After their lone stand on Little Round Top, Chamberlain and his men are now in the very middle of the army. The lieutenant guiding them to their new position, Pitzer, tells Chamberlain that Meade had nearly ordered the whole army to withdraw that morning, but had been voted down by all the corps commanders, Hancock standing especially firm. Pitzer places Chamberlain’s regiment in reserve behind the crest of Cemetery Hill.
Meade makes a striking contrast to Lee in his eagerness to withdraw. Having been pulled off the line, Chamberlain and his men are ironically positioned with a front-row perspective on the final battle.
Chamberlain is hungry and lonely. A messenger comes from General Sykes, requesting Chamberlain’s company. The messenger leads him up the crest of the hill, and Chamberlain finds himself in the presence of Hancock, a “picture-book soldier.” He perks up and straightens his uniform before passing him. Hancock is surrounded by generals, all of them eating chicken. Still without rations, Chamberlain’s mouth waters. When he is introduced to Sykes, the general looks at him appraisingly, notes his civilian background, and asks to hear more about Chamberlain’s actions on Little Round Top.
Chamberlain, still recovering from the events of the previous day, is only concerned about getting food and rest. But he has achieved something remarkable, and the higher-ups want to hear about it.
Sykes commends Chamberlain’s actions and tells him that the army needs more fighting men like him, whether Regular Army or not. Then he sends him off to get some rest, since nothing is going to happen today. Chamberlain thanks him and asks about rations, which Sykes asks a lieutenant to see to. Then Chamberlain begins limping painfully back to his men, “a picturesque figure,” ragged, blood-spattered, without having shaved or changed clothes in a week. He is so tired that he stumbles directly past the mouth of a cannon.
Even the generals seem to have little idea of what the Confederates are about to unleash—and to be rather indifferent to Chamberlain’s bedraggled state, which is all he can think about. His appearance matches the state of his mind and spirit after the week’s events.
When Chamberlain passes the generals again, Meade has joined them. Chamberlain can “feel the massed power … like being near great barrels of gunpowder.” A lieutenant approaches him respectfully and asks if he can be of service. Chamberlain swallows his pride and asks for food, and the lieutenant brings him three pieces of chicken, “awful but marvelous.” Chamberlain shares most of the chicken when he reaches his camp and then works on wrapping his bleeding foot. He sees Tom approach and thinks about sending Tom to plug the hole in the line, the only jarring memory from yesterday. “Some things a man cannot be asked to do,” he thinks; “this whole war is concerned with the killing of brothers.” He makes up his mind that Tom will have to be moved elsewhere.
The generals’ obliviousness to basic needs, compared to the lieutenant’s solicitousness in offering help and Chamberlain’s willingness to share food, points to the difference in perspective between higher command and rank and file. Chamberlain extrapolates his regret about Tom to an observation about the entire war. Part of its tragedy lies in the way it pits brothers against one another, even if they aren’t literal blood relatives like Chamberlain and Tom.
Tom’s expression shows that something is wrong. Tom tells Chamberlain that the hospital is a mess, with amputations being done out in the open. Chamberlain asks him about Kilrain. Tom finally admits that Kilrain has died. Chamberlain’s senses come sharply into focus as he absorbs the news. Kilrain died before Tom reached him that morning and had left word to tell Chamberlain goodbye and that he was sorry. His wounds did not kill him; his heart had given out. The brothers sit quietly for a moment. Chamberlain struggles to accept that Kilrain’s steady presence is gone forever.
In the midst of Chamberlain’s triumph comes the great sorrow of losing his father figure. In the Civil War, hospitalization and other post-battle traumas could often be as deadly as the battlefield itself.
There is the sharp report of a single cannon, then another. Then there is “the long roar as of the whole vast rumbling earth beginning to open.” Everyone lies facedown as the air is filled with relentless explosions and smoke. As the Union guns reply, the thunderous noise lulls Chamberlain to sleep. He wakes up once, amazed to see Hancock riding calmly along the crest of the ridge. He listens to the “great orchestra of death” and thinks that he would not have missed this spectacle for anything. Finally, he falls asleep again.
The final Confederate offensive begins. Contrary to the expectation that the center of the Union line would be “quiet” that day, Chamberlain is exposed to the full force of the onslaught. Despite the horror and his own overwhelming sleeplessness, he is awed by the spectacle, as well as Hancock’s heroics in continuing to lead his men in the open (though Hancock was later to be badly injured).