Armistead watches the assault begin. Longstreet sits motionless on a fence rail, and Pickett yells with joy. Armistead sees Union shells passing overhead and runs back to check on his division. Poorly sheltered, some of the men are killed, but after a while, the onslaught is not so bad. Armistead wishes for a quiet moment before the charge begins. He finds Pickett writing his fiancée, Sallie, a letter and impulsively gives him his ring, to send to Sallie with his compliments. Always sentimental, Pickett says to Armistead, “Isn’t it something? Isn’t it marvelous? How does a man find words?”
Pickett’s boyish attitude shows a romanticized view of warfare—one that is soon to be overturned by the events of battle.
Pickett is profoundly moved; like Stuart, he is a soldier who “looked on war as God’s greatest game.” Armistead walks away, admiring the solidity of Longstreet’s unmoving presence in the distance; it reminds him of his friend Hancock, but he cannot think about that now. As the attack looms, though, he can’t help remembering his vow to God and feeling himself powerless in the grip of forces beyond himself. He wishes he had more of Pickett’s openness and had shared more of himself during his life. He feels that he is getting too old for soldiering now. He feels proud of Hancock, the best soldier the Union has.
Pickett and Armistead represent contrasting reactions to the drama of war. The naïve Pickett looks on it as a glorious adventure, while Armistead feels the weight of his own possible death and the horror of taking up arms against someone he loves.
Just then, Garnett comes up on his horse. He is still having trouble walking and says he will have to ride into battle. Armistead reminds him that Pickett has ordered that no one must ride; if he does, Garnett will be a perfect target. Garnett grins faintly and repeats that he can’t walk. “And cannot stay behind. Honor at stake,” thinks Armistead. After Jackson’s charge of cowardice, Garnett must prove his honor once and for all. Armistead feels tears coming to his eyes and knows there is nothing he can say. Garnett makes small talk about his soldiers and some Pennsylvania whiskey they found. The two men’s eyes never quite meet. Finally, there is an awkward silence, and they shake hands. As Garnett rides away, Armistead prays for protection and justice for his friend.
Garnett exemplifies the Southern attitude toward honor as he prepares to foolishly ride into battle. He believes he doesn’t have a choice to act otherwise, and Armistead, sharing that belief, can say nothing to stop him. They can only exchange awkward pleasantries as they wait for the battle to begin.
Armistead does not pray for himself yet, believing it is all in God’s hands. He feels a curious sense of detachment and calm, like a dull Sunday afternoon spent waiting for the grownups’ blessing to be allowed to run and play. Pickett rides up, unable to hold still, and reviews the orders with him. Pickett reminds him that all soldiers must make the charge on foot. Armistead asks what he will do about Garnett. Pickett says he cannot order Garnett not to ride and feels helpless to intervene, as it’s “a matter of honor.” Armistead understands, but remarks quietly that he is getting too old for this business. He rides back into the woods and looks at Longstreet, still sitting on the fence, and feels a “bolt of almost stunning affection” for the man.
The strain of waiting is palpable. Once again, Garnett’s decision to disobey orders and ride into battle goes unchallenged, as “honor” remains an insurmountable obstacle for all involved. Armistead feels that the burden of the code of honor, as well as the weight of war in general, is becoming too much for him.
Pickett runs up to Longstreet suddenly, carrying a message from the artilleryman that if they are going at all, now is the time, as they have successfully silenced some Yankee artillery. “What do you say, sir?” he asks. Longstreet stands still in the dark of the woods. He says nothing, just stares. Armistead feels “an eerie turning, like a sickness,” as he realizes that Longstreet is crying. Tears come to his own eyes as he walks closer, seeing such an unprecedented and unexpected sight. Pickett asks again, and Armistead sees Longstreet take a deep breath, then nod, dropping his head and turning away from Pickett. Pickett lets out a whoop and shakes a clenched fist. He hands Longstreet his letter to Sallie and walks toward Armistead with his face alight, crying tears of joy. He says something about being chosen for the glory of Virginia. He calls for the men to form their brigades.
Armistead is sickened by the strange sight of his friend Longstreet’s tears, though Pickett, still joyful, seems oblivious to the general’s emotion. Longstreet’s grief over sending the men into battle and almost certain death has finally broken through, though it doesn’t stop him from giving the order, albeit without conviction.
Armistead summons his brigade to its feet, feeling oddly sleepy. He moves up and down his line, seeing Garnett still on his horse, knowing the man will not last five minutes. Then the orders come. They begin to move through the woods. Armistead silently apologizes to Hancock and commits his own spirit to God. A rabbit breaks from the brush and runs away, causing a man to joke, “[If I was] an ol’ hare, I’d run, too.” Then the men emerge onto open ground and quietly form their division.
The decisive moment has finally come. The fleeing rabbit breaks the tension slightly, but also signals the terror to come.
Armistead goes over to Garnett one final time, saying, “Dick, for God’s sake and mine, get down off that horse.” Garnett simply says, “I’ll see you at the top.” They shake hands. Armistead says that he ought to ride, too. Garnett says that it’s against orders. They look at the division and remark what a beautiful sight it is. They say goodbye one last time.
The friends’ goodbye is wrenching, as they know they won’t both make it to the top of the hill. Even in this last moment of peace, they take pride in the impressive sight of their gathered men.
Remembering Longstreet’s tears, Armistead feels an acute depression for the first time. He thinks how desperate their situation is. But he forms his division and, as Pickett raises his sword, bawls the orders as forcefully as he can. The brigade begins to move toward the distant ridge. Armistead can see nothing but the backs of the men in front of him. But then the Northern artillery starts firing again. Armistead realizes they hadn’t actually driven off any Yankee guns; the apparent withdrawal was Hancock’s doing, to lure them in.
It fully sinks in for Armistead how little hope the Confederates have, especially when it becomes clear that the Union artillery is still in place; its silence had given them a false sense of security. But he leads his men forward anyway.
More and more artillery fires, and gaps begin to open where shells have exploded within the line. Some of Armistead’s own men begin to be hit and to die. Cannonballs bounce like bowling balls. Then they come within range of the muskets. They halt to close the gaps and shift the line, and Armistead feels pride and furious love. They start making their way up the rise, the line beginning to break. He sees Kemper riding, because Garnett rode. Kemper rides over to Armistead, pleading for help, but they can barely hear each other. Armistead now sees Union soldiers in the open. He places his hat atop his sword and raises it high, calling for his men to run.
As the brigades move across the open ground, it doesn’t take long for the scene to become a nightmare. The Union onslaught has already taken a serious toll on Armistead’s men, but he is moved with affection for them and perseveres in leading them. Kemper has also ridden his horse out of solidarity with his friend Garnett.
They come to a road, clogged with the bodies of men. Armistead passes a crying boy, frozen and staring up the ridge. He tries to urge the boy onward, asking “What will you think of yourself tomorrow?” Still the boy doesn’t move. Ahead there is more and more confusion, the lines fragmenting as more and more men fall. Kemper is down. Armistead expects to die at any moment but is not hit. As they near the wall, the whole world seems to be dying. Armistead feels a blow in the thigh, but it doesn’t hurt, and he can still walk. Then he sees Garnett’s bloodied horse, riderless, coming down the ridge.
The crying boy symbolizes what the rest of the men probably feel, but Armistead’s words encapsulate the Southern mindset—keep moving so that you won’t feel shamed by your lack of honor. The sight of Garnett’s horse shows the outcome of such thinking, however.
Armistead looks for Garnett, but there is so much smoke he can’t see. The charge comes to a halt; the men are stopping to fire at the Union soldiers now visible on the other side of the wall. They are thirty yards from the wall, “unable to advance, unwilling to run, a deadly paralysis.” Armistead realizes they cannot win, yet, instinctively, he raises his sword again and screams for his men, “drawn by the pluck of that great force within, for home, for country.”
The Confederates are in an impossible position, but the sense of honor still lives in Armistead, and he continues leading the charge forward.
Armistead reaches the stone wall and sees Union men falling back. He feels incredible joy for a moment. He leaps atop the wall and down the other side. Finally, he is hit in the side, but there is no pain. Wearily he moves toward a cannon and pauses to rest against it. The world is becoming blurry, but he sees that men are beginning to fight hand to hand. A Union officer rides toward him, then he feels a violent blow, followed by peace. He feels the end coming. He looks up and sees the officer, who tells him he had intentionally ridden toward him to knock him down, as Armistead didn’t have a chance. He feels ready for death but manages to ask for General Hancock. The officer tells him Hancock has been hit. Armistead manages to send his regrets, asking the officer to tell Hancock how very sorry he is. He feels himself falling quietly into the dark.
Armistead obtains the objective of reaching the top of the ridge and feels triumphant, but the death he’d expected quickly follows. His love for Hancock, and his consciousness of breaking his vow not to fight against his friend, stays with him to the last moment. Their reunion is not to be.