Questions as Theme
If another theme could be summed up in one word, it would be the question "Why?" The very fact that one of the major themes is a question is itself significant. It is a statement about war and about life. In both, there are more questions than answers. Life is uncertain. War is unfair. Both are confusing and at the mercy of things beyond your control. Ultimately, the only thing you can control is your reaction to it all. Based on who you are and what you feel, you make a choice of how to respond. Everything else is beyond our control, a question left in the hands of fate.
Some of the "whys" include:
Why write this book? The author mirrors the thoughts of Stephen Crane who explained that he wrote Red Badge of Courage because he "wanted to know what it was like to be there, what the weather was like, what men's faces looked like. In order to live it, he had to write it."
Shaara describes the heat of the day, the geography of the land, what the dust feels like on their faces as they march. He relates smells of death, sounds of battle, images of destroyed bodies. You see what they eat, what their clothes look like, and all the focused details that bring the reader into that place to "live" it.
Why explore that place? Through stories, you can magnify a portion of life, examine it in detail, and hope to understand something about it. In the struggles of a story, you see the struggles of your life. If you find answers to the problems of a story, you find answers to something about life. An immense story about a bloody battle with its extremes of emotion, conflict, and action may provide answers to some of the larger and more universal questions everyone faces.
Why the particular framework, events, and people? The framework allows the author to tell the story through the words and emotions of the men themselves. By fictionalizing the characters, Shaara can use their words, deeds, and thoughts to make them real and meaningful.
Shaara indicates that he avoided using any historical or military commentaries on the battle when he researched the novel. He wanted, instead, to feel it through the people that were there, so he used their letters and personal documents as sources.
The events selected are a result of the characters Shaara focuses on. Gettysburg was a huge battle with thousands of participants and hundreds of things happening at once. To try to show them all would make it impossible for the reader to feel any personal or emotional connection.
Instead, Shaara picks a few key characters to represent and portray the struggles, emotions, and story of the entire battle. The characters he chooses show the battle from both sides, from all levels of command, and from the sidelines as well as the middle of the fighting.
Why is this battle being fought? This theme is introduced in the first chapter, when you find out that Longstreet does not agree with the invasion. This thread runs through the entire book, affecting decisions and actions, especially those of Longstreet and Lee. It is a major source of conflict between the two men and is one of the biggest conflicts of the story itself.
The decision for the battle came in May 1863 when Lee and President Davis met in Richmond to discuss where the Confederate Army should focus next. Davis felt the West needed attention, especially Vicksburg, which was in danger from General Grant's troops. However, Lee felt it essential to keep up the pressure on the North, especially by attacking them on their own ground.
Many considered it risky, but Lee understood he could not hope to outlast the Union Army in terms of men or supplies. His philosophy was to strike boldly and offensively with a quick series of battles that would demoralize the Union. He felt that if he could win a decisive battle up North, the Union would quickly tire of the war and press for peace. Much discussion concerning the wisdom of Lee's plan has occurred, but nevertheless, he prevailed.
Why fight at Gettysburg? The element of chance is apparent here. Gettysburg as the location of this battle is really an accident, as shown by the series of events in the first few chapters.
The various army units of both sides are moving in the same direction. They end up dangerously close to each other, a fact neither side realizes until the last minute, when the conflict starts.
Why fight the Civil War? The Cause of the Civil War is another major theme in the book. The Southern understanding of the Cause is much different than most people's assumptions. To the men of the Confederacy, it is not about slavery. In fact, Lee himself has no slaves and does not believe in the institution. It is instead about freedom, about preserving the right of states to manage their own affairs and way of life. It is what we fought for in the American Revolution. In a lot of respects, if the Civil War is viewed with the same mindset as the Revolution, a case could be made for Jefferson Davis being right. Unfortunately for the South, everyone else perceives it to be about slavery, and this misperception prevents the South from obtaining much needed foreign help.
The Cause from the Northern perspective is revealed through the conversations and thoughts of Chamberlain and his men. The ironic thing to note here is that the North is also fighting for freedom. But it is freedom of the individual, not the state. The North is fighting for freedom from slavery, freedom to become whatever you can by your own hard work.
Shaara uses these differences in beliefs to characterize the people in his story. Lee's men will follow him anywhere for their Cause. Longstreet has no use for one. Chamberlain is nearly a zealot for his. These personal reactions define the people involved.
The reactions also show the sense of confusion and misunderstanding about the whole war. There is a sadness to it all. One has the feeling as the story progresses that if the two sides could have sat down calmly and really listened to each other, they might have heard a similar thing and worked out a peaceful solution. It only intensifies the sense of waste one feels by the end of the book over so much bloodshed and death.
Why call it The Killer Angels? The title originates with an incident in Chamberlain's childhood. Quoting Shakespeare to his father one day, Chamberlain delivers the lines, "What a piece of work is man . . . in action how like an angel." When his father reflects that if man is an angel he must be a murdering one, Chamberlain is inspired to prepare an oration for school on "Man, the Killer Angel."
Later, in conversations with Kilrain, a former sergeant in his regiment who is like a father to him, Chamberlain discusses his thoughts on the nature of man. Chamberlain sees each man as equal, possessing a "divine spark" that separates him from animals. Chamberlain is an idealist who still sees man as an angel. Kilrain, however, sees many a man as having no more worth than a dead dog.
At the end of the story, as he looks out over the field of dead bodies, Chamberlain remembers Kilrain's words and thinks back on Killer Angels. Chamberlain realizes he cannot agree, feeling strongly connected to all the men that day, regardless of side. He concludes instead that at least in the sight of God, they are all equal now.