The fighting on the second day of the battle on Little Round Top has become the stuff of heroism and legend. And one of the Civil War’s unlikely heroes played a key role in defending the flank of this valuable piece of high ground.
The battle occurred on the afternoon of the second day, July 2. The Union Chief of Engineers, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren climbed up to the rocks of Little Round Top and noticed, to his surprise, that this southern part of the ridge was undefended. He quickly ordered Colonel Strong Vincent of Sykes Third Brigade to occupy the gap in the Union line. Vincent ordered Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 350 men of the 20th Maine to occupy the extreme left of the Union line and told Chamberlain to hold his ground “at all hazards”. The term “at all hazards” means to hold your position at all costs, no matter what.
Chamberlain placed his men knowing that if he did not hold the southern line then the rebels would inflict damage and compromise the Union’s flank on Little Round Top. What ensued was a two hour wave of assault by the 15th Alabamans, up the slope towards the 20th of Maine’s position. Chamberlain’s men where outnumbered and running out of ammunition.
At this point in the battle, Colonel Chamberlain made a heroic and quick decision. He had very little options, he could not leave his position and his soldiers where now about out of ammunition. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets” and the 20th Maine charged down the hill towards the Confederates and drove them off the hill and took many prisoners.
For this heroics that day, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor. Chamberlain’s has been elevated since Little Round Top with the publication of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara in 1974 (the book was later made into a film called “Gettysburg”). It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1975. The historical novel of the three day battle of Gettysburg puts Chamberlain at the center.
Chamberlain was born in Maine and went on to attend Bowdoin College where he later became a professor, teaching languages and rhetoric. He was fluent in ten languages but wanted to serve his country in the military but Bowdoin would not grant him leave to join. Chamberlain took a so called “sabbatical” to Europe but instead joined the Union army. His defining moment was this defense and bayonet charge at Little Round Top, which earned him the moniker, “Lion of Little Round Top”. The citation for his Medal of Honor read, “(for) daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults.”
At the end of the war, Chamberlain was chosen to command the surrender ceremony of the Confederate Army at Appomattox. In James McPherson’s iconic tome of the Cilvil War, “Battle Cry of Freedom” he wrote of the moment, as Confederate General John B. Gordon led his troops towards two of Chamberlain’s brigades:
As Gordon approached the head of these men with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,” Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dipped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms. These enemies in many a bloody battle ended the war not with shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier’s “mutual salutation and farewell.”
Chamberlain later became Governor of Maine and President of Bowdoin College. He was wounded five times during the Civil War and he eventually died of his last wound in 1914, making him one of the last causalities of the Civil War.