Study Guide

The Killer Angels Society and Class

By Michael Shaara

Society and Class

True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth. But it had begun here. The fact of slavery upon this incredibly beautiful new clean earth was appalling, but more even than that was the horror of old Europe, the curse of nobility, which the South was transplanting to new soil. They were forming a new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men, and Chamberlain had come to crush it. (1.2.119)

Slavery, obviously, is the opposite of freedom. Chamberlain sees that the Southern plantation owners are trying to use slavery to dominate the future of the country: they're trying to control the economy, setting up an aristocracy and using slave labor instead of paying freemen. This is bad for all the free workers in the North, since this would hurt their role in the economy. This was a big reason why people were motivated to fight for the Union.

He was no good with civilians. There was something about the mayors of towns that troubled him. They were too fat and they talked too much and they did not think twice of asking a man to die for them. Much of the east troubled Buford. A fat country. Too many people talked too much. The newspapers lied. But the women… Yes, the women. (1.3.49)

Buford would feel more at home out West. He's not a domesticated personality; like the Dixie Chicks, he needs "wide open spaces." How does this affect his attitude toward the war and its central issues?

Everywhere you go there's nothing but the same rock and dirt and houses and people and deer and birds. They give it all names, but I'm at home everywhere. Odd thing: unpatriotic. I was at home in England. I would be at home in the desert. In Afghanistan or far Typee. All mine, it all belongs to me. My world. (2.4.32)

Chamberlain feels like a "citizen of the universe." Unlike the Confederates, Chamberlain doesn't feel overly attached to a single place. He doesn't think of himself as fighting for "The North"—he's fighting for principles, for the equality of humanity.

He was continually amazed at the combination of raw earth and rough people, white columned and traces of English manner. He had not gotten used to the crude habit of shaking hands which was common among these people, but he forced himself. (2.5.11)

Arthur Fremantle sees shaking hands as "crude" likely because it violates older English ideas of nobility and propriety. It's a sign that this American civilization generally tends to view people as being on an equal footing with another, as long as they're not slaves. Even though the South is trying to preserve aristocracy, it's not immune to American habits that imply equality, like shaking hands.

"But your General Lee is an English general, sir. Strordnry. He has gained some reputation, sir, as of course you know, but there is a tendency in Europe to, ah, think of Americans as, ah, somewhat behind the times, sometimes what, ah, how do I say this? One is on tricky ground here, but, sir, of course you understand, there are these cultural differences, a new land and all that. Yet, what I mean to say is, one did not expect General Lee." (2.5.27)

Although Fremantle is English, he romanticizes Lee—just as many Southerners would do for generations afterwards. Lee is the classic Southern gentleman: he symbolizes the aristocratic order that would fall after 1865.

They called themselves Americans. But they were transplanted Englishmen. Look at the names: Lee, Hill, Longstreet, Jackson, Stuart. And Lee was Church of England. Most of them were. All gentlemen. No finer gentlemen in England than Lee. Well, of course, here and there, possibly one exception. Or two. (3.1.28)

Fremantle sees the South as being basically English and Protestant, while he sees the North as a crazy melting pot of different ethnicities and religions. He's unable to see that this is where the winning cause lies.

He knew that Longstreet was tense and that there was a certain gloom in the set of his face, but Fremantle knew with the certainty of youth and faith that he could not possibly lose this day, not with these troops, not with Englishmen, the gentlemen against the rabble. (3.1.54)

Again, Fremantle is underestimating the South's opponents. He thinks that since the Union is comprised of different ethnicities and religions, they're not going to be able to fight as strongly or cohesively. He doesn't realize how important the principles at stake really are.

"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 isn't that concerned about slavery in and of itself—but he is concerned with destroying the aristocracy. The only aristocracy lies in your own individual mind, in his view. He doesn't believe in equality, exactly, as much as he believes in equal opportunity—in other words, he believes in being judged on the basis of your own talents and abilities.

"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 continues to express his disdain for the Southern aristocrats. In his view, they treat the common man like dirt. Although Kilrain mainly talks about how he's against aristocracy, this implies that he's for something, too—specifically, he's for meritocracy, a society that rewards people based on how well they can work and not on their family or ancestry.

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