Summary and Analysis
Friday, July 3, 1863 - 4. Armistead
Armistead takes in the view while the Confederate artillery is firing. As the Union shells start to land in the Confederate lines, men hide in the grass waiting to attack. Armistead checks on his men. All around him shells are landing, men are dying. In between the explosions, one can hear the band playing. Needing a private moment, Armistead goes off by himself. He sees Pickett writing a poem to his beloved, and Armistead thinks of his wife, of that last night with her, Hancock, and the song they sang. Walking over to Pickett, Armistead gives him the ring from his finger. "Here, George, send her this. My compliments."
Armistead goes back to his thoughts. He has the thoughts of a man about to meet fate and reviewing it all. He expects death, but will welcome being spared. Either way, fate will decide it, and he accepts that. Garnett approaches on horseback and against orders, intends to ride into battle instead of walk. Armistead fears Garnett is arranging his death, and he tries to get Pickett to order Garnett to stay behind, but Pickett won't do that. It's a matter of honor.
The men line up, talking, joking, the band playing a polka. Armistead says good-bye to Garnett, knowing Garnett will die and it is all in God's hands now. They march through Union artillery, first blind, seeing others getting hit, and then seeing where they'll be attacking. The action moves back and forth through Armistead's eyes: looking to the front, then the sides, at Kimble, Garnett, Kemper, at the men falling, closing ranks. The artillery increases to a "great bloody hail." They cross the field, turn, and merge with other forces. They are being hit with canister shot — millions of metal balls whirring. Armistead is shot in the leg, but moves forward. Men are with him, but not many are left. Armistead knows it's all over and can't be done, but he leads them on to wall anyway. "Virginians! With me!" Almost to the wall, walking on the backs of dead men, they give the rebel yell.
Blue troops begin to break from the fence and retreat. Armistead leaps to the wall, crosses it, sees blue troops running, and then is hit in the side. He feels no pain. He looks back and sees that the fighting is over. Blue boys are everywhere, gray boys are moving back. The song runs through his head again: "It may be for years, and it may be forever." Armistead asks to see Hancock, but he's been hit, too. Armistead cringes at the thought that both of them might die. He remembers the package he sent to Mira Hancock, prays for his friend, gives the soldier a message for Hancock, and then dies.
Even amidst a Union artillery barrage, the band keeps playing. Though it seems surreal to the reader to imagine strands of music in between shells exploding, it must have provided comfort to the men huddling on the ground. The other music that recurs in this chapter and that is charged with deep emotion is the song "Kathleen Mavourneen."
Armistead reviews his life and reflects on how he could have been more emotional, though he notes he felt emotions deeply, if just for a moment, when his wife died. He has sent his personal Bible to Mira Hancock in a package to be opened if he dies. And he gives his ring to Pickett to send to Pickett's girlfriend. Armistead remembers his vow and takes it seriously. He knows the time has come for God to determine the outcome of that vow. He is wishing it could be different, wishing it could be changed, and he is not eager to die, just like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. But Armistead will accept either outcome.
Pickett is a sentimental man of grandiose emotions. He is grateful for Armistead's ring. He is emotional over the coming battle to the point that he cannot even find words to express it.
The theme of honor is seen in Garnett's actions now. Garnett is a man at peace because he is arranging his answer to Jackson's accusation of cowardice, and he welcomes this. He will ride into battle, a perfect target, and in death, his name will be cleared. Armistead tries desperately to get Longstreet or Pickett to order Garnett to stay behind, but Armistead knows they will not.
Unexpressed emotion among the men is another recurrent theme in the book. Armistead sheds tears over Garnett's certain death, but he can't show him. The two men prepare for battle, and their eyes never meet, and they avoid shaking hands. Armistead feels overwhelming emotion for Longstreet who is sitting there looking black, savage, and he wants to say something to Longstreet. But he can't.
The theme that "It's all in God's hands" runs heavily in this climactic chapter. It is Armistead's belief for himself and his prayer for Garnett and Hancock. It is Lee's belief about the battle. The outcome is preordained. They will do their duty. The rest is up to God.
Human kindness in the midst of horror is shown by the Union officer on horseback who tried to save Armistead's life by knocking him down. The officer, admiring Armistead's courage, knew that Armistead didn't stand a chance if he remained standing. It was an unsuccessful but generous and kind act, nevertheless.
bowling balls bowling had been brought to this country by European settlers some time before the war, though at that time it was more an outdoor lawn game.
canister an artillery shell that when fired from a cannon releases hundreds of small metal balls that murderously cut through an advancing enemy line.
solid shot a solid artillery shell that explodes when it lands.