Little Round Top,

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

This was taken from the rocks at Devil's Den; the 20th Maine's position was to the right and behind the trees, on the side of the hill facing nearby Big Round Top. . The rest of the Fifth Corps' Third Brigade--83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, and 16th Michigan--filed into line on their right.

From Chancellorsville, the 20th Maine, and the rest of the AOP, began their pursuit of Lee's army in late May 1863. During that long march in the blazing sun, Chamberlain came down with sunstroke, and was briefly left behind to recover. Without him, the 20th fought at Middleburg, VA, under the temporary command of the 44th New York's Lt. Colonel Freeman Conner. Chamberlain was aided in his recovery by his younger brother John, who had joined the Christian Commission, and managed to find both the regiment, and his brothers Joshua and Tom; Tom at this time was serving as an adjutant to his brother, the Colonel. Chamberlain was also suffering a recurrence of malaria, along with the sunstroke.

After a long and arduous march--which included an all-night forced march on July 1-2--the Fifth Corps arrived near Gettysburg in the early hours of July 2. During this night march, some bizarre things seemed to be happening:

"At a turn of the road a staff officer, with an air of authority, told each colonel as he came riding up, that McClellan was in command again, and riding ahead of us on the road. Then wild cheers rolled from the crowding column into the brooding sky, and the earth shook under the quickened tread. Now from a dark angle of the roadside came a whisper, whether from earthly or unearthly voice one cannot feel quite sure, that the august form of Washington had been seen that afternoon at sunset riding over the Gettysburg hills. Let no one smile at me! I half believed it myself--so did the powers of the other world draw nigh!"(8)

The Fifth Corps was moved around several times (including a brief stop at the edge of the infamous "Wheatfield"). A messenger from General G.K. Warren, the AOP's chief engineer arrived, looking for troops to be sent to a place called Little Round Top; General Warren was atop the hill, overlooking the field, and watching Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet's men smash into troops of General Dan Sickles' Third Corps, and head for Little Round Top. (Sickles didn't like where his men were posted, so he moved them forward, closer to the Emmitsburg Road. Unfortunately, he left Little Round Top exposed and undefended, save for a unit of the Signal Corps. Warren saw the immediate danger, and sent messengers looking for men to get up there and defend the hill.) The messenger ran into the 20th Maine's brigade commander, Colonel Strong Vincent, who took it upon himself to take his brigade (without waiting for orders from Division command) and get up to Little Round Top. They got there with only minutes to spare.

83rd Pennsylvania Monument, looking from the 20th Maine's right flank,

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, PA.

Photo taken by Margaret Marley Stowell.

My friend Margaret and I visited this spot during our 1998 trip to Gettysburg; it was a wet day, and rather spooky, with all the fog and such around. She took a beautiful picture! That's Colonel Strong Vincent 's statue atop this monument, by the way.

On the way up the slope, the three Chamberlain brothers--Joshua, John and Tom--were riding abreast of each other, when a solid shot from a Confederate battery came flying into their midst. That disturbed Colonel Chamberlain. He said to his brothers:

"Boys, I don't like this. Another such shot might make it hard for mother. Tom, go to the rear of the regiment and see that it is well closed up! John, pass up ahead and look out a place for our wounded."(9)

This is one of those National Park Service battlefield markers at Gettysburg, depicting the monent Colonel Strong Vincent tells Chamberlain to "Hold This Ground at All Hazards".

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

Photo courtesy of Beth Miller. Do not use without her express written permission.

From right to left, Vincent placed the men: 16th Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania--and the 20th Maine. The 20th Maine was the last in line--the left flank of the entire Army of the Potomac! Colonel Vincent wanted to make sure Chamberlain understood his responsibility, and that of his men:

"Reaching the southern face of Little Round Top, I found Vincent there, with intense poise and look. He said with a voice of awe, as if translating the tables of the eternal law, "I place you here! This is the left of the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs!'"(10)

Chamberlain definitely understood. He went about preparing his men for what they would face. Years later, one of his officers, Captain Howard Prince, would recall watching Chamberlain in the moments before battle:

"Up and down the line, with a last word of encouragement or caution, walks the quiet man, whose calm exterior concealed the fire of the warrior and heart of steel, whose careful dispositions and ready resource, whose unswerving courage and audacious nerve in the last desperate crisis, are to crown himself and his faithful soldiers with...fadeless laurels."(11)

The Rebel shells stopped falling. That meant one thing: the infantry was coming fast. Sure enough, it did, with the high-pitched scream of the Rebel yell. They came storming up through the trees--men of the 15th and 47th Alabama, and the 4th and 5th Texas, of General John Bell Hood's brigade. Soon the 20th Maine was heavily engaged:

"The edge of the conflict swayed to and fro, with wild whirlpools and eddies. At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men; gaps opening, swallowing, closing again with sharp convulsive energy...all around, strange mingled roar..."(12)

One of Chamberlain's officers, a Lt. Nichols, ran up to him and told him that something strange was going on in his front, behind the Rebels engaging his men. The Confederates were trying to get around the 20th's left flank. If they succeeded, the Rebels could get in the brigade's rear, and destroy them piece by piece.

"That front had to be held, and that rear covered...I called the captains and told them my tactics: to keep the front fire at the hottest....and at the same time, as they found opportunity, to take side-steps to the left, coming gradually into one rank, file-closers and all. Then I took the colors with their guard and placed them at our extreme left, where a great boulder gave token and support; thence bending back at a right angle the whole body gained ground leftward and made twice our original front...This was a difficult movement to execute under such fire, requiring coolness as well as heat. Of rare quality were my officers and men."(13)

Chamberlain's daring maneuver--"refusing the line"--kept the left flank from being overrun, but it thinned out his men, giving the regiment no reserves.

This marks the extreme left flank of the 20th Maine's line, after Chamberlain had ordered them to 'refuse the line'.

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

Photo courtesy of Beth Miller. Do not use without her express written permission.

At one point in the battle, Chamberlain's life was in mortal danger, although he didn't know it at the time. A Rebel sharpshooter had him dead in his sights, but for some reason, could not bring himself to pull the trigger. The unnamed man sent Chamberlain the following letter some years after the war:

"Dear Sir: I want to tell you of a little passage in the battle of Round Top, Gettysburg, concerning you and me, which I am now glad of. Twice in that fight I had your life in my hands. I got a safe place between two rocks, and drew bead fair and square on you. You were standing in the open behind the center of your line, full exposed. I knew your rank by your uniform and your actions, and I thought it a mighty good thing to put you out of the way. I rested my gun on the rock and took steady aim. I started to pull the trigger, but some queer notion stopped me. Then I got ashamed of my weakness and went through the same motions again. I had you, perfectly certain. But this same queer something shut right down on me. I couldn't pull the trigger, and gave it up--that is, your life. I am glad of it now, and hope you are. Yours truly, a member of the 15th Alabama."(14)

I've always wondered what Chamberlain's immediate reaction to that letter must have been! He mused:

"I thought he was that, and answered him accordingly, asking him to come up north and see whether I was worth what he missed. But my answer never found him, nor could I afterwards."(15)

By this time, about two hours or so had passed, and the situation for the 20th Maine was becoming desperate. Even though Chamberlain had "refused the line", his left flank was taking a real beating, and time was running out, as well as ammunition. As his men fired their last rounds, they all looked at Chamberlain as if to say: "What now?" Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say. Let Chamberlain describe what happened next:

"...Brave, warm-hearted Lt. Melcher of the color company...came up and asked if he might take his company and go forward and pick up one or two of his men left wounded on the field...I answered, 'Yes, sir, in a moment! I am about to order a charge!' Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it, but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors. The men turned towards me. One word was enough-"BAYONET!"--it caught like fire, and swept along the ranks. The men took it up with a was vain to order 'FORWARD'".(16)

Here is the 20th Maine's right flank marker.

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

Photo courtesy of Beth Miller. Do not use without her express written permission

The remaining 200 or so men of the regiment ran down the hill (as much as the rocky terrain would let them), screaming hoarsely, bayonets at the ready. The shocked Confederates didn't know what to do; here were these bayonet-wielding Yankees bearing down on them--when suddenly they were hit from the flank by musket fire! The 20th's Company B, led by Captain Walter Morrill, had been sent out on the extreme left, as protection. They found a stone wall to hide behind, and were joined by some U.S. Sharpshooters, who had been driven off Big Round Top by the Confederates. This was all too much for the exhausted Rebs; many threw down their weapons and surrendered, and others ran, in the words of Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama:

" a herd of wild cattle".(17)

Chamberlain himself had another close call, almost at point-blank range. A Confederate officer with a sword in one hand and big navy revolver in the other, fired at Chamberlain's face. But the gun misfired, and Chamberlain brought the point of his sword to the officer's throat and took him prisoner. He took the officer's revolver, and gave the sword and the officer into the hands of a nearby sergeant.

The Tenacious 20th Maine": a National Park Service battlefield marker, describing what the regiment did on that hot July 2, 1863.

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

Photo courtesy of Beth Miller. Do not use without her express written permission.

The 20th Maine, once it got started charging, was hard to stop. They got as far as the front of the 44th New York, declaring they were "on the road to Richmond"! It took Chamberlain and his officers a while to bring the men back. They took, all told, around 400 Rebel prisoners. In spite of their heroic charge, the day was not over for the 20th Maine.

This monument marks the spot where Colonel Strong Vincent, commander of the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Corps, was mortally wounded, trying to rally the 16th Michigan, on July 2, 1863.

He was promoted to Brigadier General for his heroic action, but died of his wounds on July 7, 1863.

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

Photo courtesy of Beth Miller. Do not use without her express written permission.

The new Third Brigade commander, Colonel James Rice of the 44th New York (Rice took over the Brigade's command after Strong Vincent was mortally wounded earlier in the fight; Vincent had gone to shore up the 16th Michigan's crumbling flank, when he was wounded in the groin. He would die five days later of that wound.), ordered the 20th Maine to take nearby Big Round Top, after a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves had refused to do so. Chamberlain then asked for volunteers, and the whole exhausted regiment got up and followed him up the hill. After a very nerve-racking ascent (they could take fire, but not return it, much to their annoyance--plus they didn't know how many Rebs were about!), the 20th Maine set up a watch and slept on their arms. Eventually, they were supported by both the 44th New York and 83rd Pennsylvania--plus some of those Pennsylvania Reserves. They also managed to take a few more Reb prisoners, mainly Texans from Hood's Brigade.

The "second" 20th Maine monument,

Big Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

This is a 20th Maine monument that not many people see--because it's at the end of a long hard climb up Big Round Top! I don't know HOW I made it up here! This marks their position on the night of July 2-3, 1863. Too bad the inscription's not easy to read.

After an anxious night, the 20th Maine was relieved on Big Round Top, and placed in reserve near the Fifth Corps' headquarters. They lay there during the bombardment that preceded "Pickett's Charge" on July 3rd, but were too far away to be engaged in the fight on Cemetery Ridge. They were also sent on a patrol near the Round Tops a couple of days later, and saw some pretty ghastly scenes--one of which was the remains of the John Sherfy barn, which had caught fire during the battle. Inside had been wounded men from both sides, and, being unable to escape, they burned to death. After what the 20th Maine had gone through on July 2nd, this was almost too much to bear...

Before leaving Gettysburg, the 20th Maine bid farewell to their dead. They buried them in shallow graves, near where they fought and died:

"There they lay, side by side, with touch of elbow still; brave, manly resolution, heroic self-giving, divine reconciliation...we buried them there, in a grave, alas, too wide, on the sunny side of a great rock, eternal witnesses of their worth--the rock and the sun. Rude head-boards, made of ammunition boxes, rudely carved under tear-dimmed eyes, marked and named each grave, and told each home."(18)

This is the inscription on the east side of the 20th Maine monument,

Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA.

Photo by David Valencia.

Do not use without his express written permission.

It reads:



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