On July 2, 1863, during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg with the fate of the Union and the United States hanging in the balance, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tried to break through the line of General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top. More than once that day, only luck and chaos prevented July 2 from marking the end of the nation as we know it, and from preserving slavery at least a little longer.
All accounts of the battle on July 2 are full of the word “confusion.” Robert E. Lee ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet to attack by moving his troops up the Federal left flank while General A.P. Hill’s corps threatened the center of the Union line. If coordinated properly, General George Gordon Meade wouldn’t be able to move his troops to reinforce the Union left, where Lee instructed Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell to make diversionary attacks and launch an all-out assault if possible. Lee’s plan, if successful, would force the Union army to surrender the positions it held on the high ground south of Gettysburg after the first day of the battle, and the entire Civil War might have been won by the South in a day.
But Hill, Lee’s favorite general (Lee mentioned Hill in his dying words), did not act with the power and coherence that Lee had reason to expect. Why? Historians have concluded that Hill was suffering from diarrhea or perhaps pain from an inflamed prostate during the battle. He had spent much of July 1 in a cot, trying to recuperate. He could not bring himself to tell Lee that he was not fit for command that day, an example of pride, loyalty and dedication backfiring spectacularly.
The Union was also lucky that the officer in charge of the The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment defending the far end of the Union line at Little Round Top was no regular military man. He was a Bowdoin history professor (later president of the college, and after that, Governor of Maine), Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He possessed a nimble and erudite mind unpolluted by military conventional wisdom, and is one of history’s many examples of exactly the right person ending up in the right place at the right time.
When it appeared that all was lost and his troops were about to be overwhelmed by Alabama soldiers because the 20th was out of ammunition after desperately repelling several attacks, Chamberlain improvised, ordering a tactic employed by Roman armies. He organized a downhill bayonet charge (The Romans used spears), the only such maneuver in the Civil War. The surprised Alabama troops, faced with the frightening sight of screaming men charging downhill at them with bayonets fixed, surrendered. This is now recognized as a crucial turning point in the battle, but historians had largely passed over it until the publication and subsequent success of “The Killer Angels,” a historical novel by Michael Shaara that received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. Chamberlain and the Battle of Little Round Top were among the main focuses of the novel, which was later made into the film “Gettysburg.” Renewed interest in Chamberlain’s life followed, as did new research and acclaimed biographies. He is widely regarded today as one of the most important figures in the war (and not only because of his role in saving the Union flank at Gettysburg).
But wait…there’s more!
While Chamberlain’s Maine troops were fighting desperately to hold the Union flank, 262 blue-clad soldiers in the First Minnesota Regiment, which apparently specialized in desperate fighting, were ordered by General Winfield Scott Hancock to throw themselves into a breach in the Union line at Cemetery Ridge against a much larger Confederate force. The First Minnesota’s suicide mission was to hold back the Southern troops long enough for Hancock to move in reinforcements, a matter of minutes, but deadly minutes. Knowing that they were almost surely to die, the Minnesota men dutifully rushed to plug the hole in the line. The monument at the battlefield marking their courageous sacrifice at another moment on July 2 that might have changed the course of the war and history, reads,
“On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles’ Third Corps, having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg Road, eight companies of the First Minnesota Regiment, numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery upon Sickles repulse. As his men were passing here in confused retreat, two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves and save this position, Gen Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy. The order was instantly repeated by Col Wm Colvill. And the charge as instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there the remnant of the eight companies, nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time and till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position and probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 83% percent. 47 men were still in line and no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. Among the severely wounded were Col Wm Colvill, Lt Col Chas P Adams & Maj Mark W. Downie. Among the killed Capt Joseph Periam, Capt Louis Muller & Lt Waldo Farrar. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett’s charge losing 17 more men killed and wounded.”
Again, the episode has been under-told by historians and virtually ignored by Hollywood. I first wrote about the sacrifice of the First Minnesota here.
As Thomas Macaulay wrote in his epic poem “Horatius at the Gate,” one of Winston Churchill’s favorites that he quoted often,
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?”