Close Reading for Memorial Day: Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels

May 16th, 2013

Looking for a story to have students closely read for Memorial Day? Read and discuss this powerful excerpt from Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (a Common Core exemplar text!) with the help of our discussion guide and video seminar.  Even better, our friends at NEH EDSITEment have adapted the discussion guide for students!

From our introduction to “Chamberlain”:

Courage is a virtue difficult to cultivate, especially among self-interested citizens oriented toward the pursuit of their own happiness. At the extreme, why shouldn’t I prefer the preservation of myself to the preservation of my nation? If there is both a natural and cultural tendency to cowardice, how is courage to be cultivated? Although courage usually grows only through repeated acts in the face of fear and danger, inspiring speeches can rally groups of men on the eve of battle. This selection—excerpted from The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1928–1988), an account of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War—and General George S. Patton’s Speech to the Third Army exemplify two such inspiriting speeches, in some ways similar, in some ways different.

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, before the war a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, is faced with the unexpected burden of guarding 120 mutinous soldiers, eager to return home after two years in the Union army. Summoned to march toward battle and lacking men to guard these prisoners, Chamberlain appeals to them to join his regiment, succeeding beyond his wildest expectations. What are the various aspects of Chamberlain’s appeal? How and why do his words—and his deeds—succeed with these previously recalcitrant men? Imagine yourself among the mutineers: would you have been moved to join the fight, and why?

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