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.