The Killer Angels, the subject of my last post but one (with a few others begun in the interim but this not done) and the main subject of this one, was my town’s “One Book” selection for 2011. Three Cups of Tea, which I’m going to mention briefly, has been in the news lately because it turns out not to be true—how much is false is, as yet, unknown, though it seems pretty certain that on top of the book’s being false there are a few financial improprieties involving the charity the book’s author, Greg Mortenson, founded and described (and promoted) in his memoir. Aaron Bady has useful roundups here and here.
(Side point: Is there a comma missing in this title? In other words, did I mean to say “This post is about the program, ‘Framingham Reads The Killer Angels,’ and also about Three Cups of Tea”—which is true? It is true, but as it happens Three Cups of Tea was the Framingham Reads selection a few years back. Children’s versions and even picture books broadened the scope of the “One Book” project to the high schools and elementary schools, and there were cross-cultural programs, as well. Improving understanding of other cultures can’t hurt, so I hope the book is not inaccurate in that regard, too. For example, the title of the book, Mortenson says in interviews, comes from an Afghan custom of making a stranger almost a part of the family, though he has to drink three cups of tea with them, and the process takes time. Something to think about.)
More on The Killer Angels: Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in an otherwise unexplained post titled “Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain,” linked a little while ago to a scene from Gettysburg, the not very well reviewed movie that was based on The Killer Angels. The scene is of the point at which Chamberlain (played Jeff Bridges Daniels) tells his officers, “Fix bayonets.” He has been ordered to hold the left flank, maintaining the Union Army’s position on the series of hills called Cemetery Ridge, and not under any circumstances to withdraw. Now his men are entirely out of ammunition, and the enemy is still coming. If they fix bayonets and charge downhill, they may at least prevent the enemy from circling around behind the Union line.
The film shows Chamberlain surrounded by his staff as they react to the command. They all are stunned by what seems a foolhardy charge, nearly unprotected, into certain death. Chamberlain himself appears to be perfectly aware of the unusual nature of his own order. His mood, as much as his decision, seems to illustrate something dangerous in his character. In the book, however, it is different.
In the novel, Chamberlain is described as making the obvious choice. His options are limited. His men are out of ammunition, and his requests for more bullets haven’t been answered. If he retreats—as he has been ordered not to do, under any circumstances—shifting to the right, towards the rest of the Union line, the enemy will not only take the hill, but will sweep behind the Union line and attack them from behind. If he stands pat, he and his men will likely be slaughtered.
His only option is to tell the men to fix bayonets. They will be armed only with those, against an infantry armed with guns (and possibly also a cavalry armed with swords), but this would be their situation in any event. What he does that is unusual is order them to take the offensive (unplanned by his own superiors), and charge down the hill. He tells them to sweep to the right, pushing the enemy across the front of the remaining Union guns. He has heard of the maneuver in his training to be an officer but has never seen it done. His troops end up sweeping well across the front of the line, taking large numbers prisoners. They may well have startled the enemy as much as they did their own side.
It’s only after the battle is over that Chamberlain realizes that what he did was unusual. He knew the battle could not be won unless he ordered his men to charge downhill, so he ordered his men to charge downhill. Most experienced officers, though, as he discovers, would probably not have done the same. His reason for acting as he did, in giving such a risky order, is not so much that he was a college professor as that he was inexperienced. He probably acted more as a young man would, just out of officer training school, than as a professor of military science (which wasn’t his field in the first place). Of course, in most wars, twenty-somethings have not been given command of so many men as Chamberlain was given. He happened to combine the confidence of an experienced professional with the inadequate, untried school-learning of a recently graduated student. That doesn’t have much to do with his being a professor—it wasn’t Chamberlain’s thinking like a professor that led him to take such a foolhardy action—so much as with his being an older, respected professional man whose high position in society was seen as transferring easily to another sphere. As it happens, that worked out well at Gettysburg, but it might have been otherwise.
And Shaara illustrates well that, though social hierarchies operated slightly differently in the South than they do in the North, every social interaction that happens in the Army is necessarily hierarchical. The visible double-takes the characters allow themselves in the film version of Gettysburg are unthinkable in the world of Shaara’s novel. Nearly everything in the novel is described from the point of view of a high-ranking officer: in most cases, the highest-ranking officer possible, given the situation as prescribed by the plot. There are few exceptions. The book starts off in the point of view of a sometime-Shakespearean actor turned Rebel spy who is well aware of the fact that the real Army is more than a little suspicious of him. The second section begins with the point of view of John Buford, a cavalry officer who has never really reacclimated to life in the East, and who stakes out a Union position in Gettysburg, not entirely trusting that additional troops will arrive in time for his efforts to do any good, and—again—well aware that he will get little credit from history or from Washington. After that, however, the novel shifts to the regular Army officers who have taken over the battlefield. The only conflict we see between officers in which the commander is not always the one in the right is that between Longstreet and Lee, the former arguing that they are sure to lose the battle if they engage again the following day.
The scene from the movie is damning for Chamberlain’s case. At this point, in Chamberlain’s chapters of the book, the reader seems to be humming under his breath, “Another victory like that and we are done for.” In Longstreet’s chapters, however, what we hear is most likely worse: “We were hip deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool said to move on.”