“ ‘The truth is, Colonel, that there's no divine spark, bless you. There's many a man alive no more value than a dead dog. Believe me, when you've seen them hang each other...Equality? Christ in Heaven. What I'm fighting for is the right to prove I'm a better man than many. Where have you seen this divine spark in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? The Great White Joker in the Sky dooms us all to stupidity or poverty from birth. No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree. There's many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don't think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice. 'Tis why I'm here. I'll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I'm Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen. I don't know who me father was and I don't give a damn. There's only one aristocracy, and that's right here’—he tapped his white skull with a thick finger –‘and YOU, Colonel laddie, are a member of it and don't even know it. You are damned good at everything I've seen you do, a lovely soldier, an honest man, and you got a good heart on you too, which is rare in clever men. Strange thing. I'm not a clever man meself, but I know it when I run across it. The strange and marvelous thing about you, Colonel darlin', is that you believe in mankind, even preachers, whereas when you've got my great experience of the world you will have learned that good men are rare, much rarer than you think.’”— Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974)
Forty years ago today, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to one of the classic works of historical fiction published in this country, on the turning point in the conflict that redefined America: The Killer Angels, on the Battle of Gettysburg.
The manuscript by Michael Shaara had been rejected by 15 different publishers before finally being accepted by a small house. Even after winning the Pulitzer, it would take nearly another two decades before it gained the mass readership it deserved, after release of the epic film adapted from it, Gettysburg, in theaters and on TNT (whose head, Ted Turner, was a Civil War buff) and after such historians as James McPherson hailed it for its accuracy.
There are many reasons, historical and literary, to embrace this novel: for its insistence on slavery as the ultimate cause of the Civil War; for its penetration into the minds of commanders; for its realism about the awful price of war; for redeeming the reputation of a brave Confederate general, James Longstreet, unjustly maligned by Southern historians and postwar advocates of the “Lost Cause” for not vigorously pursuing an assault on the Federal lines that he had correctly warned Robert E. Lee would be suicidal; and for spotlighting the colonel addressed in this passage, Joshua Chamberlain of Maine, responsible for holding the critical Little Round Top against a furious Confederate assault.
But I especially like its depiction of the warmth between Chamberlain and the sergeant addressing him here, Buster Kilrain, a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants (very much including, as this passage indicates, Irish ones) who fought for the Union. Shaara rendered him so vividly that tourists to Gettysburg have left disappointed to discover that he was a fictional character. They shouldn't be: Kilrain lives as surely as another person with Ireland in the veins, Scarlett O'Hara.
Kilrain doesn’t have the soaring ideals that animate Chamberlain, but his motive for fighting is noble enough: the determination to show that he is not only as good as any other man, but can even be better.
Aging, out of shape, Kilrain is walking cannon fodder, and his hand-to-mouth existence in his native land has left him utterly without illusions about human nature. But his experience with the unfair advantages of a landed gentry in Ireland (he comes from the west of that country, County Clare, from where my father and his ancestors hailed) have led him to realize that the other side in this fight will perpetuate a system of encrusted privilege very much like it, and he will fight it in favor of “justice” and an aristocracy based on natural decency in its stead. By the battle’s end, Kilrain will prove that he belongs to the elite group of “good men” that he believes is rare.
Evidently, I’m not the only reader and viewer enthralled by the story of Kilrain within the larger canvass of The Killer Angels. So is musician Steve Earle, according to this post by Chris Mackowski on the blog “Emerging Civil War.” Earle has gone as far, in “Dixieland,” as to sing from the point of view of Kilrain: “I damn all gentlemen/Whose only worth is their father’s name and the sweat of a workin’ man.”
(The image accompanying this post is from the stirring film Gettysburg, faithfully adapted from Shaara’s novel, with Jeff Daniels, on the left, playing Col. Chamberlain and the marvelous character actor Kevin Conway, on the right, embodying unillusioned, decent, heroic Kilrain.)