Another summer of ‘Angels’

“Away from her, you loved her more,” Joshua Chamberlain reflects in the quiet nighttime hours after a hard day of battle with still another looming the next.
“He remembered her letters,” author Michael Shaara writes of Chamberlain, who we find lost in thoughts of his wife back home.
“The misspelled words,” Chamberlain recalls of those letters. “I lie here dreamily,” she once wrote. “Even the misspelling is lovely,” Chamberlain concludes.
I enjoyed the poetry of Shaara’s prose even more this past summer than when I first read his masterpiece about the Battle of Gettysburg more than 20 years ago.
The Killer Angels is an unlikely title for such a book, but perfect when you learn of its derivation.
Col. Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, and a central character in the tale, was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College prior to the war. He once wrote a speech on this quotation from Shakespeare: “What a piece of work is man … in action like an angel.” But when he rehearsed the speech before his dad, his father responded, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.”
Chamberlain went to school and gave his oration under the title “Man: The Killer Angel.”
When a friend introduced me to the book, written in 1974, in the early ’90s, I was already a Gettysburg enthusiast.
My daughter was about 10 years old then and my son not quite 7. She used to attend a week-long swim camp at Gettysburg College. When I would drop her off for the camp I would bring my son along and he and I would spend a couple of days touring the battlefield and exploring the town. When it was time to pick her up, I would drive down alone and she and I would do the same.
I bought two photos of Joshua Chamberlain in a shop on Main Street one year and hung them in my office at the college. Occasionally a visitor familiar with the book will notice and exclaim, “Is that Joshua Chamberlain?” An enthusiastic conversation about The Killer Angels ensues.
I came upon a paperback copy of it at the Osterhout Library book sale early in the summer and it practically called to me. I read it in two days and then passed it along to a young man heading to law school.
A general, Gen. Dan Butterfield, one learns from the book, wrote a special bugle call when he was brigade commander of 20th Maine.
One also learns that the same general wrote Butterfield’s Lullaby, a tune popular with all of the Maine soldiers and a favorite of Col. Chamberlain. It’s a tune with which we too are familiar. Only we know it as Taps.
In addition to a compelling story told through the eyes of memorable characters, The Killer Angels is sprinkled with such delightful tidbits. If reading with a highlighter in hand, one would be tempted to highlight nearly everything.
There’s this, for example, from the character Fremantle, a British observer of the battle: The true gentleman has no vices, but he allows you your own.
He’s talking about Gen. Robert E. Lee.
And this observation from Confederate General James Longstreet: Southern women like their men religious … and a little mad. That’s why they fall in love with preachers.
And finally this, termed an old Indian joke: Follow cigar smoke, fat men thereangels.

Ed Ackerman