,” including “strange accents and strange religions and many who do not speak English at all.” They share little except their humanity. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain articulates cosmopolitanism’s internationalist unity. He thinks that “there was really no such thing as a foreigner.” Instead, he sees himself as committed to the Union cause not as a form of “patriotism” but as “a new faith” in the “dignity of man.” Chamberlain does love America. But he loves it not because it is his own, but because it recognizes this dignity.

The South, by contrast, embodies a certain kind of nationalism. Unlike the Union army, the Confederate army shares an Anglo-Saxon ethnic background, a Protestant religion, and the English language. Yet within this shared heritage, they also celebrate a kind of diversity. These Southerners see their home as their distinct state. General Robert E. Lee articulates this nationalism when he recognizes that he fought for “no ideal and no justice,” but “for his people, for the children, and the kin,” because “they were his own, he belonged with his own.” In other words, Southerners love their diverse homes not solely based on right or wrong, but because they are their own. This Fourth of July, many of us find ourselves asking the same questions: Do we light fireworks, grill hot dogs, and watch baseball because America is our home — or because she is the land of freedom?

Common Men versus Elites. Another current expression of the divide comes along the lines of social and economic class. Here, again, the North stands for unity. They do so by emphasizing equality between men — an issue that runs far deeper than the enslavement of African Americans. The Southern aristocracy repels the Union soldiers. Chamberlain chastises “the curse of nobility” and rejoices at the opportunity to crush a “new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men” that the South has produced. Kilrain, an Irish-born soldier, says, “It’s the aristocracy I’m after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a cockroach.” It’s snobbery they react to — a snobbery that many a modern Midwesterner has felt from coastal elites.

By contrast, the South affirms hierarchy. Arthur Fremantle, a Brit accompanying the Rebel army, lauds the Southern leaders as “all gentlemen.” As in the old country, they understand the refining effect a nobility has on a nation. Fremantle goes on to highlight the hypocrisy of the North. Regardless of its principles, the North does recognize an aristocracy. It is not, however, an aristocracy of education, virtue, and kindness; among the Yankees “the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth.” Unwilling to consciously cultivate its best people — those whom we might call “experts” or “insiders” today — they instead allow a wild, degraded aristocracy to spring up on its own.

Me versus We. The most pronounced division between the two armies, however, is whether they emphasize the individual or the community. The Union represents the claims of the individual. Chamberlain tells Union soldiers, “Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was,” and Kilrain declares, “You cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a peawit. You take men one at a time.”

The South, on the other hand, emphasizes the collective. The connection to family, to home, bolsters individuals’ virtues. Generals Lewis Armistead and Robert E. Lee are both described as “old family, Virginia gentlem[en], m[en] of honor, m[en] of duty.” For the Southerners, the first two markers help define and sustain the last two traits. Cultivation and expectation form a powerful education in virtue.

The Killer Angels does more than tell the riveting story of the tenacious stand at Little Round Top or the fated glory of Pickett’s Charge. It touches upon political debates both perpetual and prescient. Critically, Shaara refuses to take one side. Each perspective calls the other to a fuller understanding of unity and diversity. The North calls the South to better recognize the individual equality and liberty that inheres in all humans, regardless of birth, race, or geography. We must be wary of conventional hierarchy and celebrate each man’s excellence. The South demands of the North an affirmation of responsibility and community. Our different virtues and backgrounds entail obligation, not merely reward. And no matter how much we might like to escape, we ever remain bound by ties we don’t choose — ties that can help instill good in us, often in spite of ourselves.

It’s an even-handed approach we’d do well to embrace. In today’s bitter feuds, such celebrations like the Fourth of July serve as one more avenue to angrily dispute who we have been, who we are, and who we should be. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln called on all citizens, regardless of which side they took in the war, to hear and live up to “the better angels of our nature.” Reading The Killer Angels, we’re given a glimpse of what it looks like when we don’t — and reminded why it’s so urgent that we do.

Adam Carrington is assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College.

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