Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Chamberlain's 20th Maine Saves the Union at Little Round Top

The legendary advance of the 20th Maine Regiment

The most decisive battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, was fought between July 1-3 in and around the small Pennsylvania town. It was an epic and deadly clash that pitted the Union Army of the Potomac, and its newly appointed commander, Major Genera George G. Meade, against the Army of Northern Virginia, and its legendary commander, General Robert E. Lee.

Gettysburg in History

The Battle of Gettysburg would be the most strategic struggle of the Civil War (April 12, 1861-May 9, 1865) and the most bloody. Going into the clash, Gen. Lee's army numbered approximately 71,000-75,000 soldiers. Meade's army outnumbered the rebels, with a force of 104,256. By the battle's end, though, Gen. Lee would suffer loses between 23,000-28,000, while Union forces would sustain 23,048 casualties.

'Gettysburg was not a battlefield that either Gen. Lee or MG. Meade had picked to hold their fight.'
This second invasion of the North by Gen. Lee would prove to be his last and the high-water mark for the Confederacy. Before Gettysburg, the contest between North and South was one hallmarked by frequent Southern victories and advances. Afterward, the South would never again be in striking range of subduing the Union Army. 

The Army of Northern Virginia began its invasion of the North on June 3, 1863. Gen. Lee's objective for the invasion was to advance across the Potomac River, which separated Union Forces from Washington, DC. He hoped that by effectively striking Washington, he could compel President Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace terms from the Southern Confederacy. All that stood between Gen. Lee and the realization of his mission was the Army of the Potomac, which he had beaten regularly for two years at that point, and MG Meade, who was just one of a succession of generals that had been promoted to that post only to be dismissed.

In fact, Meade's predecessor, MG Joseph Hooker was marching north with Union Forces when, during a brief respite in Frederick, Maryland, he was informed that he was relieved of command of Northern forces, in favor of MG Meade.
MG Meade's task was not a simple one: He faced Gen. Lee's forces, including those of Confederate corps commanders Lieutenant-General James "Pete" Longstreet and LTG Ambrose P. "AP" Hill, which were moving along the Chambersburg Road in southern Pennsylvania, while LTG Richard S. Ewell was leading his corps west from York. One piece of luck MG Meade did enjoy was that the eyes of the Southern force, specifically MG J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, was performing a screening mission against the Union's forces and did not report back to Gen. Lee's headquarters until after the two forces had clashed for the first two days of the battle.
Col. (later MG) Joshua L. Chamberlain

Gettysburg was not a battlefield that either Gen. Lee or MG Meade had picked to hold their fight. Like many things in war, it happened as an accident.

Unexpected by either force, Union Cavalry Division Commander Brigadier General John Buford encountered elements of the Confederate division commanded by MG Henry "Harry" Heth, which belonged to LTG Hill's corps) on the Chambersburg Pike. LTG Hill, under orders from Gen. Lee, reinforced Heth's position while BG Buford was reinforced by the Union division commanded by MG John Reynolds, who was killed in action that first day.

Both Gen. Lee and MG Meade were caught entirely off guard by the actions that were fast taking place at Gettysburg and both them, their staffs and their commanders worked quickly to acclimate themselves to the situation.

From the very beginning of the fight, the matter of which army was going to hold the heights surrounding Gettysburg was they key issue involved in the battle. Big Round Top is the commanding position on the battlefield, with Little Round Top being adjacent to the taller hill. While the approach to Big Round Top was highly defensible, the approach to Little Round Top was not so, and was thereby able to be exploited by an attacking enemy.

Col. Strong Vincent's 3rd Brigade

By the end of the first day, it was simply the fortunes of war that it was the undersized 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Col. Strong Vincent, that held a tenuous grip on the vital piece of real-estate that was Little Round Top. With the first terrible day of fighting coming to a close, it was the Union that ended up commanding the heights of the battlefield.
Col. Vincent's command was comprised of the 16th Michigan Regiment, the 12th and 44th New York regiments, the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a company of Michigan sharpshooters and the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
This graphic depicts the grading of Little Round Top at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg

The commanding general of the Army of the Potomac was not the only new commander at Gettysburg for the Union side. In fact, the commander of the 20th Maine was also brand new at the job. Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain had joined the regiment in August, 1862, when it was mustered into Federal service after Lincoln's second call for units. Before being given a commission in the 20th Maine, he served as a professor at Bowdoin College, in Maine, where he taught rhetoric and languages. Now, less than a year after his military career had begun, Col. Chamberlain was promoted when the regiment's founding commander, Col. Adelbert Ames, was promoted away from the command.

The defense of Little Round Top include hand-to-hand fighting

Throughout the Civil War, the 20th Maine's enrollment numbered 1,621 men (including original muster soldiers, replacements and drafts). But, as the men of the 20th moved into their position atop Little Round Top, Col. Chamberlain's command numbered approximately 360 men. The regiment's numbers had dwindled considerably during their engagements since Fredericksburg, which was the 20th's first taste of battle.

Confederate Col. William Oates

Chamberlain's 20th Maine Cannot Break

In positioning his brigade for the inevitable onslaught of Rebels to come, Col. Vincent chose a line of defense that began on the western slope of the hill. When the first regiments of his brigade arrived at the rocky outcropping of the area, Col. Vincent put them in a line. The 16th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment took up position on the right flank, and the 44th New York and 83rd Pennsylvania regiments held the center. Meanwhile, it was the responsibility of the 20th Maine Regiment to hold the left flank of the brigade, which also happened to be the extreme left flank of the entire Union force that had taken up defensive positions along Big and Little Round Top.

The last thing Col. Vincent told Col. Chamberlain was: "This is the left of the Union line. You are to hold this ground at all costs!"

Col. Chamberlain ordered Company B, recruited from Piscataquis County and commanded by Captain Walter G. Morril, forward to the regiment's left flank as skirmishers. However, soon after the fighting began, Company B would be cut-off by a flanking attack by the enemy, leaving the 20th Maine only 314 armed men on the main regimental line.

Each man in his regiment had about 60 shots for their rifles. They had water. The afternoon temperature was about 72 degrees and, despite some cloud cover, rain had not fallen. There was some thunder echoing along the battlefield, but as a local clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Davis Jacobs wrote later, "The thunder seemed tame after the artillery firing of the afternoon."
Depicts the 15th Alabama preparing for action

So, Col. Chamberlain waited, along with his brother, 2nd Lt. Thomas Chamberlain, who was also an officer in the regiment. In that pregnant pause, the men from Maine readied their cartridges and powder, put together what defenses they could. Then, the battle they were awaiting found them.

The first wave of Confederate infantry that attacked was comprised of 824 men from the 4th and 5th Texas regiments, which were a part of MG John Bell Hood's division. They hammered the slope of Little Round Top, pushing toward the center and right of Col. Vincent's brigade. As the Confederates attacked, their infantry began migrating toward the left flank of the Union position. Col. Chamberlain was informed of the enemy movements by Company K's commander, Capt. James H. Nichols.

Col. Chamberlain read the enemy intent and believed they were searching for the extreme left flank of the brigade position. So, the 20th Maine's commander ordered a right-angle formation, extending his line farther to the east.
At this point, though, the 4th and 5th Texas were making their case to breaking the center of the brigade formation. But, Col. Vincent rallied his soldiers, and was reinforced by the 140th New York Zouaves Regiment. Col. Vincent's efforts, along with those of 140th commander, Col. Patrick O'Rourke worked. Sadly, though, both men died during the Confederate assault.

After testing the Union center and not being able to break them, the Confederate infantry formed again and, this time, made its move against the 20th Maine with fresh troops.
The classic depiction of the charge at Little Round Top

The 15th and 47th Alabama regiments began their ascent of Little Round Top, straight into the 20th Maine's position. The 15th was a hard-fighting unit commanded by Col. William C. Oates. Meanwhile, the 47th Regiment was commanded by the battle-tested LTC Michael Bulger, who would become a captive of the 20th Maine by the end of the action. The mission of the attack was simple: Find the Union left and destroy the Federal unit there. Once accomplished, the Rebels would roll up the line of Union positions along the heights, securing victory for MG Hood and the Confederate cause.
Col. Strong Vincent was killed during the battle

Col. Chamberlain's regiment would end up fighting off Confederate forces for about an hour-and-a-half of non-stop battle. During the action, heroes were revealed, one of them being Color Sgt. Andrew J. Tozier of the 20th Maine. As the 20th Maine's position was on the verge of breaking against the weight of the Alabama infantry, Sgt. Tozier stood firm, remaining upright as bullets buzzed and snapped in the air around him. Had Sgt. Tozier fled, so too would the soldiers defending the position. Had Sgt. Tozier not stood firm at that decisive moment, it was likely that the 20th Maine would not have held.
Instead, fighting became savage, as combat went from rifles and pistols to hand-to-hand. Still, the iron men of Maine would not break and fended off the furious attack of the Alabamians.

Though the 20th Maine had stood its ground, the depleted force was left almost without ammunition. There are varying accounts of what happened next. According to the rendition of the story offered by Col. Chamberlain, knowing he could not defend his regimental position with rifle fire, he sent word to Captain Ellis Spear, the acting battalion commander of the unit's left flank, to fix bayonets and charge into the next wave of Confederate attackers.

However, Captain Spear later said he received no such orders.
2LT Thomas Chamberlain also fought with the 20th

'Col. Chamberlain died on Feb. 24, 1914 and is considered by some as the last casualty of the Civil War.'

The other account of what happened came from Corporal Elisha Coan, who was a member of the 20th Maine's Color Guard. He claimed that the acting commander of Company F, 1st Lt. Holman S. Melcher, conceived of the idea for the colors to advance and there to be a bayonet charge. Cpl. Coan's account said that Col. Chamberlain initially balked at the idea, but that other officers joined 1st Lt. Melcher in urging him to order the command, which he did.

In Col. Chamberlain's account of the battle, he said that he ordered a right-wheel maneuver and screamed "Bayonet!" There is some speculation that 1st Lt. Melcher sought for the colors to advance to retrieve the wounded. However, with all of the noise that was going on, coupled with the fact that they could not stave off another Rebel onslaught, a bayonet charge was likely the only think left for the 20th Maine to do, short of abandoning their position to the Rebels.

A Maine state commission would later conclude that 1st Lt. Melcher might have conceived of the idea of the bayonet attack to recover ground where the wounded were, but Col. Chamberlain expounded on that idea to run the Confederate infantry down the face of Little Round Top, winning the day.

It was that bayonet attack that finally broke the Confederate lines. The Rebel brigade attacking the Union lines atop Little Round Top belonged to BG Evander M. Law. His brigade, by the end of the action, though, was no longer able to go on with the fight.

After the Fight

So ended the most fabled episode of the 20th Maine Regiment of Volunteer Infantry. Though the fighting for them in the Civil War was far from over, it was the bravery of the officers and men of the Maine regiment that turned the tide of the war on that hill along the heights outside of small Gettysburg.
20th Maine veterans at a regimental reunion at Little Round Top

For the actions at Little Round Top, Sgt. Tozier would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with Col. Chamberlain. Captain Spear would rise to the rank of major before being mustered out at the end of the war, and Col. Chamberlain's brother, Thomas, would rise to the rank lieutenant colonel.

Col. Chamberlain would survive the war and go back to his native man to eventually become the president of Bodwoin College and, later, the 32nd governor of Maine during four, one-year terms. Yet, he did not survive the war unscathed. Rather, in 1864, Col. Chamberlain (who rose to the rank of major general during the war) was wounded terribly in his leg. Though he was able to keep his leg, it became the source of great pain and discomfort for the rest of his life. In fact, it was because of complications from this wound that Col. Chamberlain died on Feb. 24, 1914 and is considered by some as "...the last casualty of the Civil War."

Meanwhile, the commander of the Confederate 15th Alabama would also survive the war. He became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army before its surrender. After the war, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from 1870-1872, the U.S. House of Representatives from 1881-1894, and as the 29th governor of the state of Alabama, from 1894-1896.

Though the war was eventually won by the North, in 1865 with the surrender of Gen. Lee, it might be said that it could only have ended in the favor of the North thanks to the last full measure given for their country and their commander by the 20th Maine Regiment.


  1. A wonderful history of many brave men of the 20th. I would only add the wounds suffered by Chamberlain at little round top by being shot in the belt buckle which temporarily stunned him and rallied his troops by his return. Later he would be wounded 5 times and still return to service. His hip wound was so bad that he was thought not to survive. But, he did and was a source of great pride to the Union Soldiers. Because he helped so much with morale and dignity, he was chosen to be at Appomattox. Where he honored the surrendering Confederates with a Regimental Salute as they passed his unit. No small thing in bringing reconciliation to the 2 enemy forces. Softening the blow to the Confederates. Thanks again for a wonderful article.

  2. The grounds of this battlefield forever stained with unseen blood, now hides the horror that such brave men saw and faced and endured as they wrestled with life and death; giving all they had for the cause they believed in; immortalized now by their heroic deeds and unrelenting bravery.


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