Chamberlain hears the cannon begin. He is instructed to form his regiment. They begin to move forward, Chamberlain learning that the Rebels have attacked the left Union flank. As shells begin to tear into the trees around them, Chamberlain orders Tom to the rear, to lessen the likelihood that both brothers will be killed at once. He relaxes slightly.
Down the road, Chamberlain’s regiment hears the Confederate onslaught begin. He moves his younger brother to a more distant spot, foreshadowing a moment later in battle when Tom’s safety won’t be his primary concern.
Chamberlain learns that General Sickles has left his hill uncovered because he didn’t like the ground, allowing the Rebels to move around his flank, and thereby putting the Twentieth Maine in a jam. The men run uphill in the darkness, among woods and boulders. Chamberlain and his men are placed at the top of the slope, surrounded by ridges of rocks. They are now the flank of the army.
Chamberlain’s men are in an awkward and vulnerable defensive position, thanks to a general moving off the hillside without orders.
Chamberlain thinks it is a strange place to fight. He watches his regiment form along the ridge in the darkness. Colonel Vincent explains to him that they are the extreme left of the Union line. That means they cannot withdraw under any conditions. If they move, they will be flanked and taken from the rear. They must defend this place to the last.
The Colonel’s instructions are ominous. As the extreme edge of the army, the regiment cannot move anywhere without risking disaster to the whole army.
Chamberlain walks among his men, wondering what “to the last” really means. He is unsettled by the darkness and emptiness off to his left. He is not used to fighting without men on all sides of him. In the distance, Sickles is being overrun. Lots of soldiers are headed their way.
Chamberlain is in an unprecedented position and will soon learn the truth about his courage and leadership ability.
Chamberlain checks on the six remaining holdouts from the Second Maine mutineers. He promises that any man who joins the fight now will not face charges. Half of the men join up, while three remain resolute. Chamberlain cannot understand their intransigence and will not spare a soldier to guard them. The battle slowly moves closer as Chamberlain walks along his line. At last he hears the Rebel yell— “a weird sound … a ghost, high and thin.”
Even in this tension-filled moment, Chamberlain remembers the mutineers and extends another chance to the stubborn holdouts, showing his concern both for them and for his own men. Soon the Rebel attack is eminent.
The Rebels don’t come in a full charge, but in a lapping wave. A regiment rolls up the hill, out of the dark toward them. The next few minutes are a chaos of noise and smoke, but the initial Rebel attack seems to be repelled. As Chamberlain checks on the dead and injured, he comes upon Kilrain, shot in the armpit. He sends Tom for a surgeon. Chamberlain is shot in the foot as he overlooks the next wave of Rebels but is not felled by the injury.
Chamberlain, Kilrain, and others in the regiment sustain damage in the first wave, but repel the worst of the attack.
Chamberlain sees masses of Rebels coming up the hill, moving from tree to tree. He is blown off the rock once again, but keeps his wits about him, realizing that their position is being flanked. He ponders what to do, searching his memory to come up with the move he wants. He instructs his commanders to “refuse” the line, forming a new line at right angles and creating a swinging door effect. The move helps repel the next charge of Rebels.
Chamberlain is able to come up with an unfamiliar maneuver under fire, showing his remarkable mettle and ingenuity.
The regiment is almost out of ammunition and has lost many men. They are stretched thin, and Chamberlain is briefly horrified when Tom jumps up to plug a hole in the line. Chamberlain feels it would be his responsibility if Tom were killed but cannot think about it now; he knows they will not be able to hold off the Rebels for much longer.
Despite his concern for Tom’s welfare, Chamberlain can’t keep his brother out of harm’s way while commanding the entire regiment. Their situation is becoming dire.
Chamberlain knows that if they pull out, the entire flank will cave in. The burden of responsibility is inexpressible. But suddenly Chamberlain forms an idea. He orders his men to fix bayonets and explains that they will have the advantage of moving downhill. They will charge, swinging to the right, sweeping the oncoming Rebels down the hill.
Chamberlain again concocts an unlikely plan at the last possible moment, this time for a downhill bayonet charge.
The entire Regiment runs screaming down the slope, bayonets in the air. Chamberlain watches as Rebels stop, freeze, and then turn to flee. He stumbles downhill toward an officer, who tries to fire at him but whose gun turns out to be empty. The officer surrenders the moment Chamberlain reaches him. Soon Chamberlain realizes that his men are chasing the Rebels down the valley between the hills, and hundreds of others have been taken prisoner. His desperate downhill charge has worked.
The effect of the charging regiment is so alarming that many Rebels surrender or run, making hand-to-hand combat unnecessary. Chamberlain’s quick mind and creative instincts have reversed their fortunes in a matter of minutes.
Chamberlain goes back to check on Kilrain, who has been shot twice. There is a silently emotional moment, “like coming back to your father, having done something fine … and you can see the knowledge in his eyes,” Chamberlain thinks. Before falling asleep, Kilrain tells Chamberlain that he has never served under a better man.
Kilrain is in bad shape, but his pride in Chamberlain’s victory is obvious.
Chamberlain walks among wounded and dying soldiers, shares a drink with one of his men, and talks with Tom, who has survived the battle unhurt. Colonel Rice, the new commander of the brigade, tells him that the charge “was the damnedest thing I ever saw.” He questions Chamberlain about his academic background and wonders how he got the idea to charge. It had seemed logical to Chamberlain, since they were out of ammunition. Now he begins to get the idea that his actions might be considered unusual.
Only in the aftermath of the battle does Chamberlain realize the far-reaching import of his actions. Placed in a nearly impossible position, he was still able to come up with the most effective maneuvers and to lead his men in executing them, thereby doing much to save the Union.
Rice tells Chamberlain that the hill they’ve defended is called Little Round Top. Promising to resupply them with ammunition, he asks that they occupy nearby Big Round Top. Chamberlain says goodbye to Kilrain, having never known a day in the regiment without him. As he and his men climb Big Round Top, he forgets his wounded foot and feels “an incredible joy … as good as a man can feel.”
Despite the exhaustion and sadness of the day, Chamberlain has come into his own as a leader of courage and compassion.