Summary—Chapter 4: Chamberlain

Chamberlain raised his saber, let loose the shout that was the greatest sound he could make, boiling the yell up from his chest: Fix bayonets! Charge!

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Afternoon, south of Gettysburg. Chamberlain and his men are finally called upon to move, just as the Confederate attack begins. Chamberlain forms his regiment and waits for his orders. His commanding officer, Colonel Vincent, finally begins the march. As the men move forward, they begin to come within range of the artillery exchange. Chamberlain orders his brother Tom to move to the rear of the regiment, before it becomes “a hard day for mother.” The regiment passes Big Round Top and begins to move up onto Little Round Top. Vincent places Chamberlain’s regiment, the Twentieth Maine, on the southeastern side of Little Round Top. He tells Chamberlain, “You are the extreme left of the Union line. . . . The line runs from here all the way back to Gettysburg. But it stops here. . . . You cannot withdraw. Under any conditions. If you go, the line is flanked. . . . You must defend this place to the last.”

Chamberlain’s men immediately begin digging in, piling up rocks to build a stone wall. Chamberlain orders one of his men, Morrill, to take his company farther out to the left, in case the Confederates try to go around the Twentieth Maine and surprise them from the side. Chamberlain goes to the top of the hill and sees that the Union forces in the peach orchard are being overrun and that the Confederates will soon reach Little Round Top. He returns to his regiment. He tells the six prisoners from the former Second Maine that if they join the regiment now, there will be no charges. Three of the men take him up on the offer.

The infamous “Rebel yell” is heard, and the Confederate forces are on their way. Chamberlain finally realizes that he is the end of the Union line and that he has been ordered never to retreat.

The Confederates attack. The Twentieth Maine succeeds in repelling the initial charge. Chamberlain tries to reach Morrill to see if he and his company are all right, but a second attack quickly follows the first. This time, Kilrain is shot, but the wound seems slight, just under his armpit. Chamberlain jumps up on a rock and is promptly knocked down by a shot that lands near his foot. His foot hurts, but there is no hole in the boot. He climbs up on another boulder to get a better view and is shot again. This time the bullet glances off his sword scabbard.

Chamberlain calls all the commanders to him and orders them to hold the line. He says that they are about to be flanked on the left and that they have to stop the Confederates at all costs. He outlines a strategic maneuver, and the commanders quickly leave to execute his orders. Chamberlain returns to Kilrain, who is becoming weaker from his wound.

The Twentieth is beginning to run out of ammunition. The next attack hits hard all along the line. Chamberlain’s men hold, but they are running very low on bullets. The next attack knocks a hole in the line, and Chamberlain instinctively orders the nearest man to fill it—his brother Tom. Tom survives the attack without injury.

The Twentieth Maine is now down to 200 men, having lost a hundred in the battle. The regiment does not have enough ammunition to handle another attack. Therefore, Chamberlain decides to order the men to fix their bayonets to their rifles and charge down the hill in a motion “like a swinging door” to sweep the Confederates away. Screaming, Chamberlain leads his men down the hill, and the plan works amazingly well, as the beleaguered Confederates flee in terror from the charging Union troops. As they try to escape, they run into Morrill’s company. Many of the retreating Confederates are soon either dead, wounded, or taken prisoner.

Chamberlain returns to Kilrain, who has been shot in the arm again. Kilrain praises the job Chamberlain has done. Chamberlain meets up with Colonel Rice, the new brigade commander since Vincent was killed during the battle. Rice is very impressed with the bayonet charge.

The regiment has suffered casualties in nearly a third of its men. Kilrain is taken away to receive first aid, and Rice asks Chamberlain to move his men to Big Round Top. There will be no more fighting for them that day.

Analysis—July 2, 1863: Chapter 4

The fight on Little Round Top is one of the most famous fights in the most famous battle of the Civil War. A single regiment, led by a professor-turned-colonel, is ordered to defend the extreme left flank of the Union army at all costs. They cannot retreat—if they do, the Confederates will quickly come around behind the Union lines and attack from the rear. The chapter’s central position in the book highlights the importance of the fighting at Little Round Top. The narrative also lionizes Chamberlain and his regiment. There are only two descriptions of combat in the book from observers actually in the midst of battle: Chamberlain at Little Round Top and, later, Lew Armistead during Pickett’s Charge. Chamberlain’s description is fast and action-oriented—it is likely that Shaara conceived much of the novel around the fighting at Little Round Top. The chapter moves at a breathless pace, culminating in the climactic bayonet charge. The chapter can almost serve as a short story by itself, with rising action, a climax, and falling action.

The narrator’s description of Chamberlain’s thoughts in sentence fragments gives us a sense of the quick-paced, confusing nature of combat: “He was knocked clean off the rock. Dirt and leaves in his mouth. Rolling over. This is ridiculous. Hands pulled him up.” The swift action is broken up with scenes between Chamberlain and his men, particularly his brother Tom and Kilrain. These scenes give the chapter a plot beyond simply a recounting of historical details, and explain exactly what is going on between the sentence fragments: which soldiers are killed, what angle the Confederates attack from or are going to attack from, and how many bullets the Union soldiers have left. The breaks also give the characters a chance to reflect on the battle and give some meaning to it—Chamberlain’s awareness of the fact that he cannot retreat under any circumstances lends psychological urgency to both the plot and his character.

The fact that both Tom and Chamberlain are fighting in the same regiment gives Shaara a way to reflect on the effect of war on family relationships. Tom’s presence causes a great crisis for Chamberlain during the battle. Chamberlain realizes that the presence of a sibling “weakens a man” in combat when he hesitates to put his brother in a dangerous strategic position. He does so, but the action haunts Chamberlain for the rest of his life, and he writes about the experience in his memoirs of the war. Ultimately, Chamberlain decides to send his brother to another regiment, for two reasons: first, he cannot depend on himself to make the right decisions regarding Tom; and second, it is better to put distance between the two of them so that the odds of both of them dying at the same time are decreased.