Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit"

Hard upon Memorial Day, I'm watching the Blu-ray edition of Gettysburg [which adds about seventeen minutes to the film and looks significantly better], the film of the best historical novel I've ever read, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. That was the book that enabled me to understand the battle of Gettysburg. In three days there were almost as many American casualties as in nine years of war in Vietnam. I recently walked the battlefield with my friends, Paul and Linda Manuel. It was an extraordinary experience and what it meant to this Union and what it stands for was explained early in the film in an exchange between Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, and his Irish-American sargeant:
Tell me something, Buster... what do you think of Negroes?

Well, if you mean the race...I don't really know. This is not a thing to be ashamed of. The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.

To me, there was never any difference.

— None at all?

— None at all. Of course, I haven't known that many freed men but those I knew in Bangor, Portland...you look in the eye, there was a man. There was a "divine spark," as my mother used to call it. That is all there is to it. Races are men. "What a piece of work is man. How infinite in faculties, in form and moving...how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel."

Well, if he's an angel, all right then...but he damn well must be a killer angel. Colonel, darling, you're a lovely man. I see a great vast difference between us, yet I admire you, lad. You're an idealist, praise be.

The truth is, Colonel there is no "divine spark." There's many a man alive no more of value than a dead dog. Believe me. When you've seen them hang each other the way I have back in the Old Country. Equality?

What I'm fighting for is the right to prove I'm a better man than many of them.

Where have you seen this "divine spark" in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance. Not a leaf, not 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, Colonel, is justice. Which is why I'm here. I'll be treated as I deserve not as my father deserved. I'm Kilrain, and I damn all gentlemen. There is only one aristocracy and that is right here. And that's why we've got to win this war.
Gettysburg Script - transcript from the screenplay of Gettysburg