Study Guide

Buster Kilrain in The Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara

Buster Kilrain

Kilrain is the only fictional character in the whole book. He helps give a kind of streetwise Irish-American perspective on the war. He's not an abolitionist like Chamberlain—he's a scrappy, kind of cynical underdog trying to fight his way to the top of the heap. While he says he's not exactly a fan of African Americans, he admits that it's stupid to judge an individual based on any group they belong to.

As he says to Chamberlain: "'The point is that we have a country here where the past cannot keep a good man in chains, and that's the nature of the war. It's the aristocracy I'm after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a cockroach, ah'" (3.2.109).

Kilrain never knew who his father was, and his sense of himself as an "illegitimate" child, or as someone prevented from attaining the same opportunities as a well-bred Southern aristocrat like Lee, colors his view of the war and his understanding of the reasons why he's fighting. He rages against the fact that people in the United States, where everyone is supposed to be equal, are actually not so equal after all. When Chamberlain tells him that he believes in equality, this is what Kilrain has to say:

"Equality? Christ in Heaven. What I'm fighting for is the right to prove I'm a better man than many… 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." (3.2.107)

Kilrain dies from his wounds after defending Little Round Top with Chamberlain, and the news comes as a shock to Chamberlain, who really respected this guy, even if he didn't always see eye-to-eye with him.

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