As Chamberlain walks among his men, he thinks that “all his life he had been a detached man, but … [now] he had joined not only the army but the race, not only the country but mankind.” He has found his true calling.
Chamberlain’s ideals are still quite elevated, as he finds joy in fighting not only on behalf of his country, but of humanity.
Chamberlain daydreams about his wife and the South she loves: “Strange hot land of courtly manners and sudden violence … a well-bred, well-mannered, highly educated man challenging you to a duel.” Just then, Kilrain appears with the news that he has found an injured black man.
As Chamberlain muses on the odd dichotomies one finds in the South, he is abruptly interrupted by the discovery of a man who will challenge his lofty ideals.
The black man is very large, dark-skinned, well-muscled, and raggedly dressed. He has a bullet wound just under his ribs. Chamberlain has not seen many black people before and is “fascinated.” He realizes there is nothing inscrutable about the man’s face, as he had first thought; the man is simply exhausted. The man speaks almost no English.
At first, Chamberlain mainly sees the black man’s differences from himself. He soon recognizes that, despite the communication barrier, it is easy to tell that the man has struggled greatly.
As the black man eats and waits for a doctor, Chamberlain is shocked by his own hesitation to touch him— “a flutter of unmistakable revulsion” he had never suspected was there. He feels ashamed. Looking on, Kilrain says, “And this is what [the war is] all about.”
Chamberlain is stunned when, despite his vaunted ideals, he feels uncomfortable touching the ex-slave. These feelings fly in the face of his genuine willingness to fight for the ideal of equality. Kilrain drives the point home when he observes that this particular human being embodies all that Chamberlain has been theorizing about.
Tom arrives, chuckling over his conversation with some Rebel prisoners. When asked about their motives for fighting, the men claimed they weren’t fighting for slavery, but for their “rights.” Yet they could not specify what “rights” they were defending. Meanwhile, a surgeon has arrived and is examining the black man, who appears more frightened than ever.
Juxtaposed with the suffering man’s specific deprivations is the prisoners’ inability to name the specific rights for which they are fighting. Shaara presents a heavy irony here.
Chamberlain feels “a slow deep flow of sympathy” for the black man and wonders how much the man understands of what is happening around him. How much could he know “of borders and states’ rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? … And yet he was truly what it was all about.” The reason for the war feels “brutally clear” to Chamberlain.
As compassion overcomes Chamberlain’s initial discomfort, he realizes that many of the underlying issues of the war—important though they are—can be reduced to the plight of this man. His beliefs are still important, but they must be considered in light of the sufferings of specific people, not as detached ideals.
Chamberlain wishes he had time to think, but they will soon be moving into battle. As the doctor finishes his treatment, he reveals what he was able to learn from the black man. Apparently, the ex-slave had gotten lost and wandered into Gettysburg seeking directions, only to be shot by a woman there. He has only been in the country for a few weeks and wishes to go home. Chamberlain doesn’t know what to do. He instructs the doctor to bandage the man well and send him off with food—but which way is “home”? Chamberlain bids the former slave goodbye, feeling foolish and angry.
Sadly, the displaced black man doesn’t find easy refuge and understanding in the North, either—only racially fueled mistrust and violence. This further underscores the separation between ideals and on-the-ground realities. Chamberlain is ashamed of his inability to really help the man.
The regiment forms and begins to advance across the Pennsylvania fields through the heat of the day. When they stop to rest, Meade sends back a message which Chamberlain is to read to the troops. The order mentions that any man who fails to do his duty will be punished by instant death. Chamberlain is embarrassed, thinking it a “damn fool order, [the] mind of West Point at work.” He does not believe that men can be threatened into this kind of fight; they must be led—by him.
Chamberlain’s position hasn’t changed from the beginning of the story; he maintains that it is oxymoronic to force any man to fight for freedom, and it is something only a distant hierarchy would think reasonable. The moment calls instead for steadfast leadership.
As they wait, Chamberlain asks Kilrain what he thinks of “Negroes.” Kilrain broods and finally says that one cannot judge an entire race of people; one must take people one at a time. He has met some blacks who have earned his respect. Chamberlain says that he has never believed there is any difference between the races. A black man has “the divine spark” in his eye the same as a white man does.
Evidently, Chamberlain is still rattled by the encounter with the black man, prompting him to seek the opinion of his father figure. Yet Chamberlain’s underlying belief in equality appears unchanged.
Chamberlain recalls some visitors from the South whom he had met before the war, a minister and a professor. The minister had asserted that “a Negro was not a man,” and that Chamberlain would never understand this unless he lived among them. Chamberlain had left the room in anger, unable to understand how someone could enslave another man and then quote the Bible.
Chamberlain’s beliefs and those of the Southern visitors couldn’t be more starkly different. The minister’s beliefs also challenge the idea that mere proximity can overcome prejudice. While Chamberlain’s ideas needed to become better grounded in reality, they were still more truthful than those of the minister entrenched in his ugly views.
The professor had apologized to Chamberlain for offending him in his own home, though he could not apologize for his views, as they were honestly held. Finally, he had asked Chamberlain, “My young friend, what if it is you who are wrong?” Chamberlain remembers feeling for the first time that he would be willing to kill for his views, and at the same time to wonder if he was completely right. The man’s question still haunts him from time to time.
The encounter with the Southern guests sparked Chamberlain’s passion, making him willing to go to war for his beliefs, yet he also has the ability to question himself, even when the questioner is repugnant to him. This points to Chamberlain’s humility and, in the long run, to the resilience and durability of his ideals.
They sit in silence for a while. Kilrain finally says that he sees a great difference between them, which he can’t help but admire: Chamberlain is an idealist. Kilrain does not believe that there is any such thing as a “divine spark” or intrinsic equality. Rather, he is fighting for “the right to prove I’m a better man than many.”
Kilrain goes on to explain his personal philosophy and motive for fighting: “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 … damn all gentlemen.” He further believes that the only aristocracy is in the mind, and each person must be judged on an individual basis, never on the basis of one’s class or lineage.
Kilrain’s philosophy differs from Chamberlain’s in that, while he also believes that no person should be enchained by their past, he is ultimately much more individualistic. Whereas Chamberlain fights for humanity at large, Kilrain takes an “every man for himself” approach. The ideal of freedom is individual, not communal.
Kilrain tells Chamberlain that the “strange and beautiful” thing about him is that he actually believes in humanity, whereas when he has gained Kilrain’s experience of the world, he will realize that good people are far rarer than he thinks. Chamberlain points out that what black people have suffered in America is terrible. Kilrain agrees but argues that a freed black man is not necessarily superior to many a white man who fought to free him.
Kilrain thinks that believing in “humanity” in the abstract doesn’t make sense. Relatively few good people exist who are worth fighting for, he believes; one can only really fight for oneself. Chamberlain, on the other hand, sees human value as inherent.
Kilrain continues to argue that the point of the war is that “we have a country here where the past cannot keep a good man in chains,” and that it is the aristocracy he is after—“all that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry.” The two ponder what will become of the country if the Union loses the war. They continue to wait for orders to move. Chamberlain takes comfort in knowing that he is not wrong, that he is fighting for the right side.
Kilrain is angrier about the persistence of class divisions than he is about specific wrongs that have been done. Chamberlain’s belief in equality, meanwhile, remains intact, apparently strengthened by this interlude before battle.