Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Day

Chris Lynch is noting the 181st birthday of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Maine boy who served two terms as Governor and spent years as a professor and President at Bowdoin College, but is best known for his heroics in the Civil War, particularly as the leader of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg.
It is not too much of a stretch to say that if not for the heroics of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top - the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee could have won the Battle of Gettysburg and with that battle maybe won the Civil War. The respect of Chamberlain as a leader was such that General Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the formal surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox.

Chamberlain won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top

As a Maine boy myself, I take enormous pride in the 20th Maine, and I love thinking, and have more than once stated, that "they saved the Union at Little Round Top." I'm not certain that it's actually true, however.

I recently finished Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine by Thomas Desjardin, and account of the Gettysburg campaign from the perspective of the 20th Maine. It's a decent read, but a detailed description of the fight for Little Round Top from both sides, the things that led up to it and the events that followed. And Desjardin doesn't think that the fight was as vital as we have long thought.
What Oates never knew, or at least never accepted, was the fact that his fight with the 20th Maine never imperiled Little Round Top as gravely as he perceived...And had his men held the summit, Oates would have better understood the limits of his prize as an artillery position and perhaps reconsidered the importance of the hill. Though Law, Longstreet, Meade, Jeff Davis and others all favored Little Round Top as a point d'appui in the battle, an artillery site from which the Union army along Cemetery Ridge could be pummelled into submission, none of them ever took the time to walk the summit or northern slope saying, "I would have placed a gun here, here, and here." Had any of them done so, they would quickly have encountered terrain on which only eight guns, at best, could have been brought to bear against the line that Meade's army held on July 3. Carefully studied, the boulder-strewn "round top" of the hill simply does not provide the flat open ground needed to operate more than a pair of batteries firing northward to strike the Union line. Even in this ideal sense at least two pair of guns would have had to fire over the heads of the others, a dangerous practice even on the best ground, and this only with ammunition run up from farther below. In advance of the huge Confederate assault on July 3, twenty times this number of cannon fired at a small span of the Union line at much closer range for two hours and were unable to break it. No eight cannons on Little Round Top, under fire from dozens of Federal batteries in response, could have destroyed any significant portion of the Union army that day.
In this great event, the 20th Maine bore no small part, but its contribution has been unusually swelled, though only in recent years, by the popularity of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
Killer Angels and the subsequent movie Gettysburg, based upon it.
Most serious scholarship of the battle dating back to the 1880s makes only brief mention, at best, of the Maine regiment on the left wing of the Union army. Until Shaara's work was published, General Warren was almost universally considered the hero of Little Round Top.

Of course, what would have happened without Chamberlain and the 20th Maine is unknowable. And there is no doubting or denying their heroism, and no one begrudges Chamberlain his Medal of Honor. Did the defeat of the 15th Alabama at Little Round Top "save the Union?" There's no way of knowing.

I like the story, though, and since it's unknowable, and reflects well on Mainers, I'll probably keep telling it...

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