Wednesday, July 02, 2008

145 years ago today!

Today, July 2, 2008, is the 145 Anniversary of the second day of the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the American Civil War. On that day a small unit from the state of Maine saved the Union though self sacrifice, courage and loyalty.

Confederate General Robert E Lee had brought his army of Northern Virginia North in an attempt to isolate Lincoln and Washington DC from the northern states and cause the North to end the war and allow the South to leave the Union of the United States. He needed to win a big battle in the North. On the first day of battle, July 1, 1863, he had defeated advance units of the Northern Army of the Potomac that had left the area of Washington DC in pursuit of Lee's Army. The main Union force had reformed on a series of ridges and small hills south of the town of Gettysburg. At the end of the left flank of the Union line on a hill called the "Little Round Top" was the 20th Maine led by Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain( picture above). Chamberlain was a collage professor of rhetoric from Maine who volunteered for service. On July 2.Lee sent his forces against both the right and left flanks of the Union Army in an attempt to outflank them and remove them from their defensive positions.Chamberlain quickly understood the tactical significance of Little Round Top, and thus the need for the 20th Maine to hold the Union left at all cost. If Lee could turn the left flank he could force the North out of their defensive positions and "roll up the line" and win the battle.The men from Maine waited until troops from the 15th Alabama regiment, under Col. William C. Oates, charged up the hill, attempting to flank the Union position. Time and time again the Confederates struck, until the 20th Maine was almost doubled back upon itself. With many casualties and ammunition running low, Col. Chamberlain recognized the dire circumstances and ordered
a bayonet charge. From his report of the day: "At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough." It would have been easy enough to order a retreat based up the lack of ammunition and the many casualties. However Chamberlain knew the consequences of a retreat and in a act of self-sacrifice, courage and loyalty to the Union cause he ordered a bayonet charge.

The 20th Maine charged down the hill, with the left wing wheeling continually to make the charging line swing like a hinge, thus creating a simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver, capturing many of the Confederate soldiers and successfully saving the flank. Chamberlain sustained two slight wounds in the battle, one when a shot hit his sword scabbard and bruised his thigh, and another when his foot was hit by a spent bullet or piece of shrapnel. For his tenacity at defending Little Round Top he was known by the Lion of the Round Top. Later in 1863, he developed malaria and was taken off active duty until he recovered.(from wikipedia) For his actions that day he was awarded The Medal of Honor.

The next day,July 3, 1863, Lee ordered a frontal assault on the middle of the Union line which became known as Pickett's charge. Preceding the charge, 150 to 170 Confederate cannons bombarded the Union line and was followed by Pickett's Charge of 12,500 man.The charge failed to break the Union line and Lee retreated back to the South and the war continued for two more years.

(Location of 20th Maine on Little Round Top)

Chamberlain went on to serve four terms as governor of Maine after the war.