Though he makes sparing use of the image, Shaara uses angels to symbolize humanity’s potential for both transcendence and atrocity. As a schoolboy, Joshua Chamberlain had delivered Hamlet’s soliloquy including the line, “What a piece of work is man … in action how like an angel!” In response, Chamberlain’s father had joked, “…[I]f he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” Chamberlain had then written an oration titled “Man, the Killer Angel.” Though Chamberlain does not elaborate on the content of the oration, his experiences at Gettysburg cover the spectrum of human potential—mercy to mutineers, murderous anger at enemies, bravery at Little Round Top, prejudice and compassion toward an escaped slave—and suggest what it looks like for a human being to be endowed with such vast “angelic” capacities.
While scouting Cemetery Hill, cavalryman John Buford spots a white angel statue in the quiet cemetery overlooking Gettysburg, its “arms uplifted, [with] a stony sadness.” The sight brings him an unexplained comfort. After the battle, Chamberlain sits atop Cemetery Hill himself and watches bodies being laid out with care on the field below. Compassionately, he thinks of the deceased as “Killer Angels”—embodying the paradox of such a term himself, as a soldier feeling pity and love toward his enemies.
Angels Quotes in The Killer Angels
“But the morale is simply amazing. Really is. Never saw anything like it in the old army. They’re off on a holy war. The Crusades must have been a little like this. Wish I’d a been there. Seen old Richard and the rest.”
Longstreet said, “They never took Jerusalem.”
“It takes a bit more than morale,” Longstreet said.
“Oh sure.” But Longstreet was always gloomy. “Well, anyhow, I’ve never seen anything like this. The Old Man’s accomplishment. Incredible. His presence is everywhere. They hush when he passes, like an angel of the Lord. You ever see anything like it?”
Once Chamberlain had a speech memorized from Shakespeare and gave it proudly, the old man listening but not looking, and Chamberlain remembered it still: “What a piece of work is man … in action how like an angel!” And the old man, grinning, had scratched his head and then said stiffly, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” And Chamberlain had gone on to school to make an oration on the subject: Man, the Killer Angel.