Throughout the book, Shaara portrays a range of motivations for the Civil War, and neither side is monolithic in outlook. Many characters offer their opinions as to “what the war is really about”—such as the desire for freedom from a “foreign” government, defense of “states’ rights,” and the desire to crush the Southern aristocracy—yet the central conflict inevitably turns around the question of slavery and freedom. While not every character primarily fights for or against slavery, Shaara argues that it is the inescapable moral issue of the war.
The Union’s clarity of purpose, as portrayed by Chamberlain, is contrasted with Confederate vagueness and denial regarding slavery. For instance, Confederate officers Sorrel and Kemper are furious when English observer Fremantle explains England’s view that slavery is what the war is about; they cannot rest until they attempt to set him straight. Later, Tom Chamberlain is bemused by Confederate prisoners’ assertion that they are fighting for some vague “rights,” which they don’t associate with slavery.
Faced with a crowd of mutineers, Chamberlain asks himself, “How do you force a man to fight—for freedom?” He quickly rejects sentimentalized notions of national pride (“Nobody ever died for apple pie”) and appeals instead to the dignity of man, something distinct from a bloody European past and a transplanted Southern aristocracy. Inherent human value must be the motivating factor of the Northerners’ cause, not the American land itself.
When Chamberlain’s regiment meets the former slave who has been shot, the question of freedom is brought home to him in an even starker way. “What could the black man know of what was happening?” he wonders. “What could this man know of borders and states’ rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? […] 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.” Chamberlain realizes that his stirring rhetoric has its place, but it conveys far less than the suffering of this displaced and friendless man.
In the midst of this encounter, Tom describes his conversation with some Rebel prisoners, who claim to be fighting for their rights. On further questioning, one of them says he doesn’t know which of his rights have been offended, “but he must have some rights he didn’t know nothin’ about.” The juxtaposition of “freedoms” is jarring, as the newly freed man longs to return home but likely cannot, while the prisoners are willing to die for vaguely defined rights they cannot even articulate.
Ironically, outsiders (Fremantle) and skeptics (Longstreet) are portrayed as having a clearer grasp on the nature of the war than those who argue about “freedom” most vociferously. Longstreet finds one of his men regaling Fremantle about the war: “You must tell [England], and make it plain, that what we are fighting for is our freedom from the rule of what is to us a foreign government […] that’s what this war is about,” Kemper insists, not slavery. George Pickett offers the analogy of a gentleman’s club “sticking their noses into our private lives, and then we up and resigned, and then they tell us we don’t have the right to resign.” What both men ignore, however, is that the so-called foreign intervention centrally concerns Southern “freedom” to preserve a system that’s dependent on human enslavement.
Talking with Longstreet later, Armistead speaks disdainfully of England’s refusal to support the Confederacy: “[Fremantle] said the problem was slavery […] He says that’s what most of Europe thinks the war is all about. Now, what are we supposed to do about that?” Longstreet declines to respond, thinking, “The war was about slavery all right. That was not why [he] fought but that was what the war was about, and there was no point in talking about it, never had been.” Once again, Longstreet is more perceptive than his fellow Confederates at to the true nature of the war. While he claims not to be personally invested in the question of slavery, he also finds it obvious that the conflict reduces to this matter, no matter how others try to erect elaborate justifications claiming otherwise.
In a way, both sides’ rhetorical debates about freedom and “why we fight” serve to obscure the burning issue of slavery. However, Shaara makes slavery an unavoidable subject in the story. Union soldiers ask questions about it, foreign observers make judgments about it, and a formerly enslaved man literally wanders into the middle of the debate. The Confederate officers’ denials about slavery, meanwhile, make the issue all the more conspicuous. With characteristic clear-sightedness, Longstreet acknowledges that the war is about slavery, though he stays reticent on the subject. The book’s conclusion from Chamberlain’s perspective foreshadows the issue’s final resolution, hinting—on the eve of Independence Day—that Gettysburg has sounded a major death knell for slavery and its apologists.
Slavery and Freedom ThemeTracker
Slavery and Freedom 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.”