This is a historical fiction novel recounting the plot behind the Battle of the Gettysburg from the point of view of real-life figures of the Civil War such as General Robert E. Lee, General James Longstreet and Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain. While the book offers factual information, the emotions behind the suffrages of the war are well reflected by the chapters, which combined together make up a narrative description of the entire timeline of the battle. The novel is written from a semi-omniscient perspective so that even though each chapter is written from the viewpoint of a commander, the reasoning behind other characters’ actions is also shown. It starts and ends with a foreword and an afterward; the foreword provides a detailed list of the characters who will be present in the plot and the afterward gives us closure regarding the aftermaths of the battle.
The foreword explains the author’s reason behind writing the book; through his work, he wanted to be one of the men at the Battle of Gettysburg as the men came and some of them won while some lost but most died. He also confirms the authenticity of the novel since unlike other interpretations of the Battle of Gettysburg, Shaara’s is based on the letters and journals of the men who were actually there. Although it serves as an introduction for all major characters, the foreword is mainly focused on the Confederate hero General Robert E. Lee, who is confident that this will be the end of the Union troops, pumped with the confidence of just coming from winning a series of battles. This serves as foreshadowing of the ultimate fall of Lee whose determination of winning the Civil War lead to the loss of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The story starts on June 29, 1863 with the arrival of Confederate spy Harrison who informs Lee and Longstreet that the Union troops are nearing them. This is news to the two generals since they had expected to be informed about any such movement by their cavalry officer, J. E. B. Stuart who had been tasked with the job of keeping tabs on the Union soldiers. The Confederate soldiers travel more towards the southeast to make camp in a small town called Gettysburg in order to get ready to fight the opposing army. On the other hand, Colonel Chamberlain of the Union army also receives news that the Confederates are nearby and takes it upon himself to prepare his men for the upcoming battle. He delivers an inspiring speech about the abolishment of slavery that convinces around a hundred new men from another regiment, the Second Maine, to agree to fight with the Twentieth Maine, at the Battle of Gettysburg. With the exception of only six men, Chamberlain prepares to march to Gettysburg through the state of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, General John Buford of the Unions reaches Gettysburg to see the Confederates already there with their men and weaponry. He realizes that he must keep them preoccupied until Chamberlain arrives with his regiment to fight the Confederates. He places around his two thousand men by the hilly areas of the town so that Unions have an advantage of height when the fighting actually starts. At the same time, the Confederates form their own plans and the generals discuss strategies. Like Buford, Lee and Longstreet too agree that the high areas would be instrumental during the battle since it is easier to fight from above than it is from below. They urge General Ewell to recapture the hilly areas from Buford’s men but the plan is not successful. However, the process does cost Buford many Union soldiers.
The second day is not more favorable for the Confederates. Lee and Longstreet disagree about the positioning of the soldiers. Longstreet wants to take the soldiers south and plant an attack midway between the Union army and Washington D.C. to cut off their resources. However, Lee states that instead, the Confederates should go on the offensive and fight the battle from here. He orders troops to take back high ground from Buford, while Chamberlain’s men progress towards Gettysburg with great speed. Thus, the high grounds, also known as Little Round Top, are attacked for the second time in two days and the Confederates are successful in greatly weakening Buford’s cavalry but the Unions are saved just in time when the infantry of Chamberlain’s regiment arrives first, with General John Reynolds leading them. Reynolds is killed almost instantly but more men start arriving in from the south to protect the Little Round Top. At the same time, unbeknownst to Lee, Chamberlain has also ordered his men to surround the Confederates from the north. In spite of these obstacles, Lee’s men put up a good fight and come close to the winning. They attack the two flanks of the Union soldiers, heavily weakening the army from both sides. However, Chamberlain has one more trick up his sleeve; when he realizes that his soldiers cannot fight anymore and would have to retreat, he launches cannons at the enemies. The Confederates give up and for the day, the Little Round Top is safe in the hands of Chamberlain. That night, Stuart finally returns and is rebuked for his absence by Lee. Since the strategy of the day had been focusing on the left and right flanks of the Unions, Lee decides to direct his men towards the middle flank the next day in order to destroy the soldiers completely. Longstreet is still opposing Lee’s plan, determining that attacking the Union right at the center would only cost the lives of more Confederates. However, Lee stubbornly believes that dividing the army into two halves and then battling each half simultaneously is the best way of winning the battle.
The next day, July 3, would ultimately decide the winner of the Battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet makes one more attempt to convince Lee to direct the troops towards Washington D.C. and take the Unions by surprise. Unsurprisingly, Lee refuses to budge from his decision so Longstreet has no other option than preparing an attack on the center of the Union line. Chamberlain is at the center of the line, having moved most of his men from the left to the middle, and expects no attack from the Confederates from this side. He is surprised to be proven otherwise as General Pickett of the Confederates makes his infamously unsuccessful assault at the Unions, which will go down in history as the ‘Pickett’s Charge’. Before the beginning of the actual attack, the Confederates attempt to lessen the numbers of their enemies by the use of artillery. However, the arrows do not do much since they fly too high to cause any actual damage to the troops. The Unions are too many in number since Chamberlain had, as aforementioned, shifted the majority of his men to the center, and the Confederates are overcome easily. Additionally, they are attacked with more cannons and ammunition, causing the battle to end very swiftly. By the time the few surviving soldiers were finally ordered to retreat, Pickett had lost sixty percent of his men. The Confederates had lost the battle. They had lost thousands of men and although the war was far from over, somehow, the Battle of Gettysburg was the first sign of the loss of the Cause.
Lee and Longstreet both half-admit to each other that the war cannot be won now and it seems that they too have lost the will to fight anymore. On the winning side, Chamberlain must deal with his own demons. Although he still believes in the values of his side, he has come to appreciate the valor and unwavering faith of the Confederates. He has a conversation with his brother Tom, who is amazed that the Confederates would fight so valiantly for a cause so shameful as slavery but Chamberlain observes that in death, all reasons in life cease to exist. Now that the dead of the Gettysburg has been buried, they are again all equal whether they have been Union soldiers or Confederate ones. He celebrates the Fourth of July, the next day after the win, with his men, as a symbol of their victory. Just like the confederates have finally realized that they have no chance of winning the war now, the Unions now firmly believe that the war is for them to claim as well as the Battle of Gettysburg. Although they could have come back to finish the Confederates once and for all, they do not. Longstreet wishes otherwise and wishes that they had so as to end the war once and for all. However, they do not come back.
Afterward, Michael Shaara narrates the end results of the battle. Only realizing after all has been lost, Lee attempts to repent for the error of his ways by asking to be excused from his position. Longstreet too resigns from Lee’s command but both are denied resignation and must continue to fight together through a war they both already know the result of.