Chamberlain is awakened from a dream about Maine by Buster Kilrain. The former is recovering from sunstroke after an eighty-mile march over four days. Kilrain explains that one hundred and twenty mutineers from the Second Maine regiment are on their way. The men had signed three-year contracts with the expectation of fighting only with the Second Maine and, that regiment now being disbanded, are refusing to fight.
When Chamberlain is introduced, he is in an unpromising state, weakened by the rigors of the march. But he is immediately thrust into a difficult situation—dealing with a large group of battle-weary, disillusioned men.
Meade’s message authorizes Chamberlain to shoot any man who refuses to fight. Chamberlain marvels at the “crazy” expectation that he deal with one hundred and twenty mutinous men, on top of his own regiment. Still feeling fragile from the long march, he ponders what to do. A year ago, he had been merely a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College.
Not for the last time, there is an evident disparity between the expectations of top leadership and those who must actually deal with enlisted soldiers day to day. Moreover, Chamberlain doesn’t feel equal to this challenge, coming from a background very different from most of the other officers in the story.
Chamberlain’s younger brother, Tom, newly a lieutenant, greets him and asks him why he doesn’t ride the horse, as he’s looking weak. Chamberlain emerges from the tent and sees the army slowly coming to life. Down the road he glimpses the mutineers approaching camp under guard, a “strange pathetic spectacle.” He wonders, “How do you force a man to fight—for freedom?”
Chamberlain’s idealism begins to come into focus. He believes that the war is about “freedom,” and that no one can be forced to fight for this cause; watching the mutineers being forcibly marched toward him, he finds the very idea to be a contradiction in terms.
The exhausted mutineers collapse on the ground despite yelling and prodding by the guards. The captain, contemptuous, hands the prisoners over to Chamberlain and loudly reminds him that he is welcome to shoot them. Chamberlain dismisses the captain and then the guards with few words.
Chamberlain’s reserve and apparent confidence in dismissing the guards contrast with the captain’s bombastic attitude. He is willing to step up and assume leadership even while feeling uncertain about how to proceed.
The prisoners look hungry, exhausted, and occasionally hateful. Chamberlain introduces himself as the Colonel of the Twentieth Maine. The first thing he asks the men is, “When did you eat last?” Some of the men explain that their superiors have been starving them in an attempt to break them. Chamberlain promises he will instruct the cook to butcher a steer for them; they have a long way to walk today.
Chamberlain sets the tone for his dealings with the mutineers by attending to their needs first. He makes clear that they will be fed and that they can expect a long journey, quietly signaling that he does not intend to shoot them. Chamberlain displays a thoughtful and strikingly compassionate character, especially in light of the cruel treatment the men have received.
Chamberlain is relieved when the prisoners move toward the food instead of resisting his authority. A spokesman for the prisoners (soon identified as Bucklin) asks to air his grievances, so Chamberlain dismisses Tom and leads the man away to speak in private. Chamberlain welcomes the scarred man to the regiment, relying on the pleasant, courteous manner he has developed for dealing with rebellious students.
Chamberlain is a resourceful man—he draws on the skills he has developed as a professor to placate an aggrieved inferior in these very different surroundings. He is also patient and willing to give a hearing to someone whom others have deemed deserving of summary execution.
The scarred prisoner, a stubborn, watchful man, tells Chamberlain his regiment’s story. He talks about his men’s long history of engagements and shows Chamberlain a battle scar on his leg. Relaxing, he finally identifies himself as Bucklin, a fisherman from Bangor. Bucklin explains that his men are exhausted and tired of being poorly treated by “lame-brained bastards from West Point.” Because of such men, the Union won’t win this war, and Bucklin and his men would just as soon go home.
Chamberlain’s capacity to make others feel heard and respected comes to the fore. Bucklin’s account also shows the degree to which rank-and-file soldiers have been disillusioned by this point in the war; because of mismanagement, they believe victory is beyond reach, and they do not expect fair treatment from those above them.
Chamberlain grants the man’s point and excuses himself to speak to a courier. He is instructed to lead his men to the first position in line and move out. He dismisses Bucklin with the promise to consider his words. When Tom comes in, Chamberlain warns him about any appearance of favoritism, and, on Tom’s complaint that General Meade has his own son as adjutant, Chamberlain points out, “Generals can do anything. Nothing quite so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield.”
Chamberlain’s concern for fairness even extends to his immediate family, wanting to ensure that his younger brother, Tom, speaks to him with professionalism. But he is also not naïve, acknowledging the freedom generals have to do as they please. His words foreshadow the stature Lee commands from his beloved followers.
Chamberlain continues to ponder his next steps, knowing he won’t shoot anyone. He would die for the truth, he realizes, yet he finds it too difficult to talk about. “I’ll wave no more flags for home,” he thinks; “nobody ever died for apple pie.”
Chamberlain puts careful thought into his next steps, aiming to persuade rather than simply command. He does not want to speak glibly about his ideals. As much as he loves his native Maine, he also rejects sentimental notions about America, reaching for deeper principles instead.
Continuing to reflect, Chamberlain contemplates his simple belief in the dignity of man, passed down from his persecuted Huguenot ancestors. He further believes in America as a place where “a man could stand up free of the past … and become what he wished to become.” The existence of slavery is an affront to these principles, as is the growth of a Southern aristocracy, which Chamberlain is fighting to crush.
Chamberlain is descended from Huguenots, Protestants who endured centuries of persecuted minority status in France. He thus has a stake in America as a place where the past shouldn’t determine a person’s future. He fights in the war because he believes that slavery and the aristocratic class that perpetuates it undermine the very American founding.
Chamberlain believes that his views constitute no mere patriotism but a new faith, that while “the Frenchman may fight for France … the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.” But he wonders how to convey these ideals to the battle-weary mutineers.
Chamberlain holds that an American doesn’t ultimately fight for America, but for humanity. Yet, again showing his sensible and self-aware nature, he knows these principles will be a tough sell for soldiers who have weathered three years of battle.
As the rest of the regiment begins to form, Chamberlain gathers the prisoners around him. He begins his speech softly so that the grumbling prisoners will have to be quiet to hear him. He opens by saying that he won’t shoot any man who refuses to fight, but that the regiment could really use them. He explains that the men of this regiment each made a choice to fight, all with a variety of motivations, but that for all of them, “freedom is not just a word.”
Chamberlain marshals all of the tools at his disposal as a professor of rhetoric. He then appeals to the men’s sense of dignity as soldiers with something still to give, and tries to explain that, while the war might not mean the same thing to all the men of his regiment, freedom does mean something real to all of them.
Chamberlain continues to explain that the Union army is something unique within history. They aren’t fighting for loot or land or under compulsion, but to set others free, he tells the prisoners. They fight for the idea that people are of greater value than land; in the end, they fight for each other.
Warming to his theme, Chamberlain widens the scope of his speech. He argues that this army isn’t just any army, fighting for its own interests, but is instead a liberating force within history.
Chamberlain concludes by promising to do what he can to ensure fair treatment for the men after the battle. Resting after his speech, “a new vague doubt” troubles his mind, but he isn’t sure what he missed saying. Tom brings Chamberlain’s horse, and Chamberlain agrees to ride on today’s march. As the regiment moves off toward Gettysburg, Tom rides up to tell him that all but six of the mutineers have agreed to join the regiment. Chamberlain feels great joy.
Chamberlain harbors something unresolved in his mind, perhaps vaguely aware that his ideals have not endured much testing. But he finds satisfaction in the fact that his speech has been effective. Meanwhile, he finally agrees to ride his horse, as officers typically do, rather than further exhausting himself on the march.