Fifth Corps monument,

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, VA.

My friend Cheryl and I visited Fredericksburg on another perfect October 1994 day. When I read the words "20th Maine" on the monument--erected by order of their former corps commander, General Daniel Butterfield, I almost burst into tears!

The first time the 20th Maine saw major battle action, it was at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862. The Army of the Potomac was now under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside (the previous commander, the very-popular Major General George B. McClellan, had been relieved of command by President Lincoln in November 1862, after McClellan failed to pursue General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam). Burnside had reorganized the AOP into three "Grand Divisions": the 20th Maine would be part of the "Center Grand Division", under command of General Joe Hooker. The battle was a disaster from the start; pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rappahannock River were late in coming, giving Lee's men time to concentrate and form up behind a convenient stone wall, behind the city at the foot of a hill called "Marye's Heights". The Confederates waited for the Union troops to get within range, and mowed them down like grass.

The "Stone Wall" at the foot of Marye's Heights,

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, VA.

As we walked behind that stone wall, I could see that the Union soldiers who bravely charged the position in December 1862 never had a chance to succeed! The road behind the wall was lower at the time of the battle, so the Confederates had excellent protection.

"On we pushed, up slopes slippery with blood, miry with repeated, unavailing tread. We reached that final crest, before that all-commanding, countermanding stone wall."(2)

The 20th Maine was part of the last charge of the day, fighting with their comrades in the Center Grand Division. They lost four killed, 32 wounded--light casualties, considering it was their first major action, and the fact they had to spend the night in front of the wall, in freezing temperatures!

Chamberlain lay among the dead, trying to keep from freezing to death himself. He placed one dead soldier on either side of him and one in front, and tried to gain some protection from their "closeness". As he lay there, the sounds of the night seared themselves into his memory:

"All night the winds sound whose gloomy insistence impressed upon my mood was the flapping of a loosened window-blind in a forsaken brick house to our had a weird rhythm as it swung between the hoarse answering sash and struck a chord far deepening the theme of the eternal song of 'the old clock on the stairs': NEVER-FOREVER-FOREVER-NEVER!"(3)

There was another, more personal, incident that touched Chamberlain deeply:

"Wakened by the sharp fire that spoke the dawn, as I lifted my head from its restful though strange pillow, there fell out from the breast pocket a much-worn little New Testament written in it the owner's name and home. I could do no less than take this to my keeping, resolved that it should be sent to that home in the sweet valley of the Susquehanna as a token that he who bore it had kept t he faith and fought the fight. I may add that sparing mercy allowed the wish to be fulfilled, and this evidence gave the stricken mother's name a place in the list of the nation's remembered benefactors".(4)

The 20th Maine did manage to retreat back to Fredericksburg, but not before burying their dead. As they performed this sad task, nature put on a bizarre light show: the aurora borealis lit up the night sky--a weird thing to be happening so far south! The 20th was also among the last Union troops to get across the pontoon bridges and back to their camps in Falmouth, Virginia. Back on the opposite shore, an exhausted Chamberlain and his men sat down by the road, in the rain. Suddenly, General Hooker appeared, and came over to Chamberlain, who was sitting with his back against a tree:

"....(Hooker) gave kindly greeting. "You've had a hard chance, Colonel; I am glad to see you out of it! I was not cheerful, but tried to be bright. "It was chance, General; not much intelligent design there!" "God knows I did not put you in!" came the rather crisp reply. "That was the trouble, General. You should have put us in. We were handled in piecemeal, on toasting-forks". It was plain talk. And he did not reprove me."(5)

Thankfully, Chamberlain did not get into trouble for being so outspoken to General Hooker. It was also a good thing that forthrightness was a prized trait in a Civil War officer!

The 20th Maine, and the rest of the Army of the Potomac, spent the rest of the winter of 1862-63 in their winter camps at Falmouth--but not before getting involved in General Burnside's infamous "Mud March", when virtually the whole army got stuck in the gooey Virginia mud. It wasn't long after this that General Burnside resigned as AOP commander, and was replaced by General "Fighting Joe" Hooker.

Outline of foundation of the "Chancellor House",

Chancellorsville Battlefield, VA.

This picture was taken in October 1994, not far from where General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson made his famous flank attack that crashed into the Union Eleventh Corps on May 2, 1863. General Hooker's headquarters were in this house, which burned down during the fighting.

The 20th Maine did not participate in the Battle of Chancellorsville, due to their receiving bad smallpox vaccine! Over 80 men were infected, and several died. As a result, they were quarantined away from the rest of the AOP. Colonel Ames managed to get a place on General George Meade's staff, leaving Chamberlain in charge of the regimental "pest house", as he called it! He wanted to get into the action himself, however, and rode over to the headquarters of Fifth Corps commander General Daniel Butterfield, to see if the 20th Maine would be allowed to fight. When Butterfield firmly refused, fearing a mass epidemic, Chamberlain had a most un-Christian inspiration! He said:

"If we could do anything, we could give the Rebels the smallpox!"(6)

Needless to say, General Butterfield was not impressed with this concept of "germ warfare", so he put the 20th Maine in charge of guarding the telegraph line from the Falmouth camps to General Hooker's headquarters. Chamberlain, however, did manage to get into the fight somewhat: he was with General Charles Griffin's First Division of the Fifth Corps at the Rappahannock River, which got into a fight with Jeb Stuart's men. Chamberlain also assisted in the AOP's retreat back across the river; his steadying words and presence impressing itself on General Griffin. So much so that, when Colonel Ames was promoted to Brigade command with the Eleventh Corps, both Griffin and Ames recommended Chamberlain to promotion to full Colonel, and command of the 20th Maine. That happened on June 23, 1863.

NOTE: This Web site is Copyright © 1999- 2009 Pat Finnegan. All rights reserved.

DO NOT use any written material, or photographs, without first contacting me in writing. If you do not do this, be assured that legal action will be taken.