Here is the complete story of the 20th Maine Infantry from June 21 through July 10, 1863. Using more than 70 first hand accounts, the story is told from both sides revealing also the actions and feelings of the men from Alabama. Stand Firm also traces the development of a legend as veterans of the fight tried to remember, understand and memorialize their part in the largest battle ever fought on the continent.
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You were making history. The world has recorded for you more than you have written. The centuries to come will share and recognize the victory won here with growing gratitude.
Joshua Chamberlain, 18891
As Joshua Chamberlain looked out upon the surviving veterans of the regiment that he had commanded to an unlikely victory on Vincent's Spur thirty-five years earlier, he struggled to put into words the meaning of the event that had so greatly transformed his life, and the lives of many of his men. His foresight was remarkable. The world has continued to record the events on the spur to an extent beyond what the veterans themselves wrote and, as he foretold, the centuries have recognized the events with growing gratitude and importance. Such is the place that the Civil War, and Gettysburg in particular, has grown to occupy in the American psyche.
Carefully examined, the spur is a worthless piece of land. Two hundred feet in diameter, it is little more than a pile of loose rocks and large boulders of no monetary or agricultural value whatsoever. Neither cows nor sheep could or would graze on the stony slopes, trees do not grow straight, tall, or plentifully in its shallow soil, and it yields neither water nor minerals. Yet despite its uselessness, it has become a national shrine, attracting as many as a million visitors each year.
In spite of its apparent uselessness, it has become the object of a pilgrimage for thousands of people for many reasons. The romantic nature of the legend, the military significance of the maneuvering and, in no small measure, the eloquence of Joshua Chamberlain, have attracted Americans and travelers from abroad for more than a century. It is the meaning of the place, interpreted differently by nearly every visitor, that brings them; meaning that commanders of both armies attributed to the hill in 1863, and veterans and historians have confirmed ever since. By many of these, the events that took place on Little Round Top have come to represent the hinge upon which the Civil War swung.
It is not surprising that veterans of the fight above the Valley of Death viewed their part of the battle with higher significance than any other. What is surprising is that the significance spread to others, and with the possible exception of Pickett's Charge on the third day, no other portion of the battle-perhaps the entire war-has attained such extraordinary significance. Beginning with the resurgence of Civil War reminiscence in the 1880s, veterans of all ranks began to publish their interpretation of what the Confederate assault and Federal defense of Little Round Top represented.
As veterans placed such high significance on Little Round Top, it seems that a disproportionate share of this fell to the 20th Maine's position on the spur. To a large extent, this is the result of a lack of testimony about the fight on the right of Vincent's Brigade. Virtually everyone on the summit of Little Round Top who might have filed a report testifying to the desperation there either died or left their command in the area. Most notably, the commanders of two brigades, Weed and Vincent, fell mortally wounded, as did the battery commander, Hazlett.
Following the regiments from right to left around the hill, the absence of surviving witnesses reveals much. Colonel O'Rourke, who led his 140th New York into the breech at the height of the crisis, also fell dead. Colonel Vincent's bugler, returning from an errand, found the commander of the 16th Michigan with half his regiment in a road some three hundred yards in rear of the hill just as the fight closed. 3Colonel Rice of the 44th New York took Vincent's place and was undoubtedly distracted from his own regiment by the needs of the whole brigade. Orpheus Woodward, a captain, commanded the 83rd Pennsylvania which was bent around somewhat out of view from the right of the brigade. With the exception of Chamberlain, not one commander above the rank of captain remained unharmed and at his regular post through the fight. At least partly as a result, details of the fight for the spur gained greater clarity and thus greater importance.
Another reason for the unbalanced importance of the spur has to do with the requirements of the struggle there. Unlike the other regiments of the brigade, the 20th Maine had to shift, maneuver, and protect a flank during the fight, and nothing scared Civil War soldiers more than the threat of being flanked. They accomplished this under the guidance of the newest colonel in the Fifth Corps, who performed his duties remarkably well, given his inexperience.
Herein lies the key to what really made Joshua Chamberlain a hero at Gettysburg. His country awarded him the Medal of Honor for "daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top." Neither the citation nor Chamberlain himself ever tried to depict him gloriously leading a desperate bayonet charge down the hill waving his sword over his head. That Joshua Chamberlain could stand up on the spur, given his health in the weeks prior to the battle, is itself a remarkable accomplishment. He learned from Ames the importance of instilling confidence in his men by demonstrating personal bravery and coolness in the fight and this quality did more for his victory on the spur than the legend ever recorded. In perceiving Oates' movement and bending back his left, Chamberlain placed his men so that they delivered to the Alabamians the most destructive fire they ever saw, and as the fight continued he stoically demonstrated his own confidence, walking calmly among his men. Chamberlain did all of this despite the desperate nature of the fight and while hobbled by a wound in each leg. 4
Where this confidence came from is difficult to determine. He was sick and weak. One brother was close behind. He ordered another, even nearer at hand, into a desperate place, doubting he would return unharmed. Chamberlain commanded a regiment worn from the march, inexperienced, and with half its normal officers. Neither he nor the ; regiment, save sixty-eight men of the 2nd Maine, had ever been in a stand-up fight before and certainly not one on a hill in the woods nearly cut off from their brigade. With all of this playing on his mind, Chamberlain suppressed youthful insecurities and doubts about his own abilities and commanded his men to legendary glory.
The modern image of courageous, cool-headed Maine men sweeping the field with a parade ground tactical maneuver is romantic, but belies the chaotic nature of the event. While many imagine the legendary right wheel of the 20th Maine's left wing, the men who are said to have carried it out remembered something far more confused, with men running in every direction but the rear. The charge was less tactics and more instinct; adrenaline-driven rather than the result of practiced maneuvering. No parade ground, where men practiced drill until their legs ached from the effort, ever had the slope of the spur, the boulders, trees, or gaps in the line that 30 percent casualties created in the 20th Maine that day.
The real significance of the charge from a military standpoint was not that it drove the Alabamians away from Little Round Top, they were ready to leave, charge or not. The rush down the sides of the spur brought into the hands of the Mainers at least ninety more captives who would otherwise have continued to fight for the Confederacy, and war is, after all, about diminishing the enemy's strength. In addition, the scattering effect of the charge on Oates and his men prevented them from holding Big Round Top as he had hoped. Though unlikely, establishing a position on the larger hill in the night might have made Little Round Top untenable for the Federals. With seven hours of darkness and proper reinforcements, there is at least a slight possibility that Oates may have had his Gibraltar after all and, in preventing this, the charge of the 20th Maine may have indirectly saved Little Round Top.
The only person Oates seems to not have held accountable for the Confederate failure to take Little Round Top was himself. Had he strictly followed orders, he would have taken, as General Law desired, the clear and direct route to Little Round Top, arrived there with the rest of the brigade, and probably inflicted more damage than he did after arriving later. Moreover, his decision to detach Company A in order to accomplish a task completely outside the intent of Law's order, or the mission of the assault, cost him the use of forty or more riflemen who could have meant the difference on the spur.
No one in authority ever blamed Oates for the failure of the assault, partly because so few people knew of his side trip up Big Round Top, excepting his friend Law, and partly because of an attitude regarding orders that permeated the Confederate army. From General Lee on down, Southern commanders had developed a habit of making orders in a general way and those who received these orders were allowed to interpret them in light of the situations that presented themselves. In this sense, Oates' decisions to veer right just when Law told him left, and to detach Company A to capture wagons that were useless to the assault, were among the kinds of judgements expected of field officers. For this reason, Oates was never taken to task for his poor decisions. In his book, however, he took care to address his reasons for making them, even passing some of the blame on to Captain Schaaff of Company A for his delay in returning from Oates' ill-conceived side-mission. 6
What Oates never knew, or at least never accepted, was the fact that his fight with the 20th Maine never imperiled Little Round Top as gravely as he perceived. Had he been able to force the Mainers from the rocky spur, he would then have had to face the 83rd Pennsylvania which had sustained relatively few casualties in the fight, and then move on up toward the crest as the 140th New York arrived, then the rest of Weed's Brigade and Crawford's Division close at hand. It is highly doubtful that IA% such exhausted, and unsupported group of less than three hundred men, after a thirty-mile march and the fight on the spur, could have taken and held Little Round Top. And had his men held the summit, Oates would have better understood the limits of his prize as an artillery position and perhaps reconsidered the importance of the hill. Though Law, Longstreet, Meade, Jeff Davis and others all favored Little Round Top as a point d'appui in the battle, an artillery site from which the Union army along Cemetery Ridge could be pommelled into submission, none of them ever took the time to walk the summit or northern slope saying, "I ; would have placed a gun here, here, and here." Had any of them done so, they would quickly have encountered terrain on which only eight guns, at best, could have been brought to bear against the line that Meade's army held on July 3. Carefully studied, the boulder-strewn "round top" of the hill simply does not provide the flat open ground needed to operate more than a pair of batteries firing northward to strike the Union line. Even in this ideal sense at least two pair of guns would have had to fire over the heads of the others, a dangerous practice even on the best ground, and this only with ammunition run up from farther below. In advance of the huge Confederate assault on July 3, twenty times this number of cannon fired at a small span of the Union line at much closer range for two hours and were unable to break it. No eight cannons on Little Round Top, under fire from dozens of Federal batteries in response, could have destroyed any significant portion of the Union army that day. 7
Oates never studied the hilltop either. Instead, he chose to view his part in the greatest battle of the war as the key to it, and his inability to overcome numerous setbacks the difference, perhaps, in the entire war. "It is remarkable how small an occurrence or omission," he wrote, "trivial in itself, often turns the tide of battle, and changes governments and the maps of nations... No battle in the world's history ever had greater consequences dependent upon it, nor so many mishaps, or lost opportunities especially on the side of the Confederates-as that of Gettysburg."8
To Oates, only the combination of these two regiments, the 20th Maine and the 15th Alabama, could have ended with the same result. No other Southern unit could have come so close and no other Union regiment could have stopped him. Explaining the first and worst defeat his men ever experienced, he said, "There was no better regiment in the Confederate Army ... if it failed to carry any point against which it was thrown no other single regiment need try it... The other regiments of the brigade did their duty, but the Fifteenth struck the hardest knot." That knot was Chamberlain and his Mainers, and upon them he heaped great praise. "There never were harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine men and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat. Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs." 9
The real result of Gettysburg, and its primary importance as a military event, was the destruction of men and materiel that the Confederacy could not replace. This was Lee's risk when he launched the invasion ; into Pennsylvania and he lost the gambit. To this end, Gettysburg was a tremendous turning point. In that fundamental sense, the 20th Maine did its share, the charge contributing great significance to its role. The charge added nearly one hundred men to the Confederate loss. Men who might have escaped in an orderly Alabamian retreat. Overall, the Mainers inflicted one-and-a-half casualties for each one of their own against an Alabama force half again as large, depleting all three regiments by more than a third. But, back in Maine, three more regiments were headed out of Portland that month, while Alabama, like most of its Southern counterparts, had but few more replacements. 10
Looking at the larger picture of Longstreet's entire assault on the Union left, the contribution of the Maine men on the spur was very important. Federal troops on that part of the field significantly outnumbered Confederates and fought on ground of their choosing, a substantial military advantage. Yet, despite the unbalanced odds, the fight as a whole was only closely decided. Had every Federal regiment opposing Longstreet's Corps that day been as fundamentally successful as the 20th Maine, there may have been no third day, no Pickett's Charge. But not all of Longstreet's regiments marched more than thirty miles, lost their canteens, and crested Big Round Top, and not all of the Federal regiments on the left had the benefit of the spur's boulders and height. As a military element, the battle for Vincent's Spur can hardly be proven the decisive point of the Civil War, or even the Battle of Gettysburg. Despite Oates' feelings on the matter, events this large simply do not turn on such small affairs. It did, however, greatly affect the lives of many among the more than one thousand combatants. some more dramatically than others.
For many people, Gettysburg was the central event of the mid- nineteenth century, and veterans of the war saw it as a measure of how significant one's war experience had been. For many Mainers, and certainly the 1,621 men who at one time or another appeared on the 20th Regiment's rolls, to have been on Little Round Top was to have participated in the most significant event of the war. It was the one great Union victory of the war's eastern theater, and the greatest of all in the minds of most veterans. 11
In this great event, the 20th Maine bore no small part, but its contribution has been unusually swelled, though only in recent years, by the popularity of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Killer Angels and the subsequent movie Gettysburg, based upon it. Like no other piece of literature, this romanticized version of the 20th Maine's work at Gettysburg has spawned cult-like interest in the regiment and especially its colonel, making him the largest commercial subject in the Civil War community. Sculptures, paintings, T-shirts, even credit cards and commemorative plates; anything bearing the image of Chamberlain surpasses, in marketability, all other items. In most, if not all cases, they perpetuate the legendary novelized description of events. This, despite Shaara's own admission that his was a novel and not to be taken as accurate history and that the Pulitzer Prize committee recognized it as a winner in the category of fiction, not history.
It was not always so. Most serious scholarship of the battle dating back to the 1880s makes only brief mention, at best, of the Maine regiment on the left wing of the Union army. Until Shaara's work was published, General Warren was almost universally considered the hero of Little Round Top. While the history of the Fifth Corps, written in 1895, understandably places one of its own regiments as the savior of the Battle of Gettysburg, few other works even mention the 20th Maine except in passing. Jacob Hoke's 1887 work The Great Invasion of 1863, for example, mentions both Chamberlain and his regiment but with no greater significance than many other units. 12
In the 1950s and '60s, scholars produced a wave of volumes on the Battle of Gettysburg, including Edward Stackpole's They Met at Gettysburg in 1956 and Glenn Tucker's High Tide at Gettysburg in 1958. Stackpole made no mention of the Mainers' work at all, while Tucker addressed the action more from a Confederate perspective, calling William Oates, "The gallant commander whose spirit had been the dominating factor of the attack on Little Round Top." In addition to these, perhaps the most widely respected scholarly work on the Battle of Gettysburg is Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study In Comnand, published in 1968. In it the author examines the battle for Vincent's Spur as a significant part of the larger battle for Little Round Top, but makes no mention of it as the central or decisive factor in the overall battle at Gettysburg. 13
Though absent from much of the scholarly work, the 20th Maine's story and the legend of Vincent's Spur has not been without its benefactors. Just twenty-five years after Joshua Chamberlain's death, Kenneth Roberts, a noted Maine writer of historically based fiction, mused on how wonderful it would have been if he had written the story, as fiction, of the Maine men on Little Round Top. Quoting a newspaper reporter of the time, he wrote, "As an example to inspire patriotism it would rank with Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans. America is secure against the world as long as she has such sons to spring to her defence in the hour of darkness and danger." 14
In 1952 popular Civil War writer Bruce Catton used the account of the absent Theodore Gerrish in his book Glory Road, calling the 20th Maine's fight one of many crises that day. Five years after Catton, John Pullen set a course as yet unequalled when he redefined the art of writing Civil War regimental histories with his The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War. Pullen's work appropriately depicted the fight on the spur as the most significant event in the history of the regiment but never leaped so far as to attribute to it the salvation of the country. Still, his work, though unwittingly, had great impact on the legend as it piqued the interest of Shaara who made a novelized experience of the 20th Maine one of the central themes of his book. 15
Two elements of the fight on the spur are key to Shaara's story and have become the most misconstrued elements of the legend. The first is the concept, as Shaara depicted it, of an organized parade ground maneuver through which the 20th Maine swept the Rebels away in a great right wheel. Joshua Chamberlain wrote of a wheeling movement in three of his major writings. The first was in his revised official report of the battle, the second in his speech at the dedication of the monument, and the third in his 1913 article "Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg," which he decried for its sensationalized editing. In the revised official report Chamberlain condensed his description of the charge from his first version saying "holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended 'right wheel.' " Clearly, Chamberlain never reported that he conceived of and then ordered a textbook maneuver and he placed the phrase right wheel in quotes indicating that what had occurred did not exactly meet the military definition of the phrase. In reality, what the left wing of the 20th Maine did during its rather confused charge was to chase the Confederates back the way they had come-toward the Maine right. Viewed from any direction this was, in rough form, a right wheel but it was not executed by design and Chamberlain never claimed to have ordered it.
The second element of the legend that has become an integral part of the modem story is one that Chamberlain himself spent most of his postwar life trying to remedy. In nineteenth-century warfare commanders of military units received all of the credit and blame for the actions of their men. Understanding that, it is not surprising that veterans of the war gave Chamberlain credit for having ordered the charge, even though he denied having done so. The only mention Chamberlain made in his major writings of giving an order to charge was in his first official report which he revised later the same day. In the revised report, he wrote that he had ordered only "bayonet" and that "the word was enough." Fifty years after the battle, in his final reflective account, he wrote "It were vain to order 'forward.' No mortal could have heard it in the mighty hosanna that was winging the sky." Later in that same article he described the charge as a self-starting event saying, "There are still things of the first creation 'whose seed is in itself.' " 16
Perhaps the two most telling pieces of evidence on the issue lie in the letters that Chamberlain wrote to his wife and the words expressed at the monument dedication in front of the survivors on the actual ground. In neither of the two letters that he wrote to his wife, one and ten days after the battle, did he tell her that he had ordered a charge-something he most certainly would have included had it occurred. In addition, when the survivors met in 1889 to dedicate the monuments on both of the Round Tops-a meeting where exaggeration and invention on delicate points had no place-two statements rang clear. The first was by Howard Prince, the historian of the regiment, who allowed that "The lines were in motion before the word of command was completed, and Colonel Chamberlain does not know whether he ever finished that order." Later in the ceremony, Chamberlain tried again to settle the issue by saying "In fact, to tell the truth, the order was never given, or but imperfectly." 17
That he would not accept credit for ordering the charge, when the norms of that time allowed commanders this privilege, reflects positively on Chamberlain. It would have been perfectly fitting and proper in the style of the period for him to have taken full responsibility for ordering the charge. Few, if any, would have objected to this, especially since he did conceive of the charge and was in the process of informing his men. Given another thirty seconds he would have ordered the charge that instead occurred on its own. That he continually denied himself the honor of having ordered the charge and instead tried to pass it on to his men, sets him apart from countless other commanders who gave themselves far more credit than they ever earned.
If Chamberlain marveled in his time at the human urge to construct great heroes, he would stand in awe today at the legend-building power of one best-selling book and a subsequent motion picture. Shaara's novel and its depiction by Hollywood have so swelled the legend that it brings hundreds of visitors to the 20th Maine monument every day, and it has become the most visited Civil War site in the country each year. Ten years ago the monument was difficult for even knowledgeable visitors to locate, but through recent years it could hardly be missed by more than a million people who have made the pilgrimage down the paved pathway that brings onlookers into the midst of the 20th Maine's line of battle.
Were he alive today, Shaara would undoubtedly be pleased with what his work has accomplished. When a British acquaintance criticized America for having no heroes of the stature of the European legends such as Napoleon or Alexander the Great, he set out to write Killer Angels in an effort to prove him wrong. Given the overwhelming folk-hero status that Chamberlain has now achieved, it would appear that Shaara has given his country a legendary hero all its own, and while Joshua Chamberlain's historical stature is still not considered on par with the classical giants of Europe, the surging fascination with his story is indeed remarkable. Shaara's novel undoubtedly tapped into a need in American society to admire such heroes even if they are at least partially a creation of literature and film.
In the final analysis, the 20th Maine's work at the Battle of Gettysburg was indeed a remarkable feat that had important implications in the larger scope of the battle. But it is despite the legend of Vincent's Spur that they should be praised for their contribution. The legend has greatly romanticized and distorted what really happened on the spur, but not in such a way that leaves it completely devoid of great value. The soldiers in that fight overcame remarkable hardships and made a record for themselves that exceeds most of the other regiments who fought on those three days. They simply did not save the Union or doom the Confederacy in their ninety minutes of combat. In the same vein, praising Joshua Chamberlain for his work in the battle-as it would be foolhardy not to since few deserve greater praise-should not, however, diminish the endurance, tenacity, and courage of the rest of the men, Mainers and Alabamians alike, who did what they believed was their duty, whether out of commitment to home, God, country, or comrades. On the Union side, few examples exist where soldiers with so little experience in such confused and dire circumstances performed as well as the 20th Maine. Equally significant is the Confederate side. One would he hard pressed to scour the pages of military history and find an instance when soldiers endured more and then came closer to victory against greater odds than the 15th Alabama at Gettysburg.
Stone walls now trace some unknown purpose across the right wing of the 20th's position. Some drew the ire of Joshua Chamberlain on a visit to the spur in the late 1890s. In 1897 park workers rebuilt some of the walls that soldiers had built on the third day of the battle. When he first saw the wall, now raised to nearly four feet, Chamberlain felt it gave the false impression that the Maine men had the advantage of protection during their fight on July 2. He later addressed the issue by saying that his men "threw up on the more exposed places in our line what could scarcely be called 'breastworks,' being nowhere more than eighteen inches high, but serving to cover a little man lying down." Such was Chamberlain's influence at the time that the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission placed what is still the only marker on the battlefield that corrects a misconception. On the far right of the 20th Maine's position along what is now Sykes Avenue it reads, "This wall was built for defense July 3rd PM, 1863." 19
Finished avenue beneath Vincent's Spur
There is no harm in this pondering. Indeed, we should admire the commitment and self-sacrifice with which so many men on both sides risked all for what they deeply believed-a good lesson in putting a larger cause above personal desires. But, it is not a complete experience, this pilgrimage, unless we understand that the measure of the 20th Maine's success is that they killed more than they lost, all for a piece of ground that the army abandoned three days later.
The unavoidable lesson of Gettysburg is taught also by the memory of widows, orphans, mothers, and fathers whose loved ones lie in the National Cemetery or in the anonymous graves at Richmond's Hollywood. Theirs was a great sacrifice to which there are no monuments at Gettysburg, and many of them endured their loss having never consented to risk it. The slaves became free, the Union remained whole, but the price of the victory and the defeat is beyond measure. When we think of the tragedy of Little Round Top and look for reasons or explanations which justify the suffering and the death, it is no wonder we feel the need for legends.