Summary—Chapter 3: Lee

Of course, I do not know his situation, and I do not want him to engage a superior force, but I do want him to take that hill, if he thinks practicable.

See Important Quotations Explained

Morning, Gettysburg. Lee arrives in Gettysburg to discover a small battle in full fury. General Heth’s troops are engaged in battle against the Union infantry that has arrived to relieve Buford. Lee is annoyed because he has no information from General Stuart, the cavalry leader who has been assigned to report on the movements of the Union army. No one knows where Stuart is, and Longstreet thinks he is out joyriding. Lee surveys the field with binoculars and sees that Heth’s forces have been forced back by the Union troops. Heth appears and tells Lee the story: he moved in to Gettysburg, thinking he would be fighting a militia, and discovered he was fighting Buford’s dismounted cavalry. The cavalry put up a good fight, and just as Heth thought he might win, Union infantry—Reynolds’s men—appeared and repulsed the attack.

As Heth tells this story, Lee receives reports from one of his generals, General Rodes, who informs him that his division has arrived along the northern flank of the Union army and has already engaged the enemy. He also sends word that Jubal Early’s division will be joining his attack within an hour. It seems to Lee that everything is happening almost as if it were planned, and he tells Heth to attack again, along with General Pender’s division. The battle rages, and then General Hill reports that Heth has been wounded and that the Union forces are fighting better than he remembers them ever doing. Eventually, the Confederate army forces the Union army back, and the Union troops fall back to the hills on the northern end of Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, and Culp’s Hill. Lee sends a message to General Ewell, telling him to pursue the Union troops and to take the hill “if possible.”

Longstreet arrives and surveys the scene. He suggests that the Confederate army should swing around behind the hills and position itself between the Union army and Washington, D.C. But Lee refuses to disengage—essentially to retreat and move the army—in the face of the enemy. A message arrives from Ewell—he has not yet taken Cemetery Hill because he fears a Union attack from the south of Gettysburg. Ewell never begins the attack, much to Lee’s consternation.

Summary—Chapter 4: Chamberlain

Piled-up bodies in front of you to catch the bullets, using the dead for a shield; remember the sound?

See Important Quotations Explained

Afternoon, south of Gettysburg. Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain marches his men toward Gettysburg. Tom, Chamberlain’s brother, explains the personalized brigade bugle call to a new recruit. As he rides his horse, Chamberlain broods and daydreams, realizing that he is starting to love the life of the soldier. But he also recalls piling corpses to block bullets and the constant awareness in battle that one can die at any instant. He wonders if he has grown to love that too.

He then remembers his boyhood home, reciting the “What a piece of work is man!” speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which includes the line, “[I]n action, how like an angel!” He recalls how his father replied, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” The young Chamberlain then gave a class speech entitled “Man, the Killer Angel.”

The regiment marches through the town of Hanover, whose residents are very glad to see Union troops. As they near Gettysburg, the soldiers receive word of the battle that day, and the regiment swiftly moves toward the town. They set up camp just outside the town and wait for morning.

Analysis—July 1, 1863: Chapters 3–4

Chapter 3 contains most of the major combat on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The struggle is primarily between two of the five Union infantry divisions brought up by Reynolds and the divisions led by Heth, Rodes, and Early. The battle is something of a Confederate victory since the Confederates force the Union army back to Cemetery Ridge. But the Union troops start “digging in” to the hills, fortifying their positions behind stone walls and among trees and placing artillery on high ground. The Union forces are now facing west, toward Seminary Ridge, which runs parallel to Cemetery Ridge. From north (right) to south (left), the Union line starts at Culp’s Hill and continues along Cemetery Ridge through Cemetery Hill down to Little Round Top. Culp’s Hill lies to the east of Cemetery Hill, making the Union army’s line curve. The shape of the Union line has often been compared to a fishhook with its barb at Culp’s Hill, and its shank extending between Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top. This geography is important because Chamberlain’s forces will occupy the southern side of Little Round Top, which means they are the extreme left flank of the Union army.

This chapter also contains one of the most infamous events in Civil War history. Lee orders Ewell to take Cemetery Hill if possible. Many historians have claimed that the hill would have been taken if Lee had given the same order to “Stonewall” Jackson, his right-hand man who was killed before the Battle of Gettysburg and replaced by Ewell and A.P. Hill. But Ewell—cautious, nervous, new to command, and still recovering from the loss of a leg—never attacks. Overnight, the Union forces dig in and fortify their positions, and Union reinforcements arrive, making the Confederates’ attack much more difficult the next day. Many historians have blamed Ewell for losing Gettysburg because he did not take Culp’s Hill on the first day before the Union reinforcements arrived. Other historians have blamed Lee for not appreciating the differences between Ewell and Jackson and therefore making his orders more explicit. Wherever the blame rests, the failure of the Confederacy to gain the high ground is often given as the reason that they lost the battle.

Stylistically, Chapter 4 is very different from the chapters that precede it, since there is almost no action and no plot. Chamberlain marches his men north toward Gettysburg and broods. After Longstreet, Chamberlain is the most developed character in the novel. Shaara characterizes Chamberlain as the quintessential citizen-turned-soldier, the Maine professor who suddenly finds himself piling up the corpses of fellow soldiers in order to shield himself from bullets. Chamberlain becomes very morbid as he recalls these actions and the sound of “the flap of a torn curtain in a blasted window, fragment-whispering in that awful breeze: never, forever, never, forever.” Chamberlain chides himself for these thoughts and for his “professor’s mind.” Shaara uses Chamberlain to provide the thinking man’s view of the Civil War. Lee and Longstreet are career soldiers—they have known only the army, and while they are educated gentlemen, they are not professors. Chamberlain, the intelligent man who left his comfortable life to come to war, has the clearest view of both sides of the conflict—the military as well as the civilian perspectives.

Chamberlain’s chapters also give the best view of the everyday life of soldiers. Generals like Lee, Longstreet, and Buford eat well, play poker, and drink all the liquor they want. Chamberlain is only a colonel and his friends all serve under him, including his brother. Chamberlain’s lower rank also means he has to deal with concerns such as arranging to handle men who faint from heat exhaustion and ensuring that the marching speed is maintained. Later, Chamberlain’s chapters provide the only real description of combat from inside the battle itself.