Summary—Chapter 1: Chamberlain

Early morning, Big Round Top. From the hill’s summit, Chamberlain watches the sun rise. Chamberlain’s foot is still bleeding, and he has to keep moving to ignore the pain. His men are low on rations and hungry. Tom appears and offers Chamberlain some coffee. Chamberlain accepts it gratefully and remembers that he used his own brother to plug a hole in the front line the previous day. He misses Kilrain, who is absent because of his injury, and Chamberlain wishes he could talk to him. Tom reveals that he did not use his bayonet the previous day, as he could not bring himself to stab anyone. He points out that Chamberlain was never scared.

Chamberlain notices some artillery begin to fire in the north. He thinks they might be attacked again, but now the men have dug in deep and have plenty of ammunition. An aide arrives and says that Chamberlain’s regiment has been relieved. The relief brigade quickly arrives, and the aide leads Chamberlain’s men away and toward a “safe place” to rest, “right smack dab in the center of the line.”

Summary—Chapter 2: Longstreet

Morning, Confederate camp. Longstreet is preparing for the assault he knows is coming. There is still an opportunity to move southeast, but Union cavalry is quickly closing in on his army’s flank. Lee arrives and the two ride out to survey the battlefield. Longstreet makes one last attempt to persuade Lee to move south, but Lee responds, “The enemy is there . . . and there’s where I’m going to strike him.” Lee wants Longstreet to move, with Pickett’s fresh division in front, and split the Union line in the middle. Longstreet objects—he has lost half of his men, and one of his best officers, Hood, is injured. If he moves forward, the entire rear of the army is exposed. He informs Lee that it is his military opinion that a frontal assault will be a disaster.

But Lee is certain that the Union lines will break, and he sees no alternative. Before Longstreet can say anything, there is the sound of gunfire to the north. Apparently, Ewell has engaged the enemy without orders. But Lee and Longstreet soon discover that Union soldiers have actually attacked Ewell while he was getting ready, and their action surprises the Confederate officers. Ewell’s battle begins to mount, and Lee makes his firm decision to charge the Union center. He tells Longstreet that he must reach a clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet replies, one last time, that he thinks the attack will fail, but Lee dismisses his concerns. Longstreet becomes despondent. He knows Lee will not relieve him and give the attack to someone else, because there is no one else capable of leading the charge. Yet he also knows that it is doomed to fail. Longstreet’s depressed mood comes close to despair.

But Longstreet forces himself to move on, knowing that he cannot reveal his doubts to his officers. He orders the artillery commander, Alexander, to fire at the hill with as much ammunition as he has. Once Alexander thinks enough damage has been dealt, he is to let Longstreet know so the attack can begin.

Longstreet meets with his generals and describes the plan. They are all inspired and moved by the heroic plan, and they do not realize how hopeless it is. Longstreet is certain there will be terrible casualties. Longstreet knows there is nothing he can do but watch.

Analysis—July 3, 1863: Chapter 1–2

In Chapter 1, Shaara makes his biggest departure from historical fact. He moves the Twentieth Maine from Big Round Top to a position in the center of the Union line, right where the Confederates attack the next day. But in fact, Chamberlain’s regiment was moved to a ridge just north of Little Round Top, three quarters of a mile south of the line’s center. Shaara makes this significant departure from history to show the Union perspective on Pickett’s Charge. Moving Chamberlain also heightens the novel’s drama by putting the Twentieth Maine once again in harm’s way.

Chapter 2 focuses again on the struggle between Lee and Longstreet. It may seem frustrating that Longstreet, despite his vocal objections, never tries actively to prevent Lee from making the charge. Longstreet struggles with Lee in private, and when Lee proves obstinate, Longstreet backs down. Yet Longstreet does not seem like a weak-willed man—he is himself quite stubborn. One reason for the conflict may be that Shaara’s allegiance to historical fact abbreviates his poetic license. Dramatically, it would make sense for Longstreet to persevere with Lee until Lee agreed, but since this is not actually what happened in the Civil War, Shaara’s own rules about his novel’s adherence to historical fact prevent him from portraying such an event. Longstreet follows Lee’s orders in The Killer Angels because of his great respect for the man, and his knowledge that the Confederate troops think of Lee almost as a demigod. For Longstreet to go against Lee would be to make himself unpopular. Historically, however, Longstreet is responsible for his own share of personal mistakes in the battle. Furthermore, when Lee goes to see Longstreet on the morning of July 3, Longstreet is actually drawing up orders to move his men south and flank the Union right—he is ready take action despite Lee’s opposition. Lee does not let Longstreet move the troops, and is also annoyed that Longstreet is unprepared to attack the Union’s left flank, as Lee had originally planned. The plan, known as Pickett’s Charge, was actually conceived then, in the morning. Shaara captures the gloominess of Longstreet that morning—he knew many men would die and that the plan would very likely fail.