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After Gettysburg

The great Battle of Gettysburg was but one event in the lives of its participants, but for many, it would define them indelibly. Michael Shaara confirms the fundamentally historical foundation of his novel The Killer Angels in the Afterword of his masterpiece, where he tells of several notable characters’ lives after Gettysburg.

Still Dignified: Lee after Appomattox, photographed by Mathew Brady

Confederate general Robert E. Lee asks to be relieved of his command in August of 1863. He fears he no longer holds the confidence of his men, citing that he himself no longer could accomplish the goals he set out to obtain. President Jefferson Davis cannot imagine finding anyone else to fill the post and denies the request. Lee pushes on, but from Gettysburg, the Confederate landscape was never again to be as hopeful as it was on those days leading up to July 1-3, 1863. After the war, he gratefully settles into civilian life, refuses to participate in a memorial ceremony that he believes would only reopen old wounds, and applies for a Presidential Pardon in response to rumors of a trial of treason. But the Oath of Allegiance required for the Pardon was hoarded as a souvenir and recovered in 1970, when soon after, President Ford and the U.S. Congress restored the great general his citizenship.

Lee’s old war horse, General James Longstreet, also requests relief from command, after having left the Virginian theater (feeling himself inadequate there), and facing command frustrations and military losses at Knoxville and other battlefields in the West. Recalled to Virginia, he suffers a serious, friendly-fire wound near the place Stonewall Jackson was also shot by fellow Confederates. Yet he lives to witness the Appomattox surrender and after the war, comes under intense, unfair criticism by fellow officers, Jefferson Davis, and Lost Cause authors who, unable to fault Lee, blame him for losing the war at Gettysburg, their hate fueled by Longstreet’s siding with Grant and Republican Reconstruction policy. At a reunion of Confederate veterans, he restores his friendship with Davis and inspires old war cries among his devoted troops. Today, his war service and advanced military ideas are undergoing a much-deserved, positive reevaluation.

"Salute of Honor" by Mort Kunstler

Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is arguably the most noteworthy of the characters brought to life within the pages of The Killer Angels. He fights at Petersburg, where he receives the wound that would claim his life fifty years later. In the course of the war, he is promoted to brigade command and, later, brigadier general by General Grant himself. Chosen to accept the surrender of the Confederate armies at Appomattox, he orders an honorable salute to the fallen forces. He returns to his professorship of rhetoric, a post increasingly unfulfilling, then concedes to a Maine governorship, where his margin of victory is the largest in the state’s history. He sanctions reforms in prisons and insane asylums, improves the lot of war widows and veterans, and causes some controversy with his enforcement of capital punishment, ease of liquor laws, and holding back his vote of President Johnson’s impeachment. Back at Bowdoin, now as president, he streamlines school schedule by cropping or shifting prayer times and lengthening library hours. He introduces science classes to the school’s classical education, answering contemporary conservatives by saying that science did not object to faith. He advocates women’s equality and gives students more freedom of activity without punishment. He implements compulsory military drill until the school succumbs to student dissent.

He designed a splendid house for his wife Fannie, traveled to Europe with his beloved family, averted near civil war in his state over governorship disputes, and remained active in veterans’ organizations. In 1893, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his Gettysburg valor.

Chamberlain as President of Bowdoin College, 1875

Chamberlain spoke for many of his comrades as he watched the great and final passing of the Armies at Appomattox in 1865. Despite the wrong done by the Southern Army, he composed this eulogistic verse upon their final end, and embodies the great sense of honor inherent in that fatal conflict of 1861-65. His stirring words still ring true and beautiful today, and his legacy lives far beyond his years.

We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces, and those battered flags we had met on so many fields where glorious manhood lent a glory to the earth that bore it, and think of personal hate and mean revenge. Whoever had misled these men, we had not. We had led them back, home.

References and Further Reading

Shaara, M. (2004). Afterword. The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)


Harwell, R. (1997) Lee. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 516-18.

Pieces of history: General Robert E. Lee’s parole and citizenship [Editorial]. (2005, Spring). Prologue Magazine, 37(1). Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/spring/piece-lee.html

Letter from Lee on his resignation to President Davis: http://www.familytales.org/dbDisplay.php?id=ltr_rel7451&person=rel

Lees’s order of August 13, 1863: http://www.familytales.org/dbDisplay.php?id=ltr_rel537&person=rel; also Lee, R.E. (1905). Recollections and letters of General Robert E. Lee. New York, NY: Doubleday, Page, and Co., pp. 105-6.


A quarrel and its ending. (1893, June 3). New York Times. Retrieved http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50E14F83B5515738DDDAD0894DE405B8385F0D3

Wert, J.D. (1994). General James Longstreet. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 359. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/

— (2006, August). James Longstreet: Robert E. Lee’s most valuable soldier. The Civil War Times. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/james-longstreet-robert-e-lees-most-valuable-soldier.htm

Letter from Longstreet on his resignation to Inspector General Cooper: http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/sources/recordView.cfm?Content=054/0467, continued to http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/sources/recordView.cfm?Content=054/0468

Gestures of Friendship
Longstreet to Lee on Longstreet’s leaving for Tennessee: http://www.longstreetchronicles.org/ind23.htm
Lee to Longstreet on Longstreet’s illness: http://www.longstreetchronicles.org/wild10.htm


Chamberlain, J.L. (1915). The passing of the armies. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Retrieved from http://www.archive.org/details/passingofarmiesa00cham

Trulock, A.R. (1992). In the hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina, pp. 339 (governorship), 343-47 (years at Bowdoin), 311 (quote on Confederates)

Summary of “Drill Rebellion” from Bowdoin College records summary: http://library.bowdoin.edu/arch/archives/jlcg.shtml

The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.