If I had to pick one book I’d say that my favorite of all time is “The Killer Angels”, by Michael Shaara. (The book was made into the movie “Gettysburg”, which, despite the fake beards, isn’t bad either. But you really should read the book!) It is fictional, but extremely accurate, account of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. My old copy was loaned out and never made it back home so when I saw a new copy on sale recently I picked it up. This past weekend I started rereading it. One of the principle characters is Joshua Chamberlain, a Union officer who would become the hero of Little Round Top. Early in the book he is thinking about why he is fighting. Well, Shaara’s writing brought tears to my eyes so I wanted to share it with you.
“… The faith itself was simple; he believed in the dignity of man. His ancestors were French Huguenots, refugees of a chained and bloody Europe. He had learned their stories in the cradle. He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and would eventually spread 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. But he was fighting for the dignity of man and in that way he was fighting for himself. If men were equal in America, all these former Poles and English and Czechs and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as a foreigner; there were only free men and slaves. And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.”
A bit later Chamberlain is talking to a group of mutinous soldiers who have been placed under his command. He says “This regiment was formed last fall, back in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There’s not three hundred of us now. But what is left is choice. Some of us volunteered to fight for the Union. Some came in mainly because we were bored at home and this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came … because it was the right thing to do. All of us have seen men die. Most of us never saw a black man back home. We think on that, too. But freedom … is not just a word.”
“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. I don’t … this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going to set other men free.”
“This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what YOU do, not what your father was. Here you can be SOMETHING. Here’s a place to build a home. It isn’t the land, there’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me, we’re worth something more than dirt. What we are fighting for, in the end, is each other.”
When I read this again I thought of the history of our country, and of our troops around the world still fighting to set other men free. If that doesn’t tug at your heart then I just don’t know what else to say.
"I ain't no better than anyone else, and there ain't no one better than me!" Ma Kettle