A Response to the Melcher Challenge

by James Morgan

(Appeared in July, 1996, Camp Chase Gazette and reprinted by permission)

Jim Morgan has written on various topics for CCG over the years. His somewhat divergent Civil War interests include artillery and music. In addition to writing artillery articles, he has produced a tape of Civil War music called "Just Before the Battle" and is now working on a second tape. Currently living in Lovettsville, Va, Jim works as the Acquisitions Librarian for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, DC.

In November, 1896, Ellis Spear, formerly of the 20th Maine, sent a manuscript to Joshua L. Chamberlain, his old commanding officer, with the request that Chamberlain review it. The manuscript, authored by Spear, covered certain events from the wartime history of their regiment and Spear wanted Chamberlain's comments and evaluation.

In his response, Chamberlain noted some of the then-recent writings about the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, saying that "quite a number of things have been put in distorted perspective lately."1

"The Melcher incident," Chamberlain said, referring to Lieutenant Holman S. Melcher, "is also magnified. He is now presented to the public as having suggested the charge. There is no truth in this. I had communicated with you before he came and asked me if he could not advance his company and gather in some prisoners in his front. I told him to take his place with his company; that I was about to order a general charge. He went on the run and did, I have no doubt, gallant service; but he did no more than many others did, - you for instance, on whom so much responsibility devolved in bringing up the left wing and making it a concave instead of a convex line in the sweeping charge." 2

Nearly a century has passed since that Chamberlain-Spear exchange and the question, "Who saved Little Round Top?," has not been much debated during that time. Though some have claimed the honor for Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren because of his perception, for Colonel Strong Vincent because of his initiative, or for Colonel Patrick O'Rourke because of his regiment's timely arrival on the right, the question, as it relates to the overall action, has had a generally accepted answer. The savior of Little Round Top was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Recently, however, the Melcher challenge was revived in a 1994 work titled, With a Flash of His Sword: The Writings of Major Holman S. Melcher, 20th Maine Infantry. Edited by William B. Styple, and generally reflecting its sub-title, this book also includes reports, letters, speeches, and articles by Chamberlain, Spear, several other members of the 20th Maine, and Colonel William C. Oates of the 15th Alabama, all of whom were involved at Little Round Top. It is largely from these additional materials that the editor reconstructs the argument for Melcher.

Beginning with a slightly veiled reference to The Killer Angels, Mr. Styple criticizes the "novelization of history," 3then declares categorically that it was Lieutenant Melcher, not Colonel Chamberlain, who conceptualized and led the bayonet charge which immortalized the 20th Maine.

Melcher, it is true, does not appear in The Killer Angels, though Michael Shaara readily acknowledged having condensed some of the action and left out several individuals whom he judged to be "minor characters."4 Whether or not that judgement is correct, it was a simple exercise of artistic license in what is, after all, a work of fiction.

More importantly, Melcher's story is not unknown. He is mentioned in many relevant works, from the original pieces cited by Mr. Styple to John Pullen's definitive regimental history, The Twentieth Maine. He appears in Willard Wallace's Soul of the Lion and in Alice Rains Trulock's more recent biography, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Lieutenant Melcher has not been neglected by history.

Though the various documents clearly show that Melcher behaved gallantly during the Little Round Top action, they "prove" only the old bromide that different men, viewing the same battle from different points and perspectives, will have different impressions of what went on.

At the end of his third chapter, Styple sums up his argument with a list of 10 conclusions about the Round Top fight. Of these, however, only three -- numbers one, two, and four -- relate directly to his contention that Melcher, rather than Chamberlain, deserves the credit for the charge. The other seven, though no doubt true enough, are, at best, interesting side issues.

To cite just one example, conclusion number five states that Colonel Oates "was planning to retreat before the charge was made."5 Oates himself later said that he had, in fact, already ordered such a retreat and there seems no reason to doubt him. But Chamberlain could hardly have read Oates' mind and was facing an enemy who had given him no indication of quitting the contest. That Colonel Oates "was planning to retreat" is simply beside the point.

The three conclusions noted above, however, address the issue more directly and therefore warrant close analysis.

Number 1: "The charge of the Twentieth Maine was an impulsive and spontaneous effort in order to protect their wounded comrades in front. 'Bayonets' was the only command given."

Mr. Styple contends that Chamberlain never ordered a charge, but that Melcher, out of compassion for the wounded, took it on himself to advance, and that it was his courageous personal example which led the rest of the regiment to follow his lead.

In support of this argument, Styple quotes a July 6 after-action report in which Chamberlain writes, "I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line."6

He further quotes from Chamberlain's 1889 speech at the dedication of the 20th Maine's monument on Little Round Top. In this speech, Chamberlain said, "(i)n fact, to tell the truth, the order was never given, or but imperfectly ... There was only time or need for the words, 'Bayonet! Forward to the right!'"7 As far as they go, these two statements support Mr. Styple's contention.

Chamberlain, however, wrote two after-action reports on July 6. Mr. Styple quotes only from the second. In the first, Chamberlain wrote, "(a)s a last, desperate resort, I ordered a charge (underlined in the original). The word 'fix bayonets' flew from man to man."8

Melcher himself later says that Chamberlain "gives the order to 'fix bayonets,' and almost (my emphasis) before he can say 'charge' the regiment ... leaps down the hill."9

This is all somewhat misleading and easily could degenerate into an argument over semantics. It does, however, demonstrate the danger of interpreting such texts literally without accounting for the possibility of hyperbole on the part of the writer.

At issue here is not whether Chamberlain actually said, "Charge!," or even whether he remembered precisely what he said during that very busy couple of hours, but whether, at any time, he gave his men some understandable order or instruction about the movement which put the 20th Maine into the history books. In the documents cited by Styple, statements made by Chamberlain (pp. 42, 123, and 296) and Melcher (p. 133), as well as by Private Theodore Gerrish (pp. 68-69), Captain J.H. Nichols (p. 72), Sergeant William T. Livermore (pp. 77-78), Corporal Elisha Coan (p. 84), Captain Howard L. Prince (p. 115), and Lieutenant Samuel L. Miller (p. 259) all either clearly state or reasonably can be interpreted to mean that he did.

It seems especially clear that the idea of an offensive movement came from Chamberlain. "It was too evident," he stated in his first report, "that we could maintain the defensive (underlined in the original) no longer."10

More to the point, Melcher seems only to have wanted to move his company forward and even asked his Colonel's permission to do this. Such a movement would have been a limited and essentially defensive action, while his request for permission shows that what happened was neither "impulsive" nor "spontaneous."

Chamberlain indicated to Spear in the 1896 letter quoted above that he had decided on the charge before Melcher approached him. Perhaps this is so, though time has a way of becoming very fluid at such stressful moments. Chamberlain also may have expanded on Melcher's more limited suggestion or he may have thought to charge about the same time that Melcher thought to advance his company. Various comments can be interpreted to support various conclusions and, as the line already had moved up and down the hill several times anyway, the idea of some sort of movement must have been in the minds of many of the men.

In any case, the evidence does not support an absolute declaration that the charge resulted simply from a spur-of-the-moment impulse by Lieutenant Melcher. It does, however, lend credence to the view that Chamberlain gave some sort of order or instruction beyond simply shouting "Bayonets!" This point will be explored further below.

Number 2: A "right wheel forward," was never ordered by Chamberlain. His first report stated that, "an extended right-wheel" was made only after the initial charge and the breaking of the first enemy line."

What Mr. Styple calls "his first report," actually was Chamberlain's second report. In the first, after noting his order to charge, Chamberlain wrote, "The men dashed forward with a shout. The two wings came into one line again, and extending to the left, and at the same time wheeling to the right, the whole Regiment described nearly a half circle."11

The "first enemy line" being, at most, 30 yards away, it is not surprising that the wheel did not develop until after that line was hit and broken. The 20th Maine did not have the manpower actually to flank the 15th Alabama, so wheeling before hitting the Confederate line would only have exposed it's own flank. "Extend-ing to the left," as Chamberlain said, the Maine men hit as far on the Alabamians' right as they possibly could before wheeling. They had no other choice.

Could an order to wheel have been given after the Confederate line was hit? This seems highly unlikely. Such an order would not only have to have been given, but effectively communicated to the extended and already advanced left, and then properly executed, all while the 20th was fully in motion, scattered through the woods, mixed up with the prisoners, and otherwise distracted.

Could the wheel have happened without an order? This is possible, but, again, unlikely. In fairness, it must be admitted that, by following the lay of the land, the attack more or less naturally would have drifted to the right anyway once the saddle between the Round Tops was reached. Still, mere "drift" does not seem an adequate explanation for a movement described by an eyewitness as looking "like a great gate upon a post."12

One other point. If the forward movement had been made on impulse with no order to wheel, the two wings of the regiment would have charged down the hill away from each other. Had that happened, Chamberlain could not possibly have made the statement quoted above from his first July 6 report.

Wheeling an infantry line requires considerable control and coordination even on the drill field. In the conditions then existing on Little Round Top, the very fact that the maneuver happened strongly suggests that clear preparatory instructions were given and that enough time passed between those instructions and their execution that the men knew exactly what was expected of them. Who but the regimental commander would have given either the instructions or the order to advance?

In other words, before he shouted "Bayonets!," Chamberlain must already have somehow informed his regiment that he was going to order a wheel. So why did he not mention any preparatory instructions in his July 6 reports?

Perhaps a better question is "why should he have done so?" Is it really necessary to detail in an after-action report background information which might reasonably have been inferred by the report's intended readers? Could Chamberlain not have thought that his statement, "I ordered a charge," combined with his short description of the wheel, were enough to make the point?

Chamberlain did, however, provide some of this background in his 1889 monument dedication speech at the regimental reunion and in articles written in 1907 and 1913. Given the various late-century writings on the topic, with the differing perspectives they brought to the public debate, and considering the mysterious rift which developed between himself and Spear in later years, a rift which included Spear's strident public attacks on him, Chamberlain, quite reasonably, might only then have felt a need to detail the background for the historical record.

In the 1889 speech he noted that, having decided on the bayonet charge, he "at once sent to the left wing to give them notice and time for the required change of front."13

In the very short 1907 piece, Chamberlain expressed this by saying that he "sent word to the senior officer on my left to make a right wheel of the charge and endeavor to catch the enemy somewhat in flank on the right."14

He addressed the same point in his 1913 essay, "Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg," by noting that he "communicated this to Captain Spear of the wheeling flank, on which the initiative was to fall."15 And, of course, he mentioned this to Spear in the 1896 letter with which this essay began. These statements clearly demonstrate that Chamberlain sent a runner to inform Spear of his decision, a quite logical thing for him to have done.

Spear claimed in a 1913 article never to have received any orders 16. This could easily be true, given both the normal condition on a battlefield and the fact that Sgt. Reuel Thomas, serving as Chamberlain's designated messenger that day, was wounded during the fight. Spear's claim, however, does not support the argument that no order ws given.

The historical record, in any case, is quite clear that the wheel happened. Chamberlain described it in both of his July 6 reports. Oliver Willcox Norton, the brigade bugler, states in his classic, The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top, that Chamberlain "made a right wheel with his line, which cleared the valley of the Confederates."17 Captain A.M. Judson, in his History of the 83rd Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, made the "gate upon a post" comment noted above, stating specifically that the line of the 20th Maine "swing (sic) around upon a moving pivot, like a great gate upon a post, until its left had swept down through the valley and up the sides of Big Round Top."18

Melcher himself made a revealing comment in an 1885 newspaper article (cited by Mr. Styple) when he wrote of how the Confederates "were driven in their flight, at first (emphasis mine), directly to the rear of the line of battle of our army."19 Obviously speaking of the initial thrust of the 20th Maine's sharply refused left wing, Melcher implies the development of the wheel with the phrase, "at first," which itself implies that the general direction of the Confederate retreat changed during the course of the action.

Parenthetically, this also explains how several dozen Confederates (those on their own far right) ended up behind the Union lines. When the Federals wheeled, the men who had retreated "directly to the rear" were cut off. Their only possible escape lay to the east. Either in panic or in a deliberate attempt to circle around the Union troops and get back to their own lines, they moved directly, if only temporarily, out of harm's way, and ultimately were killed or captured in fields east of the Round Tops.

Finally, we know that the 20th Maine took prisoners from Alabama and Texas regiments which were to the 15th Alabama's left. To do this, the 20th had to have swept around to its own right.

So the right wheel happened. It was not parade ground pretty and very likely was not even made by the entire regiment, as some portion of the 20th Maine's left wing must have pursued those Confederates who fled "directly to the rear." Nevertheless, it happened, which means that at least some of the men in the refused left knew about it, which in turn means that Chamberlain had indeed passed the word -- whether Spear got it or not.

Knowing specifically what they were to do, the veteran soldiers of the 20th Maine were ready to do it. Thus, at the critical moment, "the word was enough."

Number four: Col. Chamberlain did not lead the charge. Lt. Holman Melcher was the first officer down the slope.

Though directly related to Mr. Styple's argument, this is a very minor point and could even be called a quibble. Even granting Melcher the honor of being first down the slope (and such an interpretation is perfectly plausible), he did not "lead" the charge in a command sense, which is what the conclusion implies. Chamberlain probably was standing in his proper place behind the line when he yelled "Bayonets!," so if indeed "the word was enough" to get the men started, he could not have gone first as the entire line would have moved out ahead of him.

But it does not matter. The questions, "who was first down the hill?" and "who led the charge?" are different questions which should not be posed as one.

The Melcher papers are a valuable addition to the literature of the war. As a challenge to the traditional wisdom about Little Round Top, however, the Melcher argument is rather like the assault of the 15th Alabama -- a tenacious and courageous effort, to be sure, but one which ultimately falls short.

The question, therefore, remains: who saved Little Round Top? Given the available historical evidence, the answer likewise must remain: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.