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The Charge That Saved the Union: Gettysburg 20th Maine bayonet charge at Little Round Top, July 2 1863

Little Round Top by Edwin Forbes

 

The left flank consisted of the 386 officers and men of the 20th Maine regiment and the 83rd Pennsylvania. Seeing the Confederates shifting around his flank, Chamberlain first stretched his line to the point where his men were in a single-file line, then ordered the southernmost half of his line to swing back during a lull following another Confederate charge. It was there that they “refused the line”—formed an angle to the main line in an attempt to prevent the Confederate flanking maneuver. Despite heavy losses, the 20th Maine held through two subsequent charges by the 15th Alabama and other Confederate regiments for a total of ninety minutes.

Chamberlain (knowing that his men were out of ammunition, his numbers were being depleted, and his men would not be able to repulse another Confederate charge) ordered his men to equip bayonets and counterattack. He ordered his left flank, which had been pulled back, to advance in a ‘right-wheel forward’ maneuver. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the regiment would charge akin to a door swinging shut. This simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver halted and captured a good portion of the 15th Alabama.[16] While Chamberlain ordered the advance, Lieutenant Holman Melcher spontaneously and separate to Chamberlain’s command initiated a charge from the center of the line that further aided the regiment’s efforts.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordered the bayonet charge on Little Round Top.
During their retreat, the Confederates were subjected to a volley of rifle fire from Company B of the 20th Maine, commanded by Captain Walter G. Morrill, and a few of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, who had been placed by Chamberlain behind a stone wall 150 yards to the east, hoping to guard against an envelopment. This group, who had been hidden from sight, caused considerable confusion in the Confederate ranks.

Thirty years later, Chamberlain received a Medal of Honor for his conduct in the defense of Little Round Top. The citation read that it was awarded for “daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and ordering the advance position on the Great Round Top.” About Little Round Top

Little Round Top (left) and [Big] Round Top, photographed from Plum Run Valley in 1909

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  • PA Cat July 2, 2018, 11:43 AM

    Hi Gerard– Thanks for this post. Here are two links to paintings from the National Guard’s Heritage Series about July 2, 1863. The first is “The Twentieth Maine,” http://www.nationalguard.mil/Resources/Image-Gallery/Historical-Paintings/Heritage-Series/Twentieth-Maine/

    The second is “The First Minnesota,” http://www.nationalguard.mil/Resources/Image-Gallery/Historical-Paintings/Heritage-Series/First-Minnesota/

    Not to detract from the valor of Chamberlain’s charge at Little Round Top, the First Minnesota suffered appalling casualties in preventing the Confederates from pushing the Union forces off Cemetery Ridge on July 2. “The unit’s flag fell five times and was raised again each time. The 47 survivors [out of 262 men] rallied back to General Hancock under the senior surviving officer, Captain Nathan S. Messick. The 82% casualty rate stands to this day as the largest loss by any surviving military unit in U.S. history during a single day’s engagement.”

    Two of my great-great-grandfathers were in one of the German-speaking Pennsylvania regiments at Gettysburg. They were not hotheads– their high respect for the Confederate soldiers they met at Gettysburg has been passed down through my family’s history. I hope Gerard will add a few words about the need to avoid another bloodletting like the one we endured from 1861 through 1865.

  • ghostsniper July 2, 2018, 11:56 AM

    I’ve been there, many times, but I won’t tell the story. But I will say that the most amazing thing I ever saw was in the Gettysburg museum and it can’t be appreciated until you see it with your own bare eyeballs. Hundreds upon hundreds of bullets that met in mid-air on display on a wall. And those are just the ones that were found. I’m sure more than that are still in the ground.

    Think of that. 2 bullets hitting in mid air is an almost impossibility if you tried to do it. But hundreds upon hundreds of them? The hellfire must have been thick enough to go hiking on. How does anybody survive something like that?

    I was born there.
    I seen that wall for the first time when I was about 8, and then many times after. It bore right into my skall. I learned everything possible about the civil war and gettysburg in particular and Lincoln was my hero. 40 years later I found out that most of what I learned was a lie. A goddamned lie. It was about then that I started to grow a deep distrust for this rotten assed gov’t. How dare they lie to me that way then, and now? If not for people like me they wouldn’t exist, and they lie to me? Over and over and over? I have no use for it. Any of it. Ever.

  • Shingas July 2, 2018, 12:38 PM

    Too bad my side didn’t win their independence on that battlefield. I’d have preferred the outcome if the 15th Alabama had drove a bayonet into Chamberlin’s abolitionist guts and rolled the whole Yankee line up.

  • Donald Sensing July 2, 2018, 2:18 PM

    Amazing battle and extraordinary courage on both sides. But the battle that saved the Union? Nope, not even close. It probably had almost no noteworthy effect on the course of the battle. I rest my case upon a lecture of the battle given to me and my fellow officers by the US Army’s Chief of Military History (Ph.D., Princeton University), Brig. Gen. Nelson (can’t recall his first name), who I would say spoke with authority. I posted about it back in 2013 (with the same video, too!). “Little Round Top battle was not a decisive action.”

  • DiogenesLamp July 2, 2018, 2:23 PM

    I hear ya Ghostsniper. I never thought much about the civil war when I was growing up. My best friend in high school was a black guy who couldn’t get enough of it. I never doubted the official narrative until one day my friend told me straight out that Lincoln started the war intentionally.

    I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. That was years ago, but since then i’ve discovered he was right. That war was intentionally provoked by Lincoln, and it was done to stop European trade from moving out of New York to Southern ports, taking 200 million dollars per year with it.

    We are still living with the consequences of that war today, though many of us don’t recognize it because we don’t see the roots of what has happened regarding Federal power.

    We are way far away from what the founders intended regarding Federal power.

  • Donald Sensing July 2, 2018, 2:35 PM

    Who started the war and why? The Northerners knew at the time and said so. “
    The Civil War did not start over slavery
    .”

  • Donald Sensing July 2, 2018, 2:39 PM

    Ghostsniper, I hear you. See “The myth of noble Lincolnism.”

  • Dan Patterson July 2, 2018, 3:53 PM

    It is comforting to read correct assessments of a terrible event, and a mention of the myth of Lincoln.
    The Abbeville Institute, and Free North Carolina are two good sources for reference material and commentary.
    As a kid in Georgia and an older kid in North Carolina my interest in the conflict was the regionalism provided by lightly reading texts of the era. Later, as a still older kid that I am, the political and economic forces have been brought to the surface – not a small piece of the puzzle is the intense bigotry held by northerners against whites and blacks of the south. Very interesting study of human behavior.
    The causes of the war were many and yes, we are all feeling it’s affects today.
    Cheers y’all.

  • Fred July 2, 2018, 4:36 PM

    Dear World,
    Fuck Lincoln.
    Signed, The Unreconstructed ProGunFred.

  • Gordon Scott July 2, 2018, 4:40 PM

    The Gettysburg battlefields are very haunted. There are some very good guides. When they say Col. Armitage died there, they mean the spot to which they are pointing, and not six feet one side or the other.

    I have to wonder about President Eisenhower. He was gifted a farm there. He spent many, many days wandering those fields and hills. One has to wonder about the meaning to a general who commanded the greatest military force in history, but who never commanded a unit in battle.

  • Terry July 2, 2018, 6:21 PM

    ghost-
    Not to mess up this great thread but, you and I seem to agree on a considerable number of things, including our mutual condemnation of all things *government*. Government as time has proven is a failed system of control over free people. Free people govern themselves.

  • Chris July 2, 2018, 8:55 PM

    I’ve stood in the treeline on the far side from the bloody angle where the Sons of the Confederacy moved through to form up. I’d like to think that I would have had the courage to step into the storm of lead they were about to face. These were seasoned veterans. Men who knew what a minie ball and grape shot could do to a man, yet still they pressed on. They were far better men our ancestors.

    Those of you that blame Lincoln and say he intentionally started the conflict seem to miss the obvious. Lincoln won the election on Nov. 6 1860…. by the time he actually takes office on March 4, 1861, seven states had seceded and the Confederacy had been formed. Essentially, the Democrats of 1860-61 were no different than the democrats of today… they lost the election so they wanted to take their ball and go home. The South also initiated hostilities by firing on Sumter. It was only after that attack that Lincoln ordered for volunteers to be enlisted.

    If Lincoln is the bad guy in the ACW, he must have had unusually curious help from the South in order to cause everyone to secede before he was even sworn in.

    I get that folks aren’t fans of Lincoln. He played fast and loose with Presidential power, he violated Constitutional norms (but hey it was wartime…that happens), he also didn’t live to see less onerous terms placed on the defeated South. In some ways we might be better off had the war not been fought… but the fucked up situation we find ourselves in today wasn’t the fault of a man that died a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s the fault of the progressives of the early 20th century right on through to the lefty bastards of today. Yes, the Right has worthless bastards in office too. but lets not kid ourselves and think every thing would be totally 100% A-OK if Lincoln had died in 1859. we’d still be fucked up today.

  • ghostsniper July 3, 2018, 3:49 AM

    “The Gettysburg battlefields are very haunted.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMb9Uoi0d2M

  • BillH July 3, 2018, 6:33 AM

    Never could get interested in that war. There’s so much BS surrounding it on both sides. I farmed it out to a nephew who still dresses up as the something-or-other Indiana Infantry Regiment and goes to shoot blanks at rebels at commemorative events, and he’s 60 some years old.

  • Anonymous July 3, 2018, 8:36 AM

    Chris, the Confederates had blockaded Charleston’s harbor and they fired when Lincoln ordered the Union Navy to breach the blockade. Lincoln knew that running the blockade would start the war he desired and the South’s response does not absolve Lincoln from any guilt for starting it.

    A number of members of my Southern ancestral family died in that war and I believe that it could have been averted but I tend to see God’s hand in the mess, despite the hell of the event.

    All one needs to do is scroll forward in history and view America’s participation in the subsequent World Wars, particularly #2. Americans were very reluctant to enter into that war until the Japs hit Pearl and until Hitler, a few days later, declared war upon the US.

    I have wondered how things would have gone for the entire world had the US been comprised of at least two separate nations; one a large Confederacy of Southern and other non-contiguous States that despised the North and the other, a conglomeration of Northern and other states that supported the old model that existed prior to the War, along with the possibility of other States who might choose to support neither side and exist independently.

    WWI was more of a European event than American but WWII was all encompassing and notwithstanding Russia, it would be an interesting study to see just how Hitler, Mussolini and Hideki Tojo would have fared had the US been anything but a determined Union under a single government.

  • james wilson July 3, 2018, 9:18 AM

    The South’s cause was just, and fatally flawed.
    Appomattox was the birth of the “living” Constitution and the end of the Republic. 72 years, commonly a human lifespan.
    A smart fellow said men become politicians on account of being unhappily married. If only Ann Rutledge had lived. The conflict would have taken another shape or time but I’d roll those dice.
    Henry Adams entire family prosecuted the war, Forty years later they all regretted what they had done.

  • Chris July 3, 2018, 2:34 PM

    Look, all your “Lost Cause” horsecrap is ridiculous. The Southern states seceded prior to Lincoln being sworn into office. They simply didn’t like the outcome of the election. They wanted to keep fellow humans enslaved. States Rights? Yes, the right to enslave your fellow human was one of the Rights they thought they should get to keep. Let’s just ignore that aspect entirely… You are all simply asserting that once becoming a part of the nation, they could leave anytime they felt like it. If that were logically true, then there’d be no need to join in the first place.

    The Southern States were in a state of Rebellion against the government they had themselves participated in establishing. So there was no “Right” to blockade the port of Charleston and the federal govt. had every right to re-supply Sumter. The war began the moment the South started voting to Secede. That was a positive action that cannot be explained away as anything other than declaring a state of conflict…that it preceded the start of armed hostilities is even more evidence of this.

    Blame Lincoln all you like. He just won an election… and the children of the South didn’t like the outcome. Sad to say but the Democrats of 1861 and 2018 haven’t changed all that much. The vitriol directed at the current holder of the Presidency isn’t that much different from 1860… and I fully expect the end to be the same: assassinated while in office.

    There’s a lot gone wrong with our Federal govt. but blaming Lincoln for them is ludicrous. You should more aptly blame Woodrow Wilson who started the socialist takeover of our govt.

  • Chris July 3, 2018, 2:34 PM

    Look, all your “Lost Cause” horsecrap is ridiculous. The Southern states seceded prior to Lincoln being sworn into office. They simply didn’t like the outcome of the election. They wanted to keep fellow humans enslaved. States Rights? Yes, the right to enslave your fellow human was one of the Rights they thought they should get to keep. Let’s just ignore that aspect entirely… You are all simply asserting that once becoming a part of the nation, they could leave anytime they felt like it. If that were logically true, then there’d be no need to join in the first place.

    The Southern States were in a state of Rebellion against the government they had themselves participated in establishing. So there was no “Right” to blockade the port of Charleston and the federal govt. had every right to re-supply Sumter. The war began the moment the South started voting to Secede. That was a positive action that cannot be explained away as anything other than declaring a state of conflict…that it preceded the start of armed hostilities is even more evidence of this.

    Blame Lincoln all you like. He just won an election… and the children of the South didn’t like the outcome. Sad to say but the Democrats of 1861 and 2018 haven’t changed all that much. The vitriol directed at the current holder of the Presidency isn’t that much different from 1860… and I fully expect the end to be the same: assassinated while in office.

    There’s a lot gone wrong with our Federal govt. but blaming Lincoln for them is ludicrous. You should more aptly blame Woodrow Wilson who started the socialist takeover of our govt.

  • Casey July 4, 2018, 7:58 AM

    Lincoln exceeded presidential authority? Sayitaintso!!

    Look. Presidents exceed their authority. Nixon wrote about it, with logic, in The Real War. I’m visiting LA and note that the traffic rules and the roads are designed to be broken. I am watching Trump with an eagle eye- in spite of rhetoric, he hasn’t exceeded much. He will. It is designed in.

    Lincoln was a great man and president. Learn it.

    Chamberlain was Sammy on the spot at the LRT, and prevented the unhinging of the Union line on a critical day. Of course, every day was critical.

    Johnny Reb was brave in a great cause at Pickett’s Charge. Taken from the bigger context, his cause was to diminish the USA, and best that he did not succeed. He has my utmost respect for his manhood. States need to stay together, as we all must. Think.

    In smaller news, I am going to stop using “communism” in my rhetoric. The bad politics I condemn is Socialism. Rub their noses in it.

  • soapweed July 4, 2018, 6:02 PM

    Found myself afar back east in the mid eighties and particularly at Gettysburg one dreary misty day. Hired an eighty year some old gentleman to herd me through the hallowed/haunted landscape. He took 6 plus hours, until he was played out and pulled tears from my cheeks intermittently the whole time. Had a headache, like a hangover from the unapologetic emotion.
    I give thanks to that old gentleman to this day and to the troops who displayed their convictions and waved their brass ones at their fate. Incredible, just incredible.
    Casey: You took the phrase “be a sponge” way too seriously during your public school indoctrination. So sorry for you, sir.

  • Dan Patterson July 5, 2018, 4:55 AM

    soapweed my boy, you distilled the emotion I felt at that battlefield very nicely.
    There is so much to learn from the War Between the States and so much more to learn from the political divide preceding it, the divide after, and the America that discarded Federalism at Appomattox. But those lessons are lost on many. Lost, I am afraid, in the magnetic attraction many of us have for philosophy we already believe.

  • Casey July 8, 2018, 11:37 AM

    Soapweed, kind sir. I hardly think supporting the Union in the war, and agreeing with the outcome, makes me a “sponge.”
    Supporting an alternative outcome, however, is recidivist. You bear the burden of that.