This story of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War uses characters and the order of events that are historically accurate, though the dialogue is fictional.
On June 29, 1863, a spy from the Confederate army observes the movement of the Union army. He rides to inform Gen. James Longstreet of the Union’s position, surprising Longstreet, who did not know that the Union army was within 200 miles of him. Gen. Jeb Stuart was supposed to keep other Confederates informed regarding the Union’s position, but didn’t.
Union Gen. John Buford occupies Gettysburg with his cavalry and sends word to Gen. John Reynolds, the infantry commander, to come with reinforcements because the Confederates may attack soon. He occupies the high ground in the hills nearby, recognizing its value as a defensive position.
July 1 begins with a rainy morning. An aging Gen. Robert E. Lee is experiencing heart palpitations and is waiting for reports on the enemy’s position. Many of his officers insist that the Union army is nowhere near Gettysburg, but Longstreet’s spy says there is cavalry already waiting in the town, and where the cavalry is, the infantry will follow. Lee asks his right-hand man, Longstreet, to stay back from the main line in the upcoming battle since he cannot afford to lose him.
Buford’s troops defend Cemetery Hill against a Confederate attack, and they’re almost overrun by the time Reynolds comes as their reinforcement. Buford and Reynolds have a brief moment to exchange information and advice, before Reynolds is shot and killed, which emotionally troubles Buford.
Lee moves his troops toward Gettysburg. Several skirmishes take place and the Confederates appear to be winning. Lee wants to attack in full force the next day, but Longstreet advises against it since they’re outnumbered. Despite their resounding small victories, they are in a disadvantageous position for attacking because the Union holds the high ground on Cemetery Hill and other nearby hills. Lee is frustrated with Gen. Richard Ewell, who is new to his command, for having been too timid to attack and take the high ground.
On July 2, the Confederates prepare to attack the Union. Lee wants a final, definitive battle, and the Confederates are confident they can rout Gen. George Meade’s Union army. Arthur Fremantle, an officer from England accompanying the Confederates as an observer, is unwaveringly certain that the Confederates will win because he believes that they are gentleman and the Union soldiers are rabble. Fremantle thinks that the American experiment of democracy failed because the Southerners are very firmly divided into a strict social hierarchy, just like England.
On the opposite side of the army lines and the ideological spectrum, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the Union Army thinks about the equality of humankind. His men discover an injured escaped slave, who doesn’t yet speak English. Chamberlain makes sure the man receives refreshment and has a surgeon tend his wound. Chamberlain is disturbed by the sensation of foreignness and disgust that he feels for the man even while understanding that the other man is his equal. After more thought, he feels a renewed sense of the rightness of the Union cause.
Lee wants to do an echelon attack, with diagonally arranged units arriving one after the other. But once the Confederates start marching toward Cemetery Ridge, they discover that the Union has changed its position slightly, moving down from the high ground into a peach orchard. This means a great deal of extra marching and maneuvering for the Confederate troops, who are already tired. Longstreet tells Gen. John Hood to attack the peach orchard. Hood argues that the Union already knows his position and that such a direct attack will result in heavy losses, but Longstreet is not willing to defy Lee’s orders again. Longstreet tells Hood that he must take the hill known as Little Round Top.
Chamberlain receives orders to form his regiment, the 20th Maine. They are instructed to hold Little Round Top at any cost, because they are the far left regiment of the Union; if they fail the Confederates can surround and attack the rest of the army from behind. As the battle progresses, the 20th Maine sustains heavy damage, and their ammunition begins to run out. Chamberlain determines not to abandon the hill, even if it means death for himself and his regiment. He orders the men to fix their bayonets and charge. Amazingly, the charge is successful and the nearby Confederate troops surrender.
After the day’s fight is finished, Longstreet sees a wounded Hood in the field hospital and learns that most of Hood’s troops blame Longstreet for their catastrophic defeat at Devil’s Den. Longstreet hears reports of the overall Confederate death toll for the day and knows that Lee no longer has enough troops for a major assault. Lee however, sees no other course of action open to him.
On July 3, Longstreet again advises Lee against a frontal assault, but Lee is adamant. As they talk, they hear cannon fire and learn that Ewell has been attacked by the Union, so the battle has begun early. Lee orders Longstreet to charge the center of the Union, hoping to break their line. Longstreet voices one final plea to avoid direct frontal warfare, but is again silenced by Lee.
Confederate Gen. Lew Armistead prepares to attack the Union line, thinking sorrowfully of his best friend, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who is fighting for the other side and whom he swore never to harm. As Armistead’s brigade moves forward over open ground (in the battle later known as Pickett’s Charge), the Union cannons continuously fire on them and their losses are staggering. Armistead and some troops make it to their objective at the top of the ridge, but their attack has failed, and Armistead dies while asking a Union officer to send his apologies to Hancock.
Longstreet watches as the Confederate army is decimated. He feels helpless, knowing that he sent so many men to their deaths. Lee visits among the troops and admits that the whole defeat was his fault. Longstreet watches Gen. George Pickett confront Lee, crying and saying that he has no division left after the charge and that every single one of his colonels is dead or wounded. Lee tells Longstreet that they must withdraw all troops. Lee assumes there will be other battles in the future, but Longstreet isn’t sure he can continue commanding men in a losing war. Lee says they don’t really have a choice. Longstreet gives the order to retreat.