Throughout The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s historical novel set during the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg, the notion of honor manifests on personal and cultural levels—especially in the Confederate Army. In Southern culture, so important is maintaining one’s honor that an accusation of cowardice compels General Dick Garnett to seek redemption through certain death. Similarly, no matter how wise the arguments of Confederate second-in-command James Longstreet for defensive warfare, General Robert E. Lee is unmoved, because he believes that a man of honor cannot turn his back to his enemy. Shaara critiques this understanding of honor as an inflexible code that defies wisdom and logic, ultimately reaping needless death for those who rigidly adhere to it.
Before the novel begins, Dick Garnett, commander of the Confederacy’s Stonewall Brigade, had withdrawn his troops from the First Battle of Kernstown without Stonewall Jackson’s orders. Jackson, one of the most revered Confederate generals, had threatened to court martial Garnett, but in May of 1863—less than two months before the novel begins—Jackson died before a court-martial could be carried out. Because Jackson’s charge of cowardice can now never be resolved, Garnett is effectively the walking dead; he knows he can only redeem himself by dying bravely in battle, and this inexorable code of honor prevents anyone from talking Garnett out of it.
Longstreet entrusts Garnett with one of Major General George Pickett’s brigades, but this is not enough to “redeem” Garnett in his own eyes, or in the eyes of many other Confederates. His “honor was compromised,” Shaara writes, “and he had not recovered from the stain, and in this company there were many men who would never let him recover.” Once lost, honor is something that cannot be easily restored, if it can be restored at all; even a gesture of confidence like Longstreet’s is not sufficient to cleanse the marks of dishonor.
In conversation with Fremantle, a British observer traveling with Lee’s army, Longstreet reiterates that Garnett is “no coward. But his honor is gone […] So now Garnett will have to die bravely to erase the stain.” Longstreet observes that Fremantle regards this as “the only thing for a gentleman to do.” As such, Garnett makes the suicidal choice to ride his horse into battle, making himself a prime target. Lewis Armistead, his fellow brigade commander, nearly weeps at this, but cannot dissuade Garnett because “honor [was] at stake […] he had to prove once and for all his honor, because there was Jackson’s charge, never answered, still in the air wherever Garnett moved.” Pickett, in turn, refuses to order Garnett not to ride. Garnett rides accordingly and dies as expected.
Honor manifests on less personal, though no less consequential, levels throughout the novel as well. For one thing, it shapes Lee’s battle decisions and renders him immoveable in the face of Longstreet’s arguments for defensive warfare. Longstreet’s forward-looking theories are regarded as an affront to Lee’s, and by extension even the army’s, sense of honor. Defensive warfare was not widely accepted by military leaders at the time because it advocated digging securely into a position of the army’s choosing and waiting to be attacked by the enemy, rather than proactively attacking (going on the offensive). While admitting Longstreet’s tactical genius, Armistead warns him, “this ain’t the army for it. We aren’t bred for the defense. And the Old Man […] is just plain, well, too proud.” He brings up the Richmond newspapers’ mockery of Lee’s previous attempt to dig trenches as a lingering wound for Lee, a “stain on the old honor.” Longstreet acknowledges this, reflecting that, nonetheless, “there was danger in [Lee’s attitude]; there was even something dangerous in Lee.”
Later, Longstreet attempts to explain this foreboding to a bewildered Fremantle. “Honor without intelligence is a disaster,” he says with uncharacteristic forthrightness; “honor could lose the war […] I appreciate honor and bravery and courage […] But the point of war is not to show how brave you are.” He goes on to describe the changing norms of warfare and how much deadlier the offensive has become to little avail; “like all Englishmen, and most Southerners, Fremantle would rather lose the war than his dignity.”
Still later, Longstreet is dismayed by Lee’s speech to him defending the necessity of going on the offensive, as Lee seems to think that Longstreet is mainly afraid of losing men. On the contrary, Longstreet’s “only fear was not of death, was not of the war, was of blind stupid human frailty, of blind proud foolishness that could lose it all.”
In his private reflections, Lee is aware that his tactics are tied to his sense of honor. “He had known all along that retreat was simply no longer an alternative, the way a man of honor knows that when he […] sees the blood of the enemy, a man of honor can no longer turn away. So he would stay. And therefore, he would attack.” In making the decision to send his men on the offensive, Lee justifies the move in part because “the men came here ready to die for what they believed in, for their homes and their honor, and although it was often a terrible death it was always an honorable death.”
Lee’s personal conception of honor is thus tinged with a conscious sense of inevitable tragedy. On the eve of the final engagement, Lee reflects that by breaking his oath to defend the United States, he has acted dishonorably in a certain sense and will suffer the consequences; but in another sense, he could not have acted otherwise, lest he go against home and kin. “There had never been an alternative except to run away,” he tells himself, “and he could not do that.”
Longstreet’s bitter resignation sums up Shaara’s argument that to cling too rigidly to honor is folly. Honor is a force unto itself, in Garnett’s case “unturnable, ridiculous […] a festering, unseen wound.” Garnett’s death demonstrates on a personal scale the deadly potential of honor slavishly upheld. The incomprehension of the dignity-conscious foreigner Fremantle, meanwhile, contrasts with Longstreet’s mounting despair as he realizes that, for Lee and most Southerners, preserving honor outweighs the realities of the battlefield. The story’s dramatic irony turns on the fact that Lee’s conception of honor dooms the Confederates to failure; none of Longstreet’s arguments sway Lee, because Lee is committed to a code of behavior that is more important to him than victory, even more important than his own or his men’s survival.
Honor Quotes in The Killer Angels
War has changed, Lewis. They all expect one smashing victory. Waterloo and all that. But I think that kind of war is over. We have trenches now. And it’s a different thing, you know, to ask a man to fight from a trench. Any man can charge briefly in the morning. But to ask a man to fight from a trench, day after day …
“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.
“Honor,” he said. “Honor without intelligence is a disaster. Honor could lose the war.”
Fremantle was vaguely shocked.
“Listen. Let me tell you something. I appreciate honor and bravery and courage. Before God … but the point of the war is not to show how brave you are and how you can die in a manly fashion, face to the enemy. God knows it’s easy to die. Anybody can die.”
The Northerner doesn’t give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country. He hates the Old Country … [T]he South is the Old Country. They haven’t left Europe. They’ve merely transplanted it. And that’s what the war is about.
“They’re never quite the enemy, those boys in blue … Swore an oath too,” Longstreet said. He shook his head violently. Strange thought to have, at the moment. “I must say, there are times when I’m troubled. But … couldn’t fight against home. Not against your own family. And yet … we broke the vow.”
Lee said, “Let’s not think on this today.”
“Yes,” Longstreet said. There was a moment of dusty silence. He grumbled to himself: why did you start that? Why talk about that now? Damn fool.
Then Lee said, “There was a higher duty to Virginia. That was the first duty. There was never any doubt about that.”
“Guess not,” Longstreet said. But we broke the vow.
Lee said, “The issue is in God’s hands. We will live with His decision, whichever way it goes.”
Longstreet said, “It wasn’t that close.” But Lee’s eyes were gazing by him at a vision of victory. Longstreet said nothing. He rubbed his mouth. Lee’s eyes strange: so dark and soft. Longstreet could say nothing. In the presence of the Commander the right words would not come.
“God in Heaven,” Longstreet said, and repeated it, “there’s no strategy to this bloody war. What it is is old Napoleon and a hell of a lot of chivalry. That’s all it is.”
When Virginia left the Union she bore his home away as surely as if she were a ship setting out to sea, and what was left behind on the shore was not his any more. So it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of them were, they were his own, he belonged with his own. And so he took up arms willfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his own sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once sworn to defend, sworn in honor…
He could not retreat now. It might be the clever thing to do, but cleverness did not win victories; the bright combinations rarely worked. You won because the men thought they would win, attacked with courage, attacked with faith, and it was the faith more than anything else you had to protect; that was one thing that was in your hands, and so you could not ask them to leave the field to the enemy.
After a while Lee came. Longstreet did not want to see him. But the old man came in a cluster of men, outlined under that dark and ominous sky, the lightning blazing beyond his head. Men were again holding the bridle of the horse, talking to him, pleading; there was something oddly biblical about it, and yet even here in the dusk of defeat there was something else in the air around him; the man brought strength with his presence: doomed and defeated, he brought nonetheless a certain majesty. And Longstreet, knowing that he would never quite forgive him, stood to meet him.
Tom said, “When you ask them prisoners, they never talk about slavery. But, Lawrence, how do you explain that? What else is the war about?”
Chamberlain shook his head.
“If it weren’t for the slaves, there’d never have been no war, now would there?”
“No,” Chamberlain said.
“Well then, I don’t care how much political fast-talking you hear, that’s what it’s all about and that’s what them fellers died for, and I tell you, Lawrence, I don’t understand it at all.”