The Confederate Onslaught
“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… 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; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” ― Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
The Federal Army at Gettysburg had a wide variety of officers. Many senior officers were graduates of West Point but in the expansion of the Army and the call of up militia from the various states other officers were appointed. Many had no prior military service and at times that lack of experience was tragic. However some of the time those volunteers were the men who by their service helped save the Union.
On July 2nd 1863 the situation at Gettysburg was precarious. Robert E Lee had ordered an attack to seize a hill at the far end of the Federal line, Little Round Top and turn the Union flank. General Meade had ordered III Corps under Major General Dan Sickles to extend it’s line to defend the southern section of his line on Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately Sickles moved his Corps several hundred yards west forming a vulnerable salient at the Peach Orchard leaving the southern flank undefended.
Major General Gouverneur Warren
When Meade saw the developing situation he sent his Chief Engineer, Major General Gouverneur Warren to take charge of the situation. When Warren arrived he found the hill undefended and he dispatched staff officers to get assistance from any units in the area. Major General George Sykes of V Corps responded sending a messenger to the commander of his 1st Division. The messenger encountered the commander of the division’s 3rd Brigade Colonel Strong Vincent who immediately took the initiative and ordered his four regiments up Little Round Top without waiting for permission.
Warren at Little Round Top
Vincent placed and his regiments arrived in a nick of time. He deployed his regiments, along the spur running to the south if the top of the hill. The 16th Michigan on the right with the 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania at his center and the 20th Maine under the Command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain on the extreme left of the line. His order to Chamberlain was ordered to “hold at all costs.” Chamberlain led his regiment skillfully and when nearly out of ammunition led a charge down the slope of Little Round Top which ended the Confederate chances of gaining the hill and turning the flank of Meade’s Army.
Warren was a West Point graduate and had been a topographical engineer for most of his pre-war career and saw combat against the Sioux at the Battle of Ash Grove in 1855. When the war began Warren was a mathematics instructor at West Point. He helped raise a militia regiment in New York and was appointed to Lieutenant Colonel. As a regimental commander and later brigade commander he saw much combat and was wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill during the Seven Days. When the Army was reorganized in February 1863 he was named Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac by Major General Joseph Hooker. When Major General Meade relieved Hooker on June 28th he retained Warren.
The 26 year old Colonel Strong Vincent
Colonel Strong Vincent was a 26 year old Harvard graduate and lawyer from Erie Pennsylvania. He was appointed as a 1st Lieutenant and Adjutant of the Erie Regiment and married his wife Elizabeth the same day. He wrote her before his death “If I fall, remember you have given your husband to the most righteous cause that ever widowed a woman.” He was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 83rd Pennsylvania September 14th 1861and assumed command of the regiment when the commander was killed during the Seven Days in June of 1862. He commanded the regiment at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and was promoted to command the 3rd Brigade when its commander was killed at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
Major General Joshua Chamberlain
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain was a graduate of Bowdoin College and Bangor Theological Seminary, fluent in 9 languages other than English. He was Professor of Rhetoric at Bowdoin before seeking an appointment in a Maine Regiment without consulting either the college or his family. He was offered command of the 20th Maine but asked to be appointed as a Lieutenant Colonel which he was in August 1862. He fought at Fredericksburg and was named commander of the regiment when Colonel Ames, his commander was promoted following Chancellorsville.
“Don’t Give and Inch!”
The battle of Little Round Top is one of the most famous of all Civil War battles and Chamberlain along with Vincent are immortalized in the film Gettysburg which is based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. Vincent was mortally wounded while leading the defense of the hill standing on a large boulder with a riding crop ordering the men of the 16th Michigan who were beginning to waiver “don’t give an inch.” Two months later his wife gave birth to a baby girl. The baby would not live a year and was buried next to him
Warren would become a distinguished Corps commander until he ran afoul of the fiery General Phillip Sheridan in 1865. Sheridan relieved Warren of command of V Corps following the Battle of Five Forks where Sheridan believed that Warren’s Corps had moved too slowly in the attack. The relief was brutal and ruined his career. Warren resigned his commission as a Major General after the war and returned to his permanent rank as a Major of Engineers. He served another 17 years doing engineering duty being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1879. He sought a Court of Inquiry to exonerate himself but this was refused until President Grant left office. The Court eventually exonerated him but he died before the results were published. Embittered he directed that he be buried in civilian clothes and without military honors.
Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor at Little Round Top in 1893. He was gravely wounded during the siege of Petersburg in June of 1864 while commanding a brigade and promoted to Brigadier General. He returned to duty later in the year as commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division V Corps and was again wounded at Petersburg in a skirmish at Quaker Road and was promoted to Brevet Major General by Abraham Lincoln. Chamberlain received the surrender of Lee’s decimated Army if Northern Virginia. He would go on to serve as a four term Governor of Maine and remained active with the Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s organization, remained active as an educator and President of Bowdoin College and founded the Maine Institute for the Blind which is now known as the Iris Foundation. He died of his wartime wounds on February 24th 1914.
These three men acted with great courage and alacrity on the afternoon of July 2nd 1863. Warren for his immediate action to call for assistance when he discovered that the hill was undefended and the line exposed, Vincent for his swift taking of responsibility and getting his brigade up the hill before the Confederates could gain the summit and Chamberlain for his dogged refusal to yield against repeated assaults. Only one of the three, Warren was a professional soldier but as a topographic engineer he was an outsider and not fully appreciated by Grant or Sheridan who destroyed his career. The youthful Vincent died of his wounds days after the battle. He was recommended for promotion to Brigadier General by Meade but the promotion was never confirmed by the Senate and Chamberlain is still one of the revered commanders of the Civil War.
It is easy for those enamored with military history to forget the stories behind the men that fought the battles of war. It is easy to isolate and analyze a commander’s actions in battle and ignore the rest of their lives. I think that this does a great disservice to the men themselves. I say this because everyone who serves in the military has their reasons, some more noble than others and likewise everyone who dons the uniform in time of war gives up something of themselves and sometimes even heroes are destroyed by the institutions that they serve.
Chamberlain wrote: “It is something great and greatening to cherish an ideal; to act in the light of truth that is far-away and far above; to set aside the near advantage, the momentary pleasure; the snatching of seeming good to self; and to act for remoter ends, for higher good, and for interests other than our own.”