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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

For the Anniversary of Gettysburg: Dixieland/Steve Earle


The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 147 years ago this week, July 1-3, 1863.  It produced the largest number of casualties of any battle of the Civil War, and is considered a turning point in that conflict because it represented the "high-water mark" for the Confederacy--the northernmost point the South reached before being turned back by the Union Army.

Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, published in 1974, meticulously recreates the battle through the thoughts, actions, and impressions of the men who took part. Though his treatment is fictional, Shaara strove for scrupulous accuracy (his book served as the basis for Ted Turner's epic 1993 film Gettysburg).  All of the major characters in the book are historical figures, with one exception--Private Buster Kilrain, an Irishman serving under Col. Joshua Chamberlain in the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers.  Kilrain is the only fictional character in The Killer Angels, and his surname appears to be derived from the book's title. 

Kilrain turns up in Steve Earle's song Dixieland, from his 1999 album The Mountain, recorded with the Del McCoury Band.  As Earle himself put it:  "I stole this character from the late Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the best Civil War novel I've ever read."  Earle captures Kilrain's spirit and his devotion to his commanding officer:

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and we fight for Chamberlain
'Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind
When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelted just like death

Earle's lyric also paraphrases at least one line directly from the text of the novel:  I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I damn all gentlemen.  In the book Kilrain tells Chamberlain: "I'm Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen."

Earle did take some liberties with the character, however.  Writing about the song in The Civil War in American Culture, Will Kaufman notes:  "Earle gives Kilrain a striking political history not written into the novel: fleeing County Clare under a British death sentence for Fenianism, he arrives in America to join Joshua Chamberlain's Twentieth Maine Regiment."  Michael Shaara's son Jeff provided a somewhat different background for Kilrain (for one thing, he comes from Belfast) in a 1996 follow-up novel called Gods and Generals, which serves as a prequel to The Killer Angels.

Earle's song also suggests that Kilrain survives the Battle of Gettysburg, as Kaufman notes:  "After Gettysburg, Kilrain prepares to march on 'Dixieland' with the vengeance of a John Brown."  In fact, Buster Kilrain dies in The Killer Angels on July 3rd, 1863, from wounds sustained during the action at Little Round Top.

The Killer Angels (Kindle Edition)

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