Shaara portrays the battle of Gettysburg as a pivotal juncture not only for the Civil War, but for history more broadly. This is done in two major ways throughout the story: first, through characters’ competing visions for what American culture is or should become, and second, through Lee’s and Longstreet’s competing visions for how to conduct the war. Lee’s vision is connected to an older, “gentlemanly,” honor-driven culture, while Longstreet’s is forward-looking and not much concerned with culture at all. Through this theme (and especially through the portrayal of Union victory and Lee’s resulting concession to Longstreet), Shaara argues that Gettysburg symbolizes the passing of the Old World and the inevitable birth of the New.
Certain characters, particularly Colonel Joshua Chamberlain with the Union and English observer Fremantle with the Confederacy, see the war as a struggle between two different visions for America—either as a place for new ideals of freedom to take root, or for Old World aristocratic values to flourish. Descended from persecuted Huguenots (French Protestants), Chamberlain cherishes a belief in America as a place where “a man could stand up free of the past […] and become what he wished to become.” He sees himself as fighting for the dignity of man and against “the horror of old Europe […] which the South was transplanting to new soil.” When faced with a regiment of mutineers, Chamberlain thus appeals to their freedom to choose to fight for others’ freedom. Throughout history, he explains, people “fight for land, or because a king makes them […] but we’re here for something new.” He continues, “this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”
In response to Chamberlain’s idealistic words about the divine spark in humanity, Kilrain retorts, “What I’m fighting for is the right to prove I’m a better man than many […] I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice.” He explains that an emancipated slave may not prove to be a better man than one who fought to free him, but that he, like Chamberlain, believes America should be a country where neither man is enchained by his ancestry.
Other characters see the war as essentially about the preservation of an older way of life. Fremantle, the English observer who is traveling with the Confederate army, views the Southerners as Englishmen and democracy as a failure. In the North, he reflects, “the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth. The Northerner doesn’t give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country […] Well, of course, the South is the Old Country […] They’ve merely transplanted it. And that’s what the war is about.” Other Confederate characters are skittish or silent on the subject of slavery but assert that they are fighting for their right to maintain their way of life undisturbed. Arguably, however, these characters’ way of life inherently includes slavery and could not be maintained without it.
The clash of old and new is further reflected in Lee’s and Longstreet’s conflict over defensive warfare. Longstreet tries to explain to Armistead that war has changed and defensive trench warfare is coming into its own. Armistead replies that while this may be a time for defensive war, this is not the army or the general for it. Fremantle is even more uncomprehending when Longstreet explains how advances in weaponry have challenged conventional wisdom about warfare. “But, sir,” Fremantle retorts, “there is the example of Solferino. And of course the Charge of the Light Brigade.” Longstreet, “who had invented a transverse trench which no one would use,” sees that it is no use pressing the matter.
Lee is shocked when Longstreet urges him to disengage the Confederates in order to get between the Union and the route to Washington—i.e., take a defensive position rather than continue on the offensive. He finds it unseemly to retreat in the face of the enemy and reflects that he has already had enough of defensive war after his previous, disastrous effort to defend Richmond. Lee thinks that Longstreet’s concern for defense arises from overprotectiveness of his men, and Longstreet realizes that there is no time to convince Lee otherwise; Lee is “a simple man, out of date.” On the cusp of final battle, meanwhile, Lee decides that morale must win out over cleverness; “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.”
After the Confederate defeat on the last day at Gettysburg, Lee concedes that his backward-looking approach has failed, that Longstreet had been right, and that he needs his friend’s vision in order to move forward: “Help us to see,” he says.
Shaara uses the perspectives of multiple characters to portray a spectrum of attitudes about the war, acknowledging that motivations for fighting were complex—ranging from the idealistic and romantic to the cynical and self-interested. Yet, while showing that these motivations generally defied caricature, he also argues that they are sorted into fundamentally backward or forward-looking attitudes, and that the latter—symbolized by Union victory and Lee’s concession of his vision for the war—was finally determinative for America’s development as a country.
Old World vs. New World ThemeTracker
Old World vs. New World 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.
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?”
Pickett answered obligingly, unconcerned, “Well, Jim Kemper kept needling our English friend about why they didn’t come and join in with us, it being in their interest and all, and the Englishman said that it was a very touchy subject, since most Englishmen figured the war was all about, ah, slavery, and then old Kemper got a bit outraged and had to explain to him how wrong he was, and Sorrel and some others joined in, but no harm done.”
“Damn fool,” Kemper said. “He still thinks it’s about slavery.”
“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.
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.”
Longstreet shook his head. That was another thing he did not think about. Armistead said disgustedly, “They think we’re fighting to keep the slaves. He says that’s what most of Europe thinks the war is all about. Now, what we supposed to do about that?”
Longstreet said nothing. The war was about slavery, all right. That was not why Longstreet fought but that was what the war was about, and there was no point in talking about it, never had been.
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.”