The last of my essays on moral courage and the role it played in the Union victory at Gettysburg concerns on of the most famous engagements during the battle—the defense of Little Round Top and the Union left flank by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. This action has been made famous to modern-day Americans by Michael Shaara’s book, “The Killer Angels,” Ken Burn’s PBS documentary on the Civil War, and, lastly, the film “Gettysburg,” which was based on Shaara’s novel. Chamberlain has become something of a larger-than-life figure and his resolute defense of his position has become legendary, as well it should. Now, however, let me tell the story and demonstrate how it is, perhaps, one of the truly great examples of moral courage.
About the same time Hancock was dealing with the crisis on the left center of the Federal line, an equally crucial fight was occurring on the far left at Little Round Top. The fighting there developed as Longstreet’s men continued moving to their right, probing for the far left of the Union line in attempt to flank the Army of the Potomac. As the Confederates drove Sickles back from the Emmitsburg Road, Meade dispatched General Warren to evaluate the situation in the hilly terrain just south of Sickles embattled lines. Riding to the crest of Little Round Top, Warren could clearly see that Longstreet’s assault was extending its line and it would soon envelop Sickles’ position. He also discovered that the hill on which he stood, which was defended by nothing more than a few Signal Corps officers, was the key to the defense of the whole left flank of the army.
Confusion ensued as Warren sent for help. Meade had dispatched the 5th Corps under General Sykes to move to the left towards Little Round Top, but he feared it would not arrive in time. Therefore, he diverted General Humphreys’ division from 3rd Corps to the left but, upon hearing that Sykes was closer than anticipated, he countermanded his order to Humphreys and sent 5th Corps instead. But still no one arrived on the stony hill at the south end of the Union line. Warren sought out Sykes and found him calmly surveying the area behind the Wheat Field. Warren explained the situation and Sykes immediately sent a dispatch to General Barnes ordering him to move a brigade from his division to Little Round Top as rapidly as possible.
The rider sped off but, before he could find General Barnes, he met Colonel Strong Vincent at the head of his brigade. Vincent stopped the dispatch rider who told the colonel he was carrying orders for General Barnes. Vincent asked what the orders were and was told that one of Barnes’ brigades was needed at the top of “that hill yonder.” Vincent responded that he would take the responsibility and move his brigade of four regiments to Little Round Top.
Vincent then led his brigade in a mad dash across Plum Run and up the back side of the hill. Vincent chose a spur about two-thirds of the way up the southwest side Little Round Top to deploy his men. The 16th Michigan Infantry anchored the right and maintained a tenuous connection with the 4th Maine in the valley below, while the 44th New York and 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry took the center positions in Vincent’s line. On the far left, Vincent placed the 20th Maine, telling its newly appointed commander, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, that his position was critical.
Passing to the southern slope of Little Round Top, Colonel Vincent indicated to me the ground my regiment was to occupy, informing me that this was the extreme left of our general line, and that a desperate attack was expected in order to turn that position, concluding by telling me I was to" hold that ground at all hazards." This was the last word I heard from him.
In some ways, Vincent could not have made a worse selection for this vital position than the 20th Maine. Unlike the 1st Minnesota, the 20th Maine was not a veteran, experienced regiment. Mustered for duty in Portland, Maine, on August 29, 1862, the regiment had seen less than a year in service. In that time, it had been in the rear during much of the Battle of Antietam, had seen some action at Fredericksburg, and had missed the fighting at Chancellorsville entirely because the regiment was quarantined for smallpox vaccinations. However, at the same time, losses to desertion, sickness, and battle casualties had still managed to thin its ranks. In fact, as Chamberlain deployed his regiment, he had only 386 men on-hand to hold the left of the Army of the Potomac.
As for Chamberlain himself, one could not find a man more the opposite of Hancock and Buford in terms of background and experience. Like so many others in the Army of the Potomac, Chamberlain was a volunteer. A college professor of religion, languages, and rhetoric at Bowdoin College who had been trained and educated to be a minister, Chamberlain had mustered in with the 20th Maine and been appointed its Lieutenant Colonel. At that time, the regiment was placed in the command of a Regular Army officer, Colonel Adelbert Ames. Under his tutelage, Chamberlain had worked hard to learn the ways of war. He soon discovered that he had a talent for tactics and, most importantly, an aptitude for command. Following Chancellorsville, Ames was promoted and Chamberlain became the commander of the 20th Maine. As a result, when he was called upon to defend the left at Little Round Top, he had been in command for only six weeks.
Chamberlain deployed his men in a line from the right, maintaining a firm connection to the 83rd Pennsylvania, “giving such direction to the line as should best secure the advantage of the rough, rocky, and stragglingly wooded ground.” As his regiment prepared to find cover behind the rocks and timber strewn about the hillside, Chamberlain sent 50 men from Company B, under the command of Captain Morrill, out to the left of his line to act as skirmishers and “to guard against surprise on that unprotected flank.” While Chamberlain was positioning his men, Confederate artillery fire continued a nearly constant barrage on the hillside. The 20th Maine had barely taken its position when the artillery fire stopped and was replaced by the first of several infantry assaults.
The first attack was made by Robertson’s brigade and initially hit the Federal units to Chamberlain’s right. But the attack quickly spread to the left and the right of Chamberlain’s regiment soon found itself “hotly engaged.” Within minutes, however, the center and left of the regiment were threatened by an even stronger attack. While Robertson’s brigade attacked the center of the Little Round Top defenses, a portion of Law’s brigade, consisting of the 47th and 15th Alabama Infantry Regiments, had moved to the right around the base of Little Round Top and up the sides of Big Round Top to the south. From here, they moved down into the hollow between the hills and then began wheeling up the sides of Little Round Top to strike the exposed Federal left.
As the 47th Alabama struck Chamberlain’s center, one of Chamberlain’s officers thought he saw movement to their left and informed his commander. Upon hearing this, Chamberlain mounted a high rock from where he could see the 15th Alabama “moving rapidly but stealthily toward our left, with the intention, as I judged, of gaining our rear unperceived.” Since his regiment was already engaged to its front, Chamberlain could not alter his front to meet the new attack that was coming toward his completely exposed left flank. Rather, he elected to stretch the intervals of the right side of his regiment, extending them all along the front, then “refused” the left half of the regiment, bending it back at a right angle. This complicated maneuver was accomplished while under fire and left the 20th Maine in a position that resembled a horseshoe.
No sooner had the regiment performed this maneuver than it was struck by the 15th Alabama. That regiment’s commander, Colonel William Oates, had seen the 20th Maine’s movements but apparently thought the Federals were about to flee the hillside. Therefore, he pressed his attack forward with a vigorous charge. But, instead of attacking a front vacated by retreating troops, he was struck by a “most galling fire.” Oates’ men fell back but reformed and went up the hill again, as did the 47th Alabama on their left. This time, they pressed to within a few yards of Chamberlain’s position before the heavy and effective fire from the Maine men drove them back. Soon, however, they came on again and Chamberlain remembered the fighting as “a fierce struggle and bloody beyond any that I have witnessed.”
The two lines of men met and then broke, then met again with the fighting “literally hand to hand.”
At times, I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men, The edge of the conflict swayed to and fro—now one and now the other party holding the contested ground. Three times our line was forced back, but only to rally and repulse the enemy. As often as the enemy’s line was broken and routed, a new line was unmasked, which advanced with fresh vigor.
Soon, the attack began to take a heavy toll. Not only had Chamberlain lost nearly 130 men, but the 60 rounds of ammunition each soldier in the regiment had been carrying when they climbed Little Round Top were nearly gone. Those who could still fight were taking rounds from the wounded, from abandoned cartridge boxes, and even from the dead enemy soldiers lying around them. Some of the Maine men picked up Confederate rifles and fought with those rather than their own Enfields. Chamberlain noted the enemy reassembling for another attack and reformed his shattered lines as best he could. Nearly out of ammunition and with much of his small regiment out of action, the situation was indeed grim.
It did not seem possible to withstand another shock like this now coming on. Our loss had been severe. One-half of my left wing had fallen, and a third of my regiment lay just behind us, dead or badly wounded. At this moment my anxiety was increased by a great roar of musketry in my rear, on the farther or northerly slope of Little Round Top, apparently on the flank of the regular brigade, which was in support of Hazlett's battery on the crest behind us. The bullets from this attack struck into my left rear, and I feared that the enemy might have nearly surrounded the Little Round Top, and only a desperate chance was left for us. My ammunition was soon exhausted. My men were firing their last shot and getting ready to "club" their muskets.
As his officers reported their status and his men turned to him, wondering what he would call upon them to do, Chamberlain would later say, “My thought was running deep.” He could fall back and hope another unit was waiting in reserve, but he knew better—behind him there was no one. His men could stay where they were, but they had no ammunition left to stop the advancing enemy. A lesser man, a lesser officer, would have fallen back and let this become someone else’s problem—but Chamberlain was made of better stuff than that. He later reported that “Officers were coming to me, shouting that we were ‘annihilated,’ and men were beginning to face to the rear. I saw that the defensive could be maintained not an instant longer.”
In Chamberlain’s mind, abandoning his position was not an option. His incredible solution was to fix bayonets and go on the offensive. Captain H. S. Melcher later recalled that “Colonel Chamberlain gave the order to ‘fix bayonets’ and almost before he could say ‘charge!’ the regiment leaped down the hill and closed in with the foe, whom we found behind every rock and tree.” The attack caught the exhausted Alabamans, who were about to retreat on Oates’ order, completely off guard. In addition, Chamberlains men charged down the hill in a wave from left to right, swinging like a large gate. This confused Oates completely and he thought another regiment had flanked him. About this time, Captain Morrill’s company, along with some U.S. Sharpshooters who had joined them, reappeared from behind an old stone wall and opened fire on the rear of Oates’ surprised men. This was too much for the Alabamans. They broke and ran “like a herd of wild cattle” as Chamberlain’s men swept down on them with fixed bayonets.
The Confederate attack was completely broken. In their desperate counterattack, Chamberlain and his small band took over 390 prisoners and the Federal left was secured. Had the Confederates taken his position, perhaps they would have been too tired and their numbers too thin to have exploited the breakthrough. However, the ebb and flow of battles can rest on small things, especially when men are tired and emotions are strained to the limit. Had Chamberlain allowed the loss of his position and the Confederates appeared on the exposed rear and flank of the remainder of Vincent’s brigade, their mere presence might have been enough to cause the entire Union defense to collapse. With that, Lee would have possessed the high ground dominating the rear and flank of the Army of the Potomac. Meade might have had to fall back, surrendering the hard fought for ground around Gettysburg.
In the years that would follow, Chamberlain would receive the Medal of Honor and his decision to charge when out of ammunition would be the subject of many discussions. But, perhaps what was most noteworthy was his decision to stay and fight at all and the example he set as a leader. Under incredible pressure, he held his regiment together, executed difficult maneuvers under fire, and highlighted forever how important small unit tactics can be to the outcome of a great battle. In fact, more than 120 years later, the U.S. Army Leadership Manual, FM22-100, would devote its first 12 pages to Chamberlain’s defense of the Union left at Little Round Top as a case study in leadership and unit cohesion under fire. In other words, over a century later, every young Second Lieutenant would learn how to lead under fire from the record of a college professor who became a great soldier. Perhaps, there is no better tribute than that.
In deciding to fight his delaying action west of Gettysburg, John Buford exercised his finely honed professional judgment and chose a difficult and courageous path. In doing so, he also determined where and how George Meade would fight his battle against Lee. As it turned out, his choice gave the Union forces control of good terrain for a defensive fight against the Army of Northern Virginia, and, thus, presented them with a strong tactical advantage. Had he not made the choice he selected, the entire nature of the battle might have changed.
Winfield Scott Hancock, on the other hand, also had to exercise his professional judgment, but one of a more terrible nature, and one commanders must sometimes face. He had to quickly decide how to buy five precious minutes and, when the only option seemed to require the sacrifice of a regiment, he took that choice. Had he not done so, the Federal center would have been broken, possibly resulting in the collapse of the entire line. The Army of the Potomac might have been forced off the vital ground they occupied and might even have been sent reeling from the battlefield.
Unlike Buford or Hancock, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the amateur, but a gifted one to be sure. Here was a professor-turned-soldier faced not only a difficult tactical situation, which he managed magnificently, but also a difficult decision. Told he must hold his position at all costs, he had lost over a third of his men and did not have sufficient ammunition to hold the coming enemy assault. In this situation, he could have abandoned his position and no one would have probably questioned it. But he knew the dangers to the army if he did so and felt it his responsibility as a commander to hold the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac, no matter the price. His solution, to go on the tactical offensive and charge the enemy with fixed bayonets, was brilliance born of desperation, while his decision to stay and fight was the product of a moral courage few men possess.
Three men made three decisions and demonstrated that the course of a great event often turns upon small things. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions made in the days that encompassed the Gettysburg campaign. But the three decisions discussed here clearly show that some decisions mean more than others. In addition, they demonstrate how the abilities and courage of one man, even if he is not at the top of the chain of command, can alter the course of history.