The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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The Killer Angels | Part 3, Chapter 4 : Thursday, July 2, 1863: The Second Day (Chamberlain) | Summary

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Summary

Chamberlain is ordered to move his men up the hill. Vincent tells Chamberlain that Sickles led his men down the slope against orders, leaving the hill top unoccupied. Vincent gives Chamberlain the job on top of the hill as the farthest left flank of the Union line. He orders Chamberlain to hold his position whatever the cost. Chamberlain positions his men, digging in behind rocks, and tells Tom to stay down.

The assault begins as Confederate forces advance up the hill. The artillery fire is deafening. Granite dust fills the air along with smoke from firing rifles. Chamberlain goes up and down the line of men, shifting troops as necessary to keep it unbroken. He is blasted from off the rocks by explosions, hurting his foot, blood causing his foot to slip around in his boot. When a hole forms in the line, he automatically places Tom to fill it. The Rebels yell and keep coming. The dead and wounded from both sides are all around, blood spattering the trees and rocks. Chamberlain sees one dead man with half of his face missing. Chamberlain shoots some men at close range with his pistol as they jump over the rock wall.

Chamberlain's troops are running out of ammunition, and there is no more to resupply them. He tells his men they cannot retreat. If they do, the whole flank would fall; "he could see the blue flood, the bloody tide." Out of options, he orders his men to charge down the hill, bayonets fixed. The men follow his lead, and to their surprise the Rebels turn and run or surrender. Prisoners are treated well. Chamberlain gives one Southern officer a drink from his canteen. They learn the name of the hill is Little Round Top. Colonel Rice orders Chamberlain and his men to defend Big Round Top. Chamberlain requests more ammunition. He has lost half of his men and Kilrain and Vincent are gravely wounded, but they defeated over 2,000 Confederate troops and saved the hill. He feels "as good as a man can feel."

Analysis

Through Chamberlain's shining moment and an emphasis on how narrowly the fight was won, the author shows just how nearly the South came to turning the battle in their favor by flanking the Union Army at Little Round Top. Chamberlain is the hero of the fight. He displays readiness to sacrifice himself and his men to save the Union and unparalleled bravery when his regiment runs out of ammunition. He is a true leader, never asking his men to do something he would not. They follow him, even when he asks them to fight hand to hand with bayonets. His victory is all the sweeter because it was so unexpected and hard won. If the Southern soldiers had not turned and run from Chamberlain and his men, the South could have defeated the Twentieth of Maine who were out of bullets. If the South had gained the hill, the Battle of Gettysburg would likely have ended differently. This makes Chamberlain even more of a Union hero in retrospect.

Readers have already seen the aftermath of battle through Longstreet's eyes, but the author places readers right in the thick of the fray in this chapter. The noise alone is overwhelming. There is the frightening sound of the Rebel yell, explosions of artillery, the impact of bullets on the rocks and trees, and gunfire all around. Readers can see the air full of smoke and granite dust, and the feel the squish of blood from Chamberlain's foot inside his boot. Along with Chamberlain, readers see the carnage of injured and dead men. The author uses sensory detail to place readers in the middle of the assault on Little Round Top.

The author contrasts the fierceness of battle with the civility of the soldier's conduct with prisoners. He describes the brutality of the assault, from artillery explosions and bullets piercing men, blowing them apart, to slashes from bayonets, and soldiers killing each other in horrible, merciless ways in battle. However, the enemy may surrender at any time, and once they are a prisoner, they are treated with respect and humanity. Chamberlain gives his own water to a prisoner, and they interact civilly. This contrast may strike readers as unusual as prisoners are not always treated well even in the years since international laws on warfare like the Geneva Convention have been adopted.

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