The Killer Angels (1974)

(Thomas Henry Harrison, a hero of The Killer Angels, a Confederate spy who survived Pickett’s charge and died in 1923 at the age of 91. Note: In 1923, William Faulkner was already 26.)

Back in the 1990s, Ted Turner produced a 4 hour long film about the Battle of Gettysburg called, appropriately enough, Gettysburg. Based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer angels, it wasn’t exactly a bad movie. It had good performances by Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain and Sam Elliot as John Buford, but it fell far short of an adequate dramatization of the blood bath that took place in Pennsylvania early in July 1863. Politically, it was the usual watered down, “brother against brother” pablum that masquerades as the history of the United States Civil War. To quote Donald Trump, “there were fine people on both sides.”

Michael Shaara, an Italian American from Jersey City, New Jersey, and a graduate of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, was not exactly an aristocrat from “Old Virginia.” But that’s clearly where his sympathies lie. Shaara can’t quite help himself. Like Confederate General James Longstreet, the ultimate hero of The Killer Angels, a South Carolinian of Dutch, not English, descent, a man who ultimately regretted fighting for Lee and the Confederacy, Shaara watches the destruction of the elite of old Virginia’s chivalry with barely muted horror. Nothing that Shaara does to remind us that he’s a Yankee and a liberal, his narrative parallel between the brilliant Union cavalry officer John Buford, and his incompetent southern counterpart J.E.B Stuart, the heroic stand of the largely working-class, 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top, or Longstreet’s hard headed realism about the South’s chances for a victory in Pennsylvania matter, matters. His heart’s not in it. Like the novel’s moronic English military observer Arthur Freemantle, we came out of the novel infatuated with the Army of Northern Virginia. We want nothing more than to die for Robert E. Lee, to preserve the aristocratic, Protestant, Anglo Saxon way of life. That in and of itself makes the Killer Angels a good novel, almost in spite of itself.

The most important question about the United States Civil War is not whether Lee or Grant was the better general, or if the South could had won had Stonewall Jackson not been killed a few months before Gettysburg at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It’s this. Why did so many poor white Southerners fight for their oppressors, for aristocrats like Robert E. Lee who kept them in a state of poverty almost as bad as their slaves?

The Union soldiers at Gettysburg, all those German and Irish immigrants right off the boat from old Europe, were always well-fed, well-clothed, and well-provisioned. They also had a rational cause to fight for. They might have been as racist as their southern counterparts, but ending slavery, destroying the system that made them compete unpaid labor, benefitted them materially. That land stolen in the west stolen from Mexico would ultimately be divided up and parceled out to them under the Homestead Act to create hundreds of thousands of small capitalists. The typical Confederate private fought hungry and barefoot, and yet he fought magnificently. As Shaara points out, Gettysburg, the first great Union victory in the Eastern theater of the war, was the first time most of the Union soldiers had seen confederate soldiers run. Man for man, the Army of Northern Virginia was one of the greatest armies in history. They lost at Gettysburg only because they were massively outgunned, out supplied, and because the Union Army held the high ground. Even so, they almost won.

Robert E. Lee, like Donald Trump or George W. Bush, was a magnetic, almost cult-life figure for conservative white Americans. John Longstreet, on the other hand, was an intelligent, rational man who knew how to manage an army of 100,000 men, but did not know how to inspire. Thus, he finds himself in the position of watching Lee lead the men he loved into a suicidal charge against hopeless odds. What Longstreet, or even Lee, doesn’t quite understand, is that many of the men in the Army of Northern Virginia wanted to commit suicide at Gettysburg, to die a romantic death in the prime of their youth against the Yankee invader. Many of them knew that what the United States would inevitably become, even if the South won, an industrial capitalist oligarchy that reduced everything to its vulgar exchange value, was not a world they wanted to live in. So, to quote Union General John Buford about the Union defeat that never came, “they charged valiantly, and were butchered valiantly.”

The problem is the American working class, at least in the South and Midwest, still has the same suicidal romanticism, the same desire to die a meaningless death for the ruling class. That the American ruling class no longer looks like Robert E. Lee, a courtly gentleman with exquisite manners, but instead looks like Donald Trump, a vulgar creep who jokes about grabbing women by the pussy, reflects the transformation of American capitalism over the past 150 years. Our aristocrats no longer have to put on a show. They know we’ll follow them anyway, however awful they become. Novelists like Michael Shaara, therefore, unwilling to embrace a revolutionary alternative to capitalism, can only look at the past with wistful nostalgia. They forever remain Faulkner’s 14-year-old Southern boy waiting for George Pickett to wave his hat and say “forward boys for old Virginia.”

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…

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