At dusk, Chamberlain sits on a rock overlooking the battlefield. It looks like “the gray floor of hell.” He marvels at the contrast between the clean, green fields of that morning and the carnage, litter, and smoke he sees now. His mind feels “blasted” as well—he is still in shock from the artillery bombardment. He knows he has been present at one of the great moments of history.
Significantly, the novel ends with the perspective of Chamberlain, as the Union has been victorious here and will ultimately win the war. Chamberlain doesn’t feel unmitigated triumph, though, as he looks out on the ugly fallout of the historic battle.
Chamberlain closes his eyes and pictures the battle again, thinking that it was the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. He doesn’t understand the presence of “unspeakable beauty” above the fear and horror. He supposes that in the face of tragedy, one feels the doors open to eternity, “the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.”
Chamberlain tries to come to terms with his mixture of emotions. The presence of beauty amid senseless death doesn’t fit into the ethical sense he carried with him into Gettysburg.
Rain begins to fall lightly around Chamberlain, washing the dust and dirt from his face. Soon Tom finds him and sits with him in the darkness. Chamberlain feels immense love for his brother but restrains himself from showing emotion. Tom speaks admiringly of the Rebels’ courage that day. “Thing I never will understand,” he says. “How can they fight so hard … and all for slavery?”
Rain signals the promise of renewal after the trauma of the day. Tom is also wrestling with what he’s witnessed that day. For him, it comes back to the unavoidable question of slavery—how could men give their lives for such a cause?
Chamberlain realizes he had forgotten all about the Cause when the guns began firing. It now seems strange to him to think about “morality, or that minister long ago, or the poor runaway black.” As he gazes across the field now, all he can see is outlines of bodies illuminated by lightning.
In contrast to his stark views earlier in the story, Chamberlain can hardly summon these ideals as he overlooks so much death. The immediacy of suffering has rattled his certainty.
Tom points out that the Rebel prisoners never talk about slavery. He asks Chamberlain how Chamberlain explains this: “what else is the war about?” Chamberlain just shakes his head. He agrees with Tom that if it weren’t for slavery, no war would have been fought. “Well then,” Tom concludes, “I don’t care how much political fast-talking you hear, that’s what it’s all about … I don’t understand it at all.”
Chamberlain is thinking of Kilrain: “no divine spark.” He also thinks, “Animal meat: the Killer Angels.” He watches as bodies are laid out carefully on the field below. He can feel no hatred toward them—only an extraordinary admiration. He feels almost as if they were his own men, and he feels a visceral pity. Again remembering Kilrain, he says, “They’re all equal now … in the sight of God.”
Chamberlain is reminded of his youthful oration on the conflicted nature of humanity. He cannot understand the motivations of his enemies, but he sees them as fully human—willing to give their lives away just as he was. Embodying a “killer angel” himself, he feels deep compassion for the very men he was—and is—ready to kill.
Tom gets up, urging his brother to move, too, since there’s a big rain coming. He asks Chamberlain if he thinks the rebels will attack again. Chamberlain nods, knowing they’re not done. He even feels “an appalling thrill.” He knows he’ll be there until it ends or until he dies, and he is amazed at his own eagerness.
Chamberlain has discovered in himself an eagerness for war that surprises him, something he can’t fully reconcile with his own beliefs. Even his own motivations, at bottom, are somewhat mysterious to him.
As the rain begins to pour, Chamberlain thanks God for the privilege of having been there that day. He returns to his men. Meanwhile, “the light rain went on falling on the hills above Gettysburg, but it was only the overture to the great storm to come.” The storm breaks in earnest over the valley, with monstrous wind, lightning, and flooding rains, “washing … the white bones of the dead, cleansing the earth … driving the blood deep into the earth, to grow it again with the roots toward Heaven.” It rains all night. The next day is the Fourth of July.
The intensifying rain foreshadows the battles and ultimate Union victory to come. The rain washes away the marks of the day’s suffering, but it can’t erase the consequences of the day, which will have healing effects as well as deadly ones. The dawning of Independence Day implies that the sufferings of Gettysburg will eventually yield greater freedoms for all.