Gettysburg, Two Flanks, Two Colonels


Maj. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain c.1865

My younger daughter was working on her spelling homework tonight. One of the spelling words was “colonel.” Her task was to write a sentence using each one of the words. Without hesitation, my little nine year-old wrote, “A colonel is in charge of a regiment,” then, beaming up at me, she said, “Like the colonel at Little Round Top.” This is one of those moments when you realize that Civil War reenacting is rubbing off on your children.

About a month ago, I was in Gettysburg with the family. I had a reenactment in the area that I was attending. We decided to make a family trip out of it, saw a number of sites on the way there and on the way back. While I was at the reenactment for two days, the family spent most of their time at Hershey Park, which, to be honest, I really didn’t mind missing. So it all worked out just great.

This was the girls’ first trip to Gettysburg. Before we left, I wanted to get them primed and decided to focus on the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Little Round Top. The story is well-known to Civil War reenactors and historians. If you’re not familiar with Chamberlain, the story is something like this…

The second day of fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863. The Union had a strong position, roughly three miles in length, along a ridge known as Cemetery Ridge. The flanks of their line were anchored on two good-sized hills, Little Round Top on their left flank and Culp’s Hill on the right flank. Confederate Gen. Robert Lee’s objective that day was to smash both flanks of the Union Army, take the hills and force the Yankees to abandon their position.

On the left flank, in the late afternoon, elements of the Union Fifth Army Corps were being rushed into position on Little Round Top just as the Confederates were fighting their way towards that hill in great numbers. The 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain commanding, was placed in the woods on the back side of the hill and informed that they were the end of the Union line. They had to hold their ground “to the last” or the entire Union line, running back to Culp’s Hill, would crumble. Chamberlain, before the war, had been a professor of rhetoric and modern languages. Like most volunteer officers, he had no military training. Despite this, his performance at Little Round Top would become the stuff of legend and earned him the Medal of Honor.

After fighting off many charges, the 20th Maine still managed to hold their ground. But the charges kept coming. And soon the regiment was virtually out of ammunition. Realizing the desperation of their situation, and remembering his orders to hold the ground at all costs, Chamberlain decided there was only one thing to do. He ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. Careening down the hill, the 20th Maine shattered the Confederate attack and saved Little Round Top.

According to the conventional wisdom, if Chamberlain had not ordered his gallant charge, the Union probably would have lost the Battle of Gettysburg. And, if that battle had been lost, the Union might have lost the war. Chamberlain has been written about for a long time, but he gained something of a cult following after the release of Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War, in which the Little Round Top story was so beautifully and dramatically told.

There has, however, recently been a bit of a backlash in reaction to the Chamberlain hero-worship. Some historians, including James MacPherson in his brilliant book Hallowed Ground about the Gettysburg battlefield, are quick to remind us that there were two flanks. Almost three miles north on Culp’s Hill, the 137th New York, commanded by Colonel David Ireland, fought just as tenaciously.

Ireland was not a polished scholar like Chamberlain. A Scottish immigrant, he had been a tailor in New York City before the war. His regiment ended up on the right of the Union line and was, it could be argued, in a far more dangerous situation than the 20th Maine. Fighting from 5 pm until 10 pm, Ireland’s regiment was surrounded on three sides by attacking Confederates in their front, their right flank and their rear. There was no dashing bayonet charge by the 137th New York, part of the reason they have been nearly forgotten. At one point, however, Ireland ordered his regiment to wheel to face the enemy on their flank. A battalion wheel is difficult enough on the parade ground. I can’t even imagine performing this maneuver under fire and in the dark. The bravery of the 137th New York is every bit as admirable as that of the 20th Maine. They held their hill.

After Gettysburg, Chamberlain was wounded several times. During the Second Battle of Petersburg, he was shot through the hip, a wound which was pronounced mortal. But he survived. At the close of the war, then a Major General, Chamberlain was designated by Gen. Grant to preside over the formal surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He went on to serve as the Governor of Maine and left volumes of inspiring writing about his experiences in the war.

Col. Ireland’s regiment was transferred to Tennessee where he was elevated to brigade command and led troops capably during the Chattanooga Campaign. On September 8, 1864, he succumbed to illness and died two days later. The man who saved the other flank at Gettysburg would not have the opportunity to record his memoirs.

This fact has a great deal to do with Ireland’s obscurity versus Chamberlain’s fame. I have visited both Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top and found both places inspiring. I give full credit to Ireland’s leadership and the brave stand of the 137th New York. At the same time, I have to admit that I am among the Chamberlain fans. Every time I stand on Little Round Top, I think of Chamberlains oft-repeated words during the dedication of the 20th Maine monument there in 1889. It’s one thing to read them, but to speak his words aloud at Little Round Top is enough to give one chills:

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream.

No one could have been more prophetic regarding the millions who have stood and pondered and dreamed on the Gettysburg battlefield. Some remember their deeds reverently on the ground they made sacred. And others, like a certain nine year-old, remember them with a smile while doing her homework.

5 responses to “Gettysburg, Two Flanks, Two Colonels

  • Tom

    Well said!
    You *have* to be our tour guide of Gettysburg.

  • Historicist

    I know you do. 🙂
    He is a brilliant writer. Later I’ll have to post what he wrote about the night after Fredericksburg.

  • Ray Potthoff

    I must say I really enjoyed your post of Chamerlain. I’ve been on Little Round Top three times, twice with my sons years ago and retold that story. The third time as a retired middle school teacher I stood there and watched four orange school buses stop by devils dens. They unloaded and the students lined up abreast under the direction of their teacher. A loud yell and they charged up the hill right toward me. Some faded back, some began to walk but of the runners three, two African American and one white boys stopped breathlessly in front of me. Wondering what school they were from, I yelled “who are you.” “We’re the rebels” all three answer in unison. I smiled thinking we’ve come a long way. 🙂

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