Tragic Heroes of Little Round Top, Part Two

The Professor: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

While Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s story is much better known than his brigade commander, Strong Vincent, he was another of the citizen soldiers whose performance and leadership on Little Round Top saved the Union line that hot July evening. Chamberlain was a graduate of Bowdoin College and Bangor Theological Seminary. Fluent in nine languages other than English, he remained at Bowdoin as Professor of Rhetoric and was deeply unhappy at missing the war even as his students left and were commissioned as officers in newly raised regiments.

In June of 1862 Chamberlain wrote to Governor Israel Washburn requesting an appointment in a newly raised Maine Regiment without consulting either the college or his wife Fannie, who was “shocked, hurt, and alarmed by the decision he had made without consulting her…She remonstrated, she raised her voice, and quite possibly wept over the injustice he had done to both by this unilateral act that threatened to send their world careening in all directions.” [1]

As far as Bowdoin went, Chamberlain actually deceived the college by requesting a “scholarly sabbatical when in fact he had applied to the governor of Maine in the new 20th Maine Infantry in the late summer of 1862.” [2] When the faculty of Bowdoin found out of Chamberlain’s action many of them “were livid over what they considered his duplicity, and some shunned him during the brief period that he remained in Brunswick before reporting to training camp. [3]

The letter that Chamberlain wrote to Governor Israel Washburn details Chamberlain’s desire to serve and in some ways shows his considerable political skill in presenting his case to join the army:

“For seven years past I have been Professor in Bowdoin College. I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line I know how to learn.

Having been lately elected to a new department here, I am expecting to have leave, at the approaching Commencement, to spend a year or more in Europe, in the service of the College. I am entirely unwilling, however, to accept this offer, if my Country needs my service or example here.

Your Excellency presides over the Educational as well as the military affairs of our State, and, I am well aware, appreciates the importance of sustaining our Institutions of Learning. You will therefore be able to decide where my influence is most needed.

But, I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until the men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our Country from Desolation, and defend the National Existence against treachery at home and jeopardy abroad. This war must be ended, with a swift and strong hand; and every man ought to come forward and ask to be placed at his proper post.

Nearly a hundred of those who have been my pupils, are now officers in our army; but there are many more all over our State, who, I believe, would respond with enthusiasm, if summoned by me, and who would bring forward men enough to fill up a Regiment at once. I can not free myself from my obligations here until the first week in August, but I do not want to be the last in the field, if it can possibly be helped.” [4]

Chamberlain’s pre-war experiences gave no indication that he would emerge as a military hero. His father, a veteran of the War of 1812 had named him after Captain James Lawrence, the commanding officer of the frigate USS Chesapeake in the War of 1812 who uttered the famous words “Don’t give up the ship” as he lay mortally wounded when that ship was defeated by the HMS Shannon off Boston Harbor in 1813. However, Chamberlain’s mother added the name Joshua as his first name in the town’s books. While his father hoped that the young Chamberlain would pursue a military career, his mother earnestly desired that he would pursue a ministerial career. Chamberlain did become a licensed minister but had no desire to become a pastor, and was never ordained. This was reinforced by Fannie, who though the daughter of a minister was “too much a free thinker” and “did not share the devotion her father and Chamberlain held for organized religion.”  [5]

Chamberlain debated attending West Point after graduation, a path that his classmate Oliver O. Howard took. Instead he attended Bangor Theological Seminary and following graduation took up his academic career at Bowdoin. It was during this time that he met, fell in love with, pursued, courted and finally married Frances Caroline Adams, who played the organ at the local Congregational Church that he attended. Known by most as “Fannie,” she was the adopted daughter of the eminent Congregationalist minister, Dr. George Adams who served as pastor. Fannie had a strong independent streak and was as an accomplished musician and artist.

The couple was an interesting match. Chamberlain was impressed by Fannie’s “artistic gifts. Fannie had talent not only in music but in poetry and, especially; art…” [6] but he ignored potential areas of conflict that would create difficulties throughout their marriage. However, Fannie was beset by numerous fears, as well as a desire not to be dominated by any man. Chamberlain pursued her with abandon but for a time she resisted, until her widowed father married a woman not much older than herself. She desired to pursue the study of music and went away to New York to do so, but in 1852 she decided that she was in love with him. “Yet she harbored doubts about her ability to return his feelings for her measure for measure.” [7]

Fannie suffered from depression and a constant worry about her eyesight which began failing her and an early age. It was a malady that eventually left her completely blind by then turn of the century. Compounding her struggles was that fact that her new husband struggled with his own doubts and depression, a depression that only seamed to lift during the war years.

“During most of his life, Chamberlain struggled with bouts of deep depression and melancholy. But not during the war years. It was as if the war and soldiering had made a new man out of him.” [8]

Chamberlain was offered command of the 20th Maine but asked Governor Washburn that he was appointed as a Lieutenant Colonel, which he was in August 1862. He fought with the regiment at Fredericksburg and was named commander of it when Colonel Adelbert Ames, his commander was transferred to preform staff duties prior to obtaining a brigade command in Oliver Howard’s XI Corps following the debacle at Chancellorsville.

Chamberlain at his heart, through his association with abolitionists and other prior to the war was a staunch Unionist. Before going into the army he wrote:

“We have this war upon is & we want to stop it. It has cost us already too much precious blood. It has carried stagnation, starvation & grief in to too many villages of our fair land – brought death to too many noble hearts that we could ill afford to lose. But the only way to stop this war, is first to show that we are strongest…I feel that we are fighting for our country – for our flag- not as so many Stars and Stripes, but as the emblem of a good &  powerful nation – fighting to settle the question whether we are a nation or a basket of chips. Whether we shall leave our children the country we have inherited – or leave them without a country – without a name – without a citizenship among the great nations of the earth – take the chief city of the rebels. They will have no respect for us unless we whip them & and I say it in all earnestness….” [9]

Like Vincent, Chamberlain was also a quick student or military science and rapidly adapted to being a soldier, officer and commander of troops in combat. He spent as much time studying the art of war under the supervision of Colonel Ames including Henri Jomini’s Art of War which he wrote to Fannie “The Col. & I are going to read it. He to instruct me, as he is kindly doing everything now.” [10] He excelled at his studies under Ames, but since most of the manuals that he studied were based on Napoleonic tactics and had not incorporated the changes brought about by the rifled musket, Chamberlain like so many others would have to learn the lesson of war the hard way.

Chamberlain was with the regiment at Antietam, but it saw no action.  He was in the thick of the fighting at Fredericksburg and Burnside’s subsequent “Mud March” which were both disastrous for the army.

He took command of the regiment in late April after Ames left on detached duty before assuming a brigade command. As the new commander of the regiment, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine missed the Battle of Chancellorsville as the regiment had been quarantined due to an epidemic of smallpox, which they had probably received from “poorly prepared serum with which the regiment was vaccinated” [11] in April.

From the regiment’s quarantined location Chamberlain and his men could hear the sound of battle. One of his soldiers wrote “We could hear the firing plain but there we lay in glorious idleness without being able to lift a finger or fire a gun.” [12] In frustration Chamberlain rode to Major General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters and asked Hooker’s Chief of Staff Dan Butterfield for the chance to enter the fight. Refused the chance Chamberlain told Butterfield “If we couldn’t do anything else we would give the rebels the smallpox!” [13] The regiment spent the battle guarding a telegraph line must to Chamberlain and his soldier’s disgust.

On the march up to Gettysburg, Chamberlain was ordered to take a number of veterans of the 2nd Maine who had signed three year, rather than two year enlistment contracts and were angry at remaining in the army when the regiment was mustered out. The men were angry and Chamberlain was given permission by Meade to fire on them “if they refused to do duty. The new colonel realized he had a crisis on his hands.” [14] The soldiers were bitter but Chamberlain treated them graciously and “almost all of them agreed to take up their muskets again the service of the 20th Maine.” [15] Chamberlain later remarked of how these men “we’re afterward among my best men, worthy of the proud fame of the 2nd, and the hard earned laurels of the 20th.” [16]

On receiving his orders from Vincent, Chamberlain deployed his small regiment halfway down the southern slope facing the small valley between Little Round Top and Big Round Top. By the time he arrived at Gettysburg he had become “a great infantry officer, and among his valuable qualities was [understanding] where an attack would come….” [17]

Since Chamberlain’s account is so important I will forgo a discussion of his tactics and instead quote the sections of his after action report that explains his actions. Chamberlain wrote:

“On reaching the field at about 4 p.m. July 2d, Col. Vincent commanding the Brigade, placing me on the left of the Brigade and consequently on the extreme left of our entire line of battle, instructed me that the enemy were expected shortly to make a desperate attempt to turn our left flank, and that the position assigned to me must be held at every hazard.

I established my line on the crest of a small spur of a rocky and wooded hill, and sent out at once a company of skirmishers on my left to guard against surprise on that unprotected flank.

These dispositions were scarcely made when the attack commenced, and the right of the Regt. found itself at once hotly engaged. Almost at the same moment, from a high rock which gave me a full view of the enemy, I perceived a heavy force in rear of their principal line, moving rapidly but stealthily toward our left, with the intention, as I judged, of gaining our rear unperceived. Without betraying our peril to any but one or two officers, I had the right wing move by the left flank, taking intervals of a pace or two, according to the shelter afforded by rocks or trees, extending so as to cover the whole front then engaged; and at the same time moved the left wing to the left and rear, making a large angle at the color, which was now brought to the front where our left had first rested.

This hazardous maneuvre [sic] was so admirably executed by my men that our fire was not materially slackened in front, and the enemy gained no advantage there, while the left wing in the meantime had formed a solid and steady line in a direction to meet the expected assault. We were not a moment too soon; for the enemy having gained their desired point of attack came to a front, and rushed forward with an impetuosity which showed their sanguine expectations.

Their astonishment however was evident, when emerging from their cover, they met instead of an unsuspecting flank, a firm and ready front. A strong fire opened at once from both sides, and with great effect, the enemy still advancing until they came within ten paces of our line, where our steady and telling volleys brought them to a stand. From that moment began a struggle fierce and bloody beyond any that I have witnessed, and which lasted in all its fury, a full hour. The two lines met, and broke and mingled in the shock. At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men. The edge of 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. Our “sixty rounds” were rapidly reduced; I sent several messengers to the rear for ammunition, and also for reinforcements. In the mean time we seized the opportunity of a momentary lull to gather ammunition and more serviceable arms, from the dead and dying on the field. With these we met the enemy’s last and fiercest assault. Their own rifles and their own bullets were turned against them. In the midst of this struggle, our ammunition utterly failed. The enemy were close upon us with a fresh line, pouring on us a terrible fire. Half the left wing already lay on the field. Although I had brought two companies from the right to its support, it was now scarcely more than a skirmish line. The heroic energy of my officers could avail no more. Our gallant line withered and shrunk before the fire it could not repel. It was too evident that we could maintain the defensive no longer. As a last desperate resort, I ordered a charge. The word “fix bayonets” flew from man to man. The click of the steel seemed to give new zeal to all. The men dashed forward with a shout. The two wings came into one line again, and extending to the left, and at the same time wheeling to the right, the whole Regiment described nearly a half circle, the left passing over the space of half a mile, while the right kept within the support of the 83d Penna. thus leaving no chance of escape to the enemy except to climb the steep side of the mountain or to pass by the whole front of the 83d Penna. The enemy’s first line scarcely tried to run-they stood amazed, threw down their loaded arms and surrendered in whole companies. Those in their rear had more time and gave us more trouble. My skirmishing company threw itself upon the enemy’s flank behind a stone wall, and their effective fire added to the enemy’s confusion. In this charge we captured three hundred and sixty eight prisoners, many of them officers, and took three hundred stand of arms. The prisoners were from four different regiments, and admitted that they had attacked with a Brigade.” [18]

Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama gave Chamberlain and his regiment the credit for stopping his attack. Oates wrote: “There have never been harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat.” [19]

As with any firsthand account, aspects of Chamberlain’s accounts are contested by others at the scene. But in another way Chamberlain’s accounts of battle have to be carefully examined, because they often reflect his romanticism, and because he was not always a realist. Unlike others in his command like Major Ellis Spear, who played such an important role on Little Round Top that day, a realist who “saw things plainly and remembered them clearly, in stark, unadorned hues. Joshua Chamberlain was a romanticist; even when describing the horrors of bloodbath his prose could be colorful, lyrical, even poetic.” [20]

There are accounts that differ from Chamberlain’s; Oates wrote that he ordered the retreat and that there were not as many prisoners taken as Chamberlain states. Likewise, one of Chamberlain’s company commanders disputed the account of the Chamberlain’s order of the bayonet charge. But even these accounts take nothing away from what Chamberlain accomplished that day. The fact is that Chamberlain’s regiment was outnumbered nearly two to one by the 4th 15th and 47th Alabama regiments. Chamberlain “offset this superiority with strength of position, iron determination and better tactics.” [21]

While the actions of Chamberlain, Vincent, Warren and others on the Union side, another factor was at play. This was the fatigue of the Confederate soldiers. The regiments attacking Little Round Top and their parent unit, Law’s brigade of Hood’s division, had conducted a grueling 28 mile march to get to the battlefield. By the time that they arrived and made their assault, most soldiers were exhausted and dehydrated. This was something that their commander, Colonel Oates believed was an important factor in what happened. While Oates gives tremendous credit to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine he wrote that the fatigue and dehydration of his soldiers “contributed largely to our failure at Little Round Top.” [22]

Vincent was mortally wounded while leading the defense of the hill. As the men of Robertson’s Texas brigade rushed the hill and threatened to crack “the stout 16th Michigan defense…” [23] Vincent rushed to bolster the defenders. He was standing on a large boulder with a riding crop as the men of the 16th Michigan were beginning to waiver. Fully exposed to enemy fire he attempted to drive the retreating men back into the fight. Brandishing the riding which he cried out: “Don’t yield an inch now men or all is lost,” [24] and moments later was struck by a “minié ball which passed through his left groin and lodged in his left thigh. He fell to the ground and as he was being carried from the field, “This is the fourth or fifth time they have shot at me…and they have hit me at last.” [25]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.52

[2] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top pp.44-45

[3] ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.52

[4] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence Letter From Joshua L. Chamberlain to Governor [Israel] Washburn, Brunswick, July 14, 1862 retrieved from Bowdoin College, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Documents http://learn.bowdoin.edu/joshua-lawrence-chamberlain/documents/1862-07-14.html 8 November 2014

[5] Longacre, Edward Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man Combined Publishing Conshohocken PA 1999 p.39

[6] Ibid. Longacre, Edward Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.28

[7] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.30

[8] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.45

[9] Smith, Diane Monroe Fanny and Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of France’s Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Thomas Publications, Gettysburg PA 1999 p.120

[10] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.80

[11] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.66

[12] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.132

[13] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.66

[14] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.116

[15] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.45

[16] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.117

[17] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.94

[18] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Official Narrative of Joshua Chamberlain of July 6th 1863, Maine Military Historical Society, Inc., Augusta, Maine, copyright 1989 U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute Reprint, retrieved from http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/chamberlain.pdf June 15th 2014

[19] Oates, William C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.98

[20] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.94

[21] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.393

[22] Ibid. Oates and Haskell Gettysburg p.87

[23] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.95

[24] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.272

[25] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.361

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