Daytime, Gettysburg. General John Buford, commander of the Union cavalry, enters Gettysburg with his two brigades: 2,500 men, all mounted on horses. Buford is scouting the land ahead of the Union army. He spots a brigade of Confederate infantry in the town, and he is surprised to see them apparently without cavalry. He decides to remain in Gettysburg and sends a message back to the infantry commander, General John Reynolds, telling him that he has occupied Gettysburg and expects an even larger Confederate force to arrive the next morning.
Buford surveys the area around the town and notices its “high ground.” Buford rides through the middle of the town with his men. The townspeople are relieved to see Union troops.
Buford decides to occupy the hills with his men. They dismount and get ready to fight on foot. He hopes to prevent the Confederates from taking the high ground the next day until Reynolds arrives with his troops.
Nighttime, Confederate camp west of Gettysburg. The Confederate officers try to teach Lieutenant Arthur Fremantle, a British military observer, how to play poker. Longstreet muses on the upcoming battle. One of his aides, Sorrel, informs Longstreet that a soldier spotted Union cavalry in Gettysburg. The reporting officer’s commander, General Hill, thinks he must have seen a state militia, but Longstreet is not sure.
Longstreet continues to brood, chatting briefly with Fremantle. General George Pickett, a good soldier and a perfumed dandy, arrives, much to everyone’s pleasure. Other officers under Pickett’s command also arrive: Lew “Lo” Armistead, Jim Kemper, and Dick Garnett.
Pickett’s division has not had much action. Now, the division has been placed at the rear of the army. Pickett approaches Longstreet and asks that his division be moved up, but Longstreet refuses, adding that if the army has to turn and run, Pickett’s division will then be leading the fight to escape. Pickett leaves and Longstreet then talks to Armistead. Armistead’s old friend, General Winfield Hancock, is in the Union army, and Longstreet speculates that he may soon meet his friend—in battle. Longstreet tells Armistead that he would prefer to use defensive warfare tactics, such as trenches. Armistead replies that his ideas are sound, but that the Confederate army is not the army to try them out on. Besides, Armistead says, General Lee would never agree to defensive warfare, because he thinks it is somewhat dishonorable.
Back at the poker game, several of the players, including a Southern politician, become upset at Fremantle for saying that the war is over slavery.
The next morning, skirmishes begin between Buford’s men and the Confederate infantry in Gettysburg.
The most important event in Chapter 3 is Buford’s decision to try and hold the “high ground.” The high ground consists of four hills: Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, and Round Top. The hills are all connected by a long, crescent-shaped ridge called Cemetery Ridge. This high ground will be important throughout the entire novel. Control of the high ground gives an army several things: a good view of the entire battlefield; an excellent place from which to fire off artillery, meaning cannons; and a good defensive position. It is much more difficult to run uphill toward an enemy than it is to fire downhill at one. Little Round Top, in particular, has a lot of rocks that give good coverage against bullets and is so bare that it affords a view of several miles around. Civil War historians generally agree that the high ground was critical in the Battle of Gettysburg, and, therefore, Buford made an excellent move in realizing that fact and protecting it.
The chapter also reveals the difficult decisions a soldier must make, especially in the absence of his superior officers. Buford is unsure whether the Confederates are really coming, and he is particularly worried that if he decides to try and stop the Confederates from taking the hill, General Reynolds will not arrive in time to save Buford’s brigades from heavy casualties and help keep the Confederates off the hills.
By switching the narrative point of view between the story’s characters, Shaara is able to show how differently the various participants perceived the battle. Shaara establishes a pattern of choosing a single person on which to focus in each chapter, giving us only that person’s perspective on the situation. This kind of narration is known as third-person subjective. This is different from an omniscient narrator, who can dive into the thoughts of any character and can make comments and judgments external to the story. For instance, in Chapter 3, an omniscient narrator might tell us what Buford’s aide is thinking or comment in his own voice on how clever it was for Buford to secure the high ground. On the other hand, a subjective narrator never leaves the point of view of the character on which he is focused: we never read the thoughts of Buford’s aide, we only read Buford’s own thoughts. A subjective narrator does not interrupt the narration to make aside comments: the narrator might tell us what Buford’s personality or mood was like, but he would not remark on the importance of Buford’s decision to grab the high ground.
Also, this use of third-person subjective narration creates a sense of suspense in a story whose outcome we already know. Shaara’s use of this form of third-person subjective narration means we are not always getting all the information about what is happening. Buford only knows his own thoughts: he does not know what General Reynolds is doing at any given moment, and he does not know what his aide is thinking unless he asks him. This style gives a very realistic portrayal of what events might have looked like to a participant, and in a novel that uses real-life historical characters, it is important for Shaara to make the characters seem as realistic as possible. People have been reading about Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Joshua Chamberlain for more than a century. If Shaara wrote in the third-person omniscient point of view, the novel might have read like a very detailed history textbook. By using the subjective narration, Shaara draws us much deeper into the intricacies of characterization and mood, as opposed to merely the plot summary of the Gettysburg story.
Chapter 4 is an excellent example of this technique of limited perspective. It is a long chapter that serves primarily to introduce the moody, intelligent Longstreet, who has recently lost three children and no longer socializes with his troops. The chapter also introduces nearly a dozen other characters, such as the pompous English lieutenant, Arthur Fremantle, and the dandy General Pickett. Fremantle serves primarily to reinforce the long-held romantic notion that the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Confederate officers were true gentlemen who passed their wealth on from generation to generation, in the tradition of British high society. In contrast, the Northern officers came from many different ethnic backgrounds and from a society in which anyone who earned enough money could become rich and a member of the social elite.