From Across The River And Under Shade Trees

"Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave" -Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

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Location: Texas, United States

Rhode Islander by Birth, Texan by the grace of God.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Lion of Little Round Top

In the thick of battle, ordinary men sometime rise above their station and become immortalized by their deeds. History is marked with military heroes who have impacted history by being in the right battle, placed into the right circumstances at what many may call the crossroads of history. One such person was Joshua L. Chamberlain. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Chamberlain was commanding the 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top, the extreme left of the Union lines. Colonel Chamberlain would eventually reach the rank of Major General and become the only Union soldier to achieve the rank of General through a battlefield commission, aided in part to General Grant believing Chamberlain had died when Chamberlain was only severely wounded on the field at Petersberg. Chamberlain would later be given the distinguished honor of accepting the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Yet, on July 2, 1863, Colonel Chamberlain arguably changed the course of the war and that of history, an ordinary man rising to the status of a hero during the heat of battle and saving the Union lines from being flanked by the Confederate forces.

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Joshua L. Chamberlain was a respected professor at Bowdoin College. When hostilities broke out between the Union and the Confederate armies in 1861, Chamberlain, like many others on both sides of the conflict, believed the war would be short and over quickly. Although he stemmed from a family of citizen soldiers, having ancestors, of both his parents, who fought in the American Revolution against the British, Chamberlain did not answer President Lincoln’s first call for volunteers to fill the ranks of the Union army. Chamberlain believed that his duty to his family and his children were more important, especially for a conflict that would only consist of one battle to decide the outcome. After the Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, and the subsequent failure of the Union Army to deliver a quick deathblow to the Army of Northern Virginia, President Lincoln called upon the states still loyal to the Union to furnish additional troops. Chamberlain took advantage of a loophole in his contract with Bowdoin, which gave him two years of vacation time, in which he could travel to Europe or any other location he so desired. Chamberlain decided that he would like to spend his vacation in the Union army. Traveling to Augusta, Maine, Chamberlain helped to recruit and put together the Twentieth Maine Volunteer Regiment, in which he was commissioned a Lt. Colonel.

Chamberlain decided to join the army mainly because of his opinion about slavery. Chamberlain was similar to many other men who rallied to the Union cause during the war. Chamberlain’s view of slavery was that it was a morally wrong practice but that “The fathers of the Republic found slavery an existing fact and had to deal with it. Some long recognized property rights were involved in it, and relevant wrong would be done by its immediate abolition. There can be no doubt that the sentiment and intent of the whole country was that a system so repugnant to justice and freedom as that of slavery should be limited, not extended –repress[ed], not encouraged; and that some way should be found to satisfy equitable rights of property, and wipe that blot off from our escucheon.” (Trulock 59) Chamberlain was also of the belief that the acts of succession undertaken by the Confederate states was against the Constitution of the United State. The act of succession meant, “The flag of the Nation had been insulted. The honor and authority of the Union had been defied. The integrity and the existence of the People of the United States had been assailed in open and bitter war.” (Trulock 60)

The Twentieth Maine first arrived at the Union front in time for the Battle of Antietam. The Twentieth Maine did not see action in this battle; instead the men from Maine observed the carnage of war from a distance, for many the realities of war replaced their romantic notions of battle. The Twentieth saw its first significant action at the Battle of Fredericksburg, spending most of the battle pinned down near the infamous stonewall behind which the Confederate soldiers has taken refuge and safety. For the remainder of 1862 and early 1863, the Twentieth Maine saw very little combat action. In May of 1863, Lt. Colonel Chamberlain was promoted to Colonel. The new Colonel had little time to become accustomed to his new rank as shortly there after the orders to march north were given.

On July 1st 1863, the Union Calvary encountered parts of the Army of Northern Virginia near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, thus beginning one of the bloodiest battles in American history. The Twentieth Maine was still marching North with the Fifth Corps of the Union Army and saw no action that day. While preparing to strike camp for the evening, word came that the Confederates were engaged at Gettysburg and that General Meade had decided to stand and fight the Confederate Army. Scouts had reported that General Lee’s forces were marching towards Gettysburg and would be in position to attack on July 2nd. General Meade sent word to his forces to march to Gettysburg and prepare for battle. So on the evening of July 1st and the early morning hours of the 2nd, the Twentieth Maine “Having acted as the advance guard, made necessary by the proximity of the enemy's cavalry, on the march of the day before, my command on reaching Hanover, Pal., just before sunset on that day, were much worn, and lost no time in getting ready for an expected bivouac. Rations were scarcely issued, and the men about preparing supper, when rumors that the enemy had been encountered that day near Gettysburg absorbed every other interest, and very soon orders came to march forthwith to Gettysburg. My men moved out with a promptitude and spirit extraordinary, the cheers and welcome they received on the road adding to their enthusiasm. After an hour or two of sleep by the roadside just before day break, we reached the heights southeasterly of Gettysburg at about 7 a. m., July 2. “(Chamberlain)

Upon arrival at the battlefield, the orders came that the Twentieth Maine and the rest of its brigade were to deploy and defend the small hill on the left of the Union line, Little Round Top. Colonel Vincent, the officer in charge of placing the brigade in its defensive position, decided that a defensive position in an approximate quarter circle along the southern spur of the Little Round Top would be the most effective to ward off a Confederate attack. This position allowed the brigade to defend the valley between Little Round Top and Big Round Top while also providing adequate room for reinforcements; room for movement by the individual regiments and left the crest of the hill free for the placement of Union artillery. (Trulock 132)

The brigade quickly fell into its position, the Sixteenth Michigan, Forty-Fourth New York, the Eighty-Third Pennsylvania and the last regiment the Twentieth Maine. The Twentieth Maine was facing south and slightly west towards the steep and heavily wooded Big Round Top. Colonel Vincent attempted to impress on the Chamberlain the importance of the ground the Twentieth defended by ordering that it be held at all costs. Chamberlain knew the importance of that order and the consequences that failure to hold that ground meant to the Union Army. “Failure to hold, and to have the left flank of the army turned, meant that the Confederates would seize the Round Top heights, gain the rear of the whole Union position, where large amounts of supplies and ammunition were placed, and ‘roll up’ the Federal line to the north. Meade’s army would be faced with defeat, a disaster of to the Union cause. The way to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia would be open to a victorious Lee, with incalculable results.” (Trulock 133) With the roads to Washington, D.C. open, General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would have an unopposed march towards the nation’s capital with the Army of the Potomac, the Union army placed with the duty of defending Washington, in the Confederate rear trying to catch the Army of Northern Virginia on its march towards the White House.

The Twentieth Maine has only three hundred and fifty-eight armed men and twenty eight officers that fateful day and had been ordered to hold their ground at all costs, which was the military’s respectful way of saying that the position is to be held until the death of the last man standing. Chamberlain had faith that if any regiment in the Union Army could hold the ground it was the Twentieth Maine. “He could see the resolve and bravery in their expressive faces as he formed his regiment by a complicated maneuver, ‘right by file into line’.” (Trulock 133) This formation gave the advantage to the men on the right of the line, the expected direction of the Confederate attack, to be able to get off the first shots against their attackers. The problem with the formation was that it left the left flank of the Twentieth Maine in the air, meaning it had no natural boundary to protect it. “Chamberlain sent out Capt. Walter G. Morrill and his Company B skirmishers to protect his left front.” (Trulock 133)

Facing Little Round Top was the right of General Lee’s army and Hood’s Division of General Longstreet’s corps. To the left of Hood was Longstreet’s division under the command of McLaws. Orders for the Confederate came and Hood’s brigades moved forward in two battle lines: the regiments from Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas in the front line and the regiments from Georgia following in the second. The fight for the heights of Little Round Top had commenced.(Trulock 139)

The United States sharpshooters had been serving as skirmishers for the Union forces and began a withdrawal from a stonewall in front of Big Round Top. Three of the sharpshooter battalions disappeared into the woods and began to place fire down on the right flank of the Confederate forces. The Fifteenth and Forty-Seventh Alabama regiments, not realizing that it was only a small force on their flank, separated from the rest of the Confederate forces and began a pursuit of a nonexistent up the slope of Big Round Top. Upon reaching the summit and finding no trace of the Federal threat, the Alabama regiments rested briefly and began to make their way down the northern face of Big Round Top to where the Twentieth Maine was positioned. (Trulock 139-141)

As was the custom in the Civil War, Little Round Top had been under fire from Confederate artillery while the Confederate Army advanced into its position it attack. When the barrage of the artillery fire fell silent, every soldier knew that the Confederate attack would be beginning in a matter of minutes. Behind the lines of the Twentieth Maine, Chamberlain paced “unaware that all his life experiences had prepared him for this day. This would be the day that the country’s destiny would depend on his creativity, courage, and leadership, and upon the discipline, bravery, and tenacity of his officers and men.” (Trulock 142)

Chamberlain was able to observe a large Confederate force moving down the slope of Big Round Top towards the front of the Maine’s left flank. Chamberlain realizing the danger this posed to his forces extended his lines and placed the order to “refuse the line”, bringing the left flank back to a ninety degree angle with the right flank. This action was difficult enough given the terrain, but it was also done under fire as the right of the Maine line fired upon the Confederate forces at it’s front so heavily that the Confederate forces were unable to realize the advantage that they had over the Union army. The maneuver was accomplished “were not a moment too soon; the enemy's flanking column having gained their desired direction, burst upon my left, where they evidently had expected an unguarded flank, with great demonstration. We opened a brisk fire at closes range, which was so sudden and effective that they soon fell back among the rocks and low trees in the valley, only to burst forth again with a shout, and rapidly advanced, firing as they came.” (Chamberlain)

The Confederate forces came to within a few yards of the Union line before being turned back under heavy fire. The Confederates regrouped and “renewed the assault on our whole front, and for an hour the fighting was severe. Squads of the enemy broke through our line in several places, and the fight was literally hand to hand. The edge of the fight rolled backward and forward like a wave. The dead and wounded were now in our front and then in our rear. Forced from our position, we desperately recovered it, and pushed the enemy down to the foot of the slope. The intervals of the struggle were seized to remove our wounded (and those of the enemy also), to gather ammunition from the cartridge-boxes of disabled friend or foe on the field, and even to secure better muskets than the Enfields, which we found did not stand service well. Rude shelters were thrown up of the loose rocks that covered the ground. Captain Woodward, commanding the Eighty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers, on my right, gallantly maintaining his fight, judiciously and with hearty co-operation made his movements conform to my necessities, so that my right was at no time exposed to a flank attack.”(Chamberlain)

By this time, the Confederate forces retreated down the slope to the base of Little Round Top to organize for one final assault on the weakened Union position. Many of the men of the Twentieth Maine had used their allotted cartridges and were forced to find and recover unused cartridges from their fallen comrades. Even during the midst of battle Chamberlain was able to find his of humanity upon coming across the dying Pvt. George Washington Buck of H-Company. In the winter camp, Buck had been reduced in rank from a sergeant on the word of a quartermaster. “As his colonel bent down to him, Buck’s face brightened, and he whispered a request that his mother know he had not died a coward. Thinking of a way to right the wrong done Buck and recognize his bravery too, Chamberlain immediately promoted him again to sergeant for his ‘noble courage on the field of Gettysburg.’ The boy, only twenty-one, died knowing he had been exonerated, and his honor restored.” (Trulock 146)

Chamberlain knew that even the best of men could not withstand one more assault by the enemy forces. Some of his soldiers were preparing for the assault by grabbing the barrels of their muskets so as use them as clubs, their last line of defense after their ammunition had been exhausted. Chamberlain feared “that the enemy had almost surrounded Little Round Top and ‘only a desperate chance was left.’” Lt. Holman Melcher asked Chamberlain for permission to go forward and rescue some of the wounded. “You shall have the chance…I am about to order a charge,” was Chamberlain’s reply. Chamberlain’s voice raised over the battle field “ ‘We are to make a great right wheel,’ as he stepped to the colors. ‘Bayonet!’ Chamberlain shouted. ‘Forward….’” The rest of the order has been lost to history as the word bayonet spread down the line of the Twentieth Maine. (Trulock 147)

The Confederate forces, who were only about thirty yards from the Twentieth Maine’s front were completely taken by surprise when the roughly two hundred men remaining in the Twentieth Maine charged towards them with their bayonets mounted on their weapons. This sight would strike terror into many a soldier, and the Confederates were no different. Many in the first Confederate battle line dropped their weapons and raised their hands in surrender while others turned and ran away. Groups of soldiers were captured in such large groups that it seemed that entire companies had been taken prisoner. “Behind a stone wall….cut off from the main fight and about 150 yards from it, Captain Morrill and his B-Company saw any Confederates retreating quickly toward them.” Captain Morrill quickly ordered his company to charge and was soon joined by some of the sharpshooters who had disappeared on Big Round Top. Because these groups wore different uniforms than the Twentieth Maine, it gave the appearance of two different bodies of Union soldiers joining the battle as reinforcements. Colonel Oates, one of the higher-ranking Confederate officers, found himself in the middle the fighting. He quickly realized the situation was hopeless for the Confederate forces and ordered a retreat and because an orderly withdrawal from the battlefield would not have been wise, the Confederate forces “ran like a herd of wild cattle.” (Trulock 148)

Chamberlain himself went with his men in the charge and was confronted by a Confederate who presented his sword to Chamberlain with one hand while trying to fire a revolver at Chamberlain’s face with the other. The Union line pushed on eventually sweeping up the Forty-seventh Alabama and the Texas regiments. The bayonet charge of the Twentieth Maine has cleared the Union front brigade up to the Forty-fourth New York. It was here that Chamberlain and his officers ordered a halt to the charge, which proved to be difficult as the more enthusiastic men claimed they wanted to continue the pursuit “on the road to Richmond.” The charge had taken almost four hundred Confederate soldiers prisoner, but Colonel Chamberlain was afraid those Confederates who had retreated might reorganize and ordered his men back to their lines, but the attack never came and the fighting for Little Round Top had ended. The Twentieth Maine had held its ground with a remarkable and desperate bayonet charge. (Trulock 149)

For his actions during the fight for Little Round Top, Chamberlain would receive the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. It was awarded for his “daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on Little Round Top against repeated assaults…” Colonel Chamberlain had saved the Union lines from utter collapse with his quick thinking and faith in the courage of the men under his command. “But the truth of history is….with the self-sacrificing valor of the Twentieth Maine, under the gallant leadership of Joshua L. Chamberlain, fighting amidst the scrub-oak and rocks in the vale between the Round Tops on the 2nd of July, 1863, saved to the Union arms the historic field of Gettysburg. Had they faltered for one instant – had they not exceeded their actual duty….there would have been no grand charge of Pickett, and “Gettysburg” would have been a mausoleum of departed hopes for the national cause; for Longsreet would have enveloped Little Round Top, captured all its crest from the rear, and held the key of the whole position.”(Trulock 155)

Colonel Chamberlain would continue to serve through the rest of the war with great distinction and valor. At the Petersburg, Colonel Chamberlain would be promoted on the field of battle to the rank of Brigadier-General by General Grant, who “forwarded a copy my order to the War Department, asking that my act might be confirmed and Chamberlain’s name sent to the Senate for confirmation without any delay. This was done, and at last a gallant and meritorious officer received partial justice at the hands of his government, which he had served so faithfully and so well.” (Grant 602) General Grant later selected Chamberlain to accept the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox. However, the defense of Little Round Top on the field at Gettysburg would be the defining moment for Chamberlain and with him in that moment the defining moment of the survival of the United States. The ability of the Twentieth Maine to hold their ground against superior numbers prevented the collapse of the Union line at Gettysburg and prevented the Army of Northern Virginia from placing itself between the Union Army and the Washington, D.C..


Chamberlain, Colonel Joshua L. “Report of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, Twentieth
Maine Infantry.” 6 July 1863. Online:

Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant and Selected Letters 1839-1865.
New York: The Library of America, 1990.

Trulock, Alice Rains. In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and The
American Civil War.
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.


Blogger Steven Taylor said...

Hey Ed! Hope your job with the city turns out all right. I'll check into your blog from time to time just to see how you're doing. I also like your military history blog. I thought you might like the following. It is the lyrics to a song called Dixieland performed by Steve Earle. I'm not sure if he wrote the song as well. You should check it out some time.


Steve Earle

I am Kilrain and I’m a fightin’ man and I come from County Clare
And the Brits would hang me for a Fenian so I took me leave of there
And I crossed the ocean in the "Arrianne" the vilest tub afloat
And the captain’s brother was a railroad man and he met us the boat
So I joined up with the 20th Maine like I said my friend I’m a fighting man
And we’re marchin’ south in the pouring rain and we’re all goin’ down to

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and we fight for Chamberlain
'cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the
When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelted just like death

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I’d march to hell and back again
For Colonel Joshua Chamberlain - we’re all goin’ down to Dixieland

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I damn all gentlemen
Whose only worth is their father’s name and the sweat of a workin’ man
Well we come from the farms and the city streets and a hundred foreign lands
And we spilled our blood in the battle’s heat
Now we’re all Americans

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and did I tell you friend I’m a fightin’ man
And I’ll not be back this way again, 'cause we’re all goin’ down to Dixieland

2:39 PM  

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