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Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the Defense of Little Round Top


On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg entered its second day. After the first day of fighting, the Confederates had taken the town of Gettysburg and Union forces had withdrawn to the high ground on Gettysburg’s southern edge. Union General George Meade’s army now formed a three-mile long, fishhook-shaped line. This ran from Culp’s Hill on the right flank, along Cemetery Ridge, to the base of Little Round Top. With the town under his control, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces stretched along a six-mile arc around the Union position. Lee’s next move was to attack each end of the Union position. The Battle of Gettysburg could have been lost for the Union on July 2 had it not been for the actions of men like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment.

Before the country was torn apart by the Civil War, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain served as a professor of modern languages at Maine’s Bowdoin College. He continued to teach through the first year of the war, but in July of 1862, Chamberlain offered his services to the Union cause. Around this time, President Abraham Lincoln made a second call for troops throughout the United States. As a result of this, Chamberlain was given command of the newly formed 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain during the American Civil War. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

According to civilwar.org, “By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg the stress of campaigning had reduced the regiment’s ranks to some 266 soldiers.” 39 days before Gettysburg, 120 men of the 2nd Maine Regiment were marched under guard into the regimental area of the 20th Maine. The men of the 2nd Maine were in a state of mutiny and refused to fight. As noted on civilwar.org, “Chamberlain had orders to shoot the mutineers if they refused duty.” Chamberlain was not inclined to do that. Instead, he was able to connect with these men and distributed them among his battered ranks. This extra manpower brought the 20th Maine up to 386 infantrymen and would be vital during the fight to come at Gettysburg.

The flag of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.(Photo:crwflags.com)

As the Union prepared for the second day of Gettysburg, a major problem became clear. Union Chief engineer Gouverneur K. Warren was sent to assess the situation on Little Round Top. He was shocked when he found that hardly anyone was stationed on this position and as referenced on history.com, “Immediately requested additional troops for what has often been referred to as the key to the Union position.” Colonel Strong Vincent answered his call and brought his four regiments to the area. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine was among them and would be ordered to defend the extreme left of the Union line. Vincent instructed Chamberlain, “Hold that ground at all hazards.”

A painting of Colonel Strong Vincent instructing Colonel Chamberlain on his orders in the defense of Little Round Top. Vincent was later mortally wounded during the battle. (Photo: armchairgeneral.com)

Chamberlain’s small regiment was responsible for defending one of the most important positions during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The 20th Maine faced off against 650 men from the 15th and 47th Alabama Regiments. After repelling wave after Confederate wave, historynet.com writes that the 20th Maine, “Had fired 15,000 rounds, and the 60 rounds allotted per man were almost exhausted.” Chamberlain found himself in a difficult position. His regiment had suffered heavy casualties, the men under his command were almost out of ammunition, and Confederate troops were preparing for another attack. With few options left, Chamberlain decided that he must launch a counterattack to prevent his position from falling. He then boldly ordered his men to fix their bayonets and charge. The Confederate troops were stunned as the 20th Maine came crashing towards them. Many of them dropped their guns and surrendered. The rest retreated toward a stone wall in the rear. Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine had repulsed the Confederate attack on the South slope of Little Round Top. In 1893, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct during the fighting.

Chamberlain's infamous charge depicted in the movie Gettysburg.

As Chamberlain’s struggle at Little Round Top shows, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg was brutal and difficult. Of the battle’s three days, the second was the largest and costliest. If the Confederates had been able to break through at Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, or Little Round Top, the Union army would have most likely been defeated. Because of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and many others, the Union lines did not break. The following day, Union forces managed to turn the tide of the Civil War and forced General Robert E. Lee to retreat back towards Virginia.

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