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.
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.