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Idealism vs. Realism
\Idealism vs. Realism: Lee (idealist) vs. Longstreet (realist), Chamberlain(idealist) vs. Kilrain (realist), duty to family (idealist) vs. duty to state (realist)
Lee vs. Longstreet
The Confederacy’s first and second in command (respectively) are friends but are contrasting in their character, their strategies, and in what they stand for.
Lee is a true southern gentleman, a romantic who holds pride above life. The "formal and pious" general represents the strategies of pre-Industrial Revolution conflicts: he gambles with dashing offensives that lead to numerous Confederate victories in the second year of war.
Longstreet stands for all that is new: a "grim and gambling" pragmatist, his defensive trench warfare strategies are unheeded by Lee but later play a major role in WWI. His modern warfare tactics (modern meaning post-Industrial Revolution; the Industrial Revolution swept through the U.S. over the course of the 1800s) reflect the technological advancements made with rifles and artillery. But other army leaders couldn’t comprehend that the further-shooting, more accurate guns necessitated a change in fighting styles (or these other leaders were too honorable), so the infantry strategies remained the same and casualties skyrocketed. The contrast between the two generals’ views on honor and strategy are thoroughly explained in an exchange between Longstreet and Fremantle in Longstreet’s chapter of the Wednesday section. (p. 133)
Longstreet can be compared to the Trojan in the Aeneid who knew the Trojan Horse was a trap, but was cursed in that none would heed him. In the same fashion, Longstreet knows a defensive position is essential for a Confederate victory, but Lee insists on taking the offensive.
Chamberlain, who is one of the two main protagonists along with Longstreet, represents the pensive ex-professor’s perspective--as opposed to the West Point views of the "army regulars." This type of professor-made-officer character is also found in Saving Private Ryan, in which Tom Hanks portrays a thoughtful and considerate intellectual similar to Chamberlain. Chamberlain "marches off to war with a vast faith in the brotherhood of man [but then] spends the long night at Fredericksburg piling corpses in front of himself to shield him from bullets." (p. xix) Chamberlain’s idealism was only wounded, however, and it lives on despite of the senseless atrocities of war and the opposing views of others. One of those others is Kilrain, a fatherly aide to Chamberlain who is primarily a foil for the ex-professor. Kilrain’s opinion that some men have no more worth than a dead dog is rejected by Chamberlain, who sees a divine spark in all humans.
Duty to Family vs. Duty to State
This theme is foreshadowed in the foreword and more clearly spelled out in the quotations preceding the first chapter.
When Chamberlain is given command of his regiment a week before the Battle of Gettysburg, his younger brother Thomas becomes his aide. Later in the book Chamberlain will be forced to use his younger brother to "fill a hole" in the defensive line on Little Round Top.
Lee’s quotation from his refusal of Lincoln’s offer to head the Union Army basically states that although he is loyal to his nation, he is unable to raise his hand against his relatives and his home (Virginia). State allegiance is another theme that is developed later in the book.
E. M. Forster (an early 1900s English novelist who explored the attitudes of barriers between people) weighs in with Lee’s side by saying, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."