While many characters in the book are fired by supposedly unshakeable beliefs, Shaara uses two main figures to explore the ways in which the Civil War tested the ideals of belligerents on both sides. Despite Chamberlain’s passionate commitment to “freedom” in the abstract, he has never met a slave. And in the process of his own disillusionment, Longstreet realizes that the Confederates’ idolizing of Lee has hindered their ability to fight the war effectively. Through these two figures, Shaara demonstrates that ideals alone could not sustain either side, and that, while all ideals are not equal, idealism is inevitably refined and sometimes abandoned when it collides with the realities of war.
Chamberlain gives voice to the loftiest ideals in the book: namely, that all human beings are inherently equal, and that the war is being fought to ensure that slavery and aristocracy cannot maintain a foothold in a country founded on principles of freedom. Yet however noble, his beliefs at times prove detached from earthy realities.
While considering how to deal with a large group of Maine soldiers who are refusing to fight any longer, Chamberlain reflects that his deepest faith is not in God, but in America: “true freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth […] And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.” In his speech to the soldiers, he later goes on to say, “freedom…is not just a word […] It’s the idea that we all have value […] I’m not asking you to come join us and fight for dirt. What we’re all fighting for, in the end, is each other.”
Yet Chamberlain ultimately faces surprising tests of his ideals. When his regiment encounters an injured escaped slave—the first black person most of them have ever seen—Chamberlain is appalled to find himself hesitant to touch the man (“an unmistakable revulsion […] He had not expected this feeling. He had not even known this feeling was there”). Until now, Chamberlain has not been forced to test his lofty ideals on the ground.
Kilrain, a father figure for Chamberlain, forces him to further refine his ideals. Chamberlain has described his anger when talking with Southern supporters of slavery: “I had one of those moments when you feel that if the rest of the world is right, then you yourself have gone mad […] I realized for the first time that if it was necessary to kill them, then I would kill them.” Kilrain admires Chamberlain’s fierce commitment to his cause, yet tells him, “The strange and marvelous thing about you […] is that you believe in mankind […] whereas when you’ve got my great experience of the world you will have learned that good men are rare.” Chamberlain’s love for abstract humanity, Kilrain suggests, will undergo refinement the more he deals with concrete human beings.
On the final day in Gettysburg, as Chamberlain overlooks the carnage of the battle, “it seemed very strange now to think of morality […] or that strange runaway black.” He feels “an extraordinary admiration” and “a violent pity” for the Confederates who died, even “an appalling thrill” as he looks forward to inevitable further battles. Not long ago, Chamberlain had felt ready to kill these very men in anger. While his willingness to fight hasn’t flagged, and he doesn’t abandon the Northern cause, he finds a new respect for his enemies as human beings, not as mere representatives of a cause he hates.
When Tom asks, “How can they fight so hard, them Johnnies, and all for slavery?” Chamberlain is startled by the question; “when the guns began firing he had forgotten [the Cause] completely.” Chamberlain agrees with his brother that he cannot understand the Confederates’ “political fast-talking” around the issue of slavery, yet he is unable to feel hatred toward them. Even if his commitment to the ideal of freedom hasn’t wavered, his understanding of freedom has become both more specific (that is, tied to the plight of the escaped slave) and less couched in morally superior terms. He can’t fathom what is in the hearts of his enemies, but the events of battle have shown him that he doesn’t entirely understand his own heart and motivations, either.
General Lee, for his part, is the embodiment of Confederate ideals. Longstreet’s crisis of conscience regarding Lee, and his ultimate loss of faith in his father figure, thus represents the failure of those ideals. Talking with Longstreet about Southern troops’ high spirits, Armistead marvels, “The morale is simply amazing […] They’re off on a Holy War. The Crusades must have been a little like this.” When a skeptical Longstreet points out that the crusaders never took Jerusalem and that more than morale is needed, Armistead brushes off the objection, lauding Lee’s accomplishment. The General’s “presence is everywhere. They hush when he passes, like an angel of the Lord.”
Longstreet is not moved by talk of a “holy war” or of the confederate Cause. As a professional soldier, the “cause” for him is “Victory.” Having grown up with many of the soldiers he is now fighting, Longstreet finds the war “a nightmare in which you chose your nightmare side. Once chosen, you put your head down and went on to win.” But he admonishes himself to silence such thoughts. He can’t yet bring himself to openly question Lee, even to himself.
Though Longstreet has never been as wedded to the Southern cause as his peers, and he even disagreed with Lee about invading the North, he has always ultimately believed in Lee. When Lee, reluctant to act on the intelligence of a paid spy, finally agrees to concentrate the army around Gettysburg, Longstreet takes it as confirmation of Lee’s wisdom, thinking, “Trust the old man to move.” Having lost his faith in the aftermath of his children’s deaths, Longstreet tells himself that “he even had the father, in place of God: old Robert Lee. Rest with that.” And it is his longstanding trust in and admiration of Lee that repeatedly silences him when he has opportunities to speak against Lee’s plans for offensive attack. On the eve of the final day of battle, the affection, weariness, and “vision of victory” in Lee’s eyes destroys Longstreet’s defenses, and he cannot summon the angry words that had filled his mind moments earlier.
The night before the last Confederate offensive, Lee tries to embolden Longstreet to total commitment to the Southern cause, whatever the losses may be: “That is the trap. You can hold nothing back when you attack […] And yet, if they all die, a man must ask himself, will it have been worth it?” Longstreet realizes that Lee does not understand his motivations in arguing for defensive warfare. Later, Longstreet can’t hold back his disillusionment in an outburst to Fremantle: “The secret of General Lee is that men love him and follow him with faith in him […] God in heaven, there’s no strategy to this bloody war. [It’s] old Napoleon and a hell of a lot of chivalry.” He adds that if the Confederates win, “it will be a bloody miracle.”
Shocked by his own words, Longstreet pictures Lee’s face and suddenly remembers the day in church when he lost his faith in God, knowing “in that moment that there was no one there, no one to listen.” He tells himself to stop thinking, as his doubts are “like heresy.” Longstreet tries a final time to dissuade Lee from an offensive, but Lee orders him to attack anyway, which Longstreet does in despair. After the defeat, Longstreet “knew that he would never forgive the old man, never.”
Both Chamberlain and Longstreet have their ideals humanized over the course of the war. Chamberlain faces illiberal tendencies in his own heart when he meets people unlike himself, and Longstreet lets go of the godlike status Lee has occupied in his life. Both realize that, however fervent their loyalties, they must reckon with the failures and contingencies of human nature. It is not accidental on Shaara’s part that Chamberlain’s ideals, while chastened by experience, appear to survive the testing of the battlefield, while Longstreet’s do not; the novel ultimately argues that Chamberlain’s view of human equality is an ideal worth continually fighting for, while the ideals embodied by Lee must be laid to rest.
Idealism vs. Disillusionment ThemeTracker
Idealism vs. Disillusionment Quotes in The Killer Angels
The faith itself was simple: he believed in the dignity of man. His ancestors were Huguenots, refugees of a chained and bloody Europe. He had learned their stories in the cradle. He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God.
It wasn’t the dying. He had seen men die all his life, and death was the luck of the chance, the price you eventually paid. What was worse was the stupidity. The appalling sick stupidity that was so bad you thought sometimes you would go suddenly, violently, completely insane just having to watch it. It was a deadly thing to be thinking on. Job to be done here. And all of it turns on faith.
“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.
It was Longstreet’s curse to see the thing clearly. He was a brilliant man who was slow in speech and slow to move and silent-faced as stone. He had not the power to convince.
He had tears in his eyes. Turn away from that. He mastered it. What he had left was the army. The boys were here. He even had the father, in place of God: old Robert Lee. Rest with that, abide with that.
“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.”
He felt a slow deep flow of sympathy. To be alien and alone, among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and states’ rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What did he know of the war? And yet he was truly what it was all about. It simplified to that. Seen in the flesh, the cause of the war was brutally clear.
What I’m fighting for is the right to prove I’m a better man than many. Where have you seen this divine spark in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? … There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice.
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.”
He remembered that day in church when he prayed from the soul and listened and knew in that moment that there was no one there, no one to listen.
Don’t think on these things. Keep an orderly mind. This stuff is like heresy.
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.
“You were right. And I was wrong. And now you must help me see what must be done. Help us to see. I become … very tired.”
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.”