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Three Days In July

April 2024
2min read

My favorite historical novel is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1975. It is a superb re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg, but its real importance is its insight into what the war was about, and what it meant, using a half-dozen principal characters (only one of them entirely fictional) to get at the various meanings of the war. I assign this book in my undergraduate course on the Civil War and Reconstruction at Princeton; it is perennially the students’ favorite reading in the course.

James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis Professor of American History, Princeton University, and author, Battle Cry of Freedom

The Killer Angels is the best Civil War novel ever written, even better than The Red Badge of Courage, which inspired it. More than any other work of fiction, The Killer Angels shows what it was like to be in that war. The descriptions of combat are incomparable; they convey not just the sights but the noise and smell of battle. And the characterizations are simply superb. Here, I think, is the most honest and perceptive characterization of Robert E. Lee in all our literature. Shaara has managed to capture the essence of the war, the divided friendships, the madness and the heroism of fratricidal conflict. The book builds inexorably to the climax in Pickett’s suicidal charge (which ought to be known as Lee’s charge). If I had to choose just one book that best captures the Civil War, this would be it.

Stephen B. Oates, author, With Malice toward None

The Killer Angels is the only book that’s ever made me cry—apart from “Filing Your 1040” by the IRS.

Christopher Buckley, author, Wet Work and The White House Mess

For many years I had wanted to do a history of the Civil War on film but had never been able to get up the courage. All my previous films pointed to that terrible war as the central moment in our history, in a sense the war demanded that it be treated, yet it seemed a black hole that could swallow better men than me. Moreover, most of my friends and colleagues counseled against attempting it or urged me to tackle only a small aspect of the war. But then on Christmas Day, 1984,1 finished reading a book that changed my life. It was The Killer Angels.

I had never visited Gettysburg, knew almost nothing about that battle before I read the book, but here it all came alive. As Shaara structures his novel, each chapter sees the action from the point of view of a different character. Lee, Longstreet, Buford—all vividly narrate the tragedy and drama of those three days in July 1863. But the book focused mainly on a man I had never heard of before, a former professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. It was his remarkable story, his heroic defense of Little Round Top, his execution of an obscure textbook maneuver that helped save the Union Army on the second day, that finally convinced me to take on the most difficult and satisfying experience of my life.

I remember sitting straight up after finishing the book and resolving right then and there to make the film, a project that would ultimately take more than five and a half years. In the days that followed I dreamed heavily of the battle, at once a safe aerial observer and right in the horrifying middle of things. A map of the terrain lodged itself in my brain; I felt I knew the lay of the land. In fact, a few months later, making my first trip to Gettysburg, I did know my way around. I had been there before.

At one point on that strange trip, with Shaara’s battle still echoing, I inexplicably stopped the car and got out momentarily unsure of where I was. Suddenly I realized that I was on the Emmitsburg Pike right up the middle of Pickett’s charge. I began to trot up the hill toward the copse of trees where the Union guns had waited. Now I was running, now I was up and over the top. Finding myself at the high-water mark of the Confederacy, on familiar ground, I wept. No book, novel or nonfiction, had ever done that to me before.

Ken Burns, film maker, The Civil War

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