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In two years we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought over three days, July1-3, 1863, in the fields and hills outside of a small southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. That battle between the Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Union forces under General Meade would go down as one of the bloodiest ever in American history. It ended essentially in a draw, but savaged both sides. About 28,000 Confederate forces and some 25,000 Federal forces died. The wagon train carrying Lee's wounded away from the front stretched for some seventeen miles. It would be two more terrible years before the end of that war would finally come.
There were many moments of courage and of outright slaughter that took place over the course of those three days, but I am going to focus here only on one event that began in the late afternoon of the second day, on the heights of a knoll called Little Round Top. I am focusing even more narrowly on the actions taken by only one of the units involved, that of the 20th Maine under the leadership of one Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Chamberlain had been a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. The unit under his command was the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, made up of students and farmers, all volunteers in the great adventure. In the afternoon of the second day of the battle, Colonel Strong Vincent saw that there was a vulnerable weakness at Little Round Top, on the left flank of the Union lines. He ordered Col. Chamberlain to take his command to the heights of Little Round Top and to hold the line, "at all costs." Chamberlain's fresh and untested Maine Volunteers faced an attack by the battle-hardened, well-seasoned troops of the Alabama Brigade of General Hood's Division under the command of General Evander Law. General Law ordered the 4th, 15th and 47th Alabama and the 4th and 5th Texas Brigades to take the hill.
The skirmish began around 6:00 in the evening. Troops from the 15th Alabama under Colonel William Oates charged up the hill with 644 men. During the course of the next hour the battle went back and forth. Chamberlain's 358 Maine Volunteers were driven off the hill five times, and each time they fought their way back to the top. The noise of the battle was deafening. Rebel yells and Union battle cries mixed with the crack and thunder of small arms and artillery fire, and the tormented screams and moans of the wounded. By 7:00 p.m., the 20th Maine had lost a third of its compliment. They were in bad shape, exhausted and almost out of ammunition.
After a brief reprieve, Oates' men were preparing to charge again. Chamberlain knew that he and his men were in dire straits. They did not have the ammunition to hold off another determined charge by the 15th Alabama. In the desperation of one caught between the fear of immediate annihilation and the orders from his superiors to "hold at all costs,” Chamberlain ordered his troops to fix bayonets. He ordered one of his lieutenants to take a small contingent of men to cover his own left flank, now drawn thin as a result of the previous efforts. Chamberlain then ordered a rare, "right wheel forward maneuver" that would act like a door swinging shut on the advancing rebels.
The Alabamans began their final charge up the hill. The 20th Maine let out a fierce, desperate, and united battle cry, and drove in unison down the hill, wheeling, as ordered, in a wide sweeping right hand turn, closing the door on the stunned Alabama men. Oates' men wavered, broke and ran. In their hurried retreat they were surprised by a small unit of union sharpshooters as well and were struck by a withering fusillade coming from a low rock wall on their flank.
That seemingly insane charge, ordered out of desperation by the professor from Bowdoin College in a small town in Maine, supported by good luck and the logistically powerful 'element of surprise' ended quickly, with the 20th Maine killing over 150 and capturing some 400 of General Robert E. Lee's finest troops, the 15th Alabama Brigade. Little Round Top was held, and at great cost to both sides.
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was wounded twice that day. He was wounded again at Petersburg 11 months later. He survived that wound and subsequently had the honor of receiving the formal surrender of Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865. After the war he would go home to Maine to serve as the President of Bowdoin College and later as the Governor of Maine. He was awarded the Medal of Honor thirty years after the events of that day, in 1893. The award would read: "for daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position of the Great Round Top."