Reading corner: The Killer Angels

The Killer Angels

Michael Shaara

Polygon books

Unlike many of his predecessors, President Trump is hardly renowned for his love of reading. With this in mind, Foreign Policy magazine recently published a feature about which books he should read now that he is in the Oval Office. Among the five recommended was The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set amidst the fire and fury of Gettysburg in the American Civil War.

Foreign Policy selected this particular novel for the president because of its rich reservoir of leadership lessons, which are seared deep into every chapter. Shaara, himself a former soldier who served in the Korean War, mixes rich characterisations of all the major players – from General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate forces and a hero to soldiers on both sides, to those who oppose him from the north, including Federal General John Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and many others. It is through their eyes that we see and experience the horrors of the four-day battle, a battle that truly shaped the future of the United States.

The novel begins on June 29, 1863, two days before the fighting commenced. A spy brings news that the Union army is on the move, information which prompts the Confederate forces to quickly turn south-east and towards the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of the battle some six days later, 51,000 men were dead, wounded or missing, the Confederate forces were beaten and the war had turned in favour of the Union army.

There are many reasons why this book is so special. Under Sharra’s pen, the reader is taken into the very heart of combat. This is warfare at its most vivid, most terrifying, most horrendous. Yet while the sights, sounds and smell of battle linger, the book is really all about the men in combat. Men who found themselves in scenes of unimaginable horror, men who were fighting against neighbours and friends, and men like Colonel Chamberlain whose regiment of volunteers heroically held the Union’s left flank on the second day of the battle – a success pivotal to their eventual triumph.

The Killer Angels, which was first published in 1974, has become a book of choice for generals and admirals the world over. Yet you don’t need to don military garb, or even sit behind the Resolute Desk, to appreciate and admire Sharra’s genius. Let’s hope President Trump finds some time to pick up a copy.