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20th Maine And The Battle Of Gettysburgh

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The Importance of the 20th Maine

at the Battle of Gettysburg

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine played a crucial role in the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. The 20th Maine's actions on the second day of the battle saved the Union line from being flanked by the Confederates, thus securing a victory for the North at Gettysburg; a victory considered by many to be the turning point of the American Civil War.

The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1st, 1863, resulted in a defeat for the Union forces. The Confederate army had pushed the small Union cavalry forces out of Gettysburg, driving them into the hilly country south of the town which was comprised of many steep hills and ridges. The surviving portion of the North took up defensive positions and waited for reinforcements from General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac.

After the Confederate victory on the first day of fighting in Gettysburg, the Union army had been heavily reinforced and took up defensive positions along the high grounds in the shape of a fish hook, extending from Culp's hill to the north to Little and Big Round Top in the south. Union General George Meade had believed that Culp's hill would be the primary target of Lee's offensive, yet this was only partially true: Lee planned to simultaneously attack both flanks of the Union line. Colonel Strong Vincent was the commander of the brigade that was to compose the extreme left flank of the Union line, and he situated his regiments, the 16th Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania, and 20th Maine below the crest of Little Round Top.

It was on this hill called Little Round Top, on the second day of the battle, July 2nd, 1863, that Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine made a stand that ultimately determined whether or not the Union line would be flanked by General James Longstreet's Corp. The importance of the 20th Maine's stand at Little Round Top is not to be overlooked. Had their line broken, Longstreet's men would have flanked the Union line, separating the Federal Army from supply lines and its capitol, Washington, D.C. and, in all likelihood, resulted in the near destruction of the Army of the Potomac. A loss for the Union at Gettysburg may have also accomplished Lee's goals of fueling the peace movement in the North and securing foreign aid for the Confederacy.

The importance of this position and the absolute necessity that the position be held was made clear to Chamberlain and his men from the very beginning. As Chamberlain marched his men up the southern face of the hill, Colonel Vincent said, "I place you here! This is the left of the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs." (Wallace, 92)

The 20th Maine was composed of three hundred and fifty-eight men, twenty eight of them officers. However, one hundred and twenty of the men were deserters from the 2nd Maine. These men had been led to believe that they should be discharged with their regiment at the end of its term of service. They had not noticed, however, that they were signing enlistment papers for three years of the war and, after the discharge of their regiment, they mutinied and refused to fight. Chamberlain had been ordered by the Corp Commander to add these men to his roll and "make them do their duty, or shoot them down the moment they refused." Instead, Chamberlain treated the men with respect, and told them if they fought they would not be court-martialed and all but two of the men took up arms.

This was the situation that the 20th Maine found itself in when parts of the 4th, 15th, and 47th Alabama regiments began a fierce assault upon the Regiment's position on Little Round Top. Intense fighting ensued and time and again the Alabamians attacked and were repelled. In the middle of the fighting, an officer called to Chamberlain's attention a group of Confederates moving between Big and Little Round Top, towards the left flank of the Union line. In the heat of battle, Chamberlain called his officers together and informed them of his plan to keep the 15th Alabama from making its way around the flank and crushing the 20th Maine. He ordered the line to adjust itself into a right angle, with the flag and color guard as the center point, situated near a large boulder on the hillside. The intense fighting continued, and the 15th Alabama began a charge to take what they thought was the exposed flank of the 20th Maine. However, due to Chamberlain's tactics they found a solid line, were once again repelled, and the Union line held firm. Colonel William Oates, commander of Alabama regiments would later say of the fighting at Little Round Top,

"Ð'...five times they rallied and charged us. If I had had one more regiment, we would have completely turned the flank and have won Little Round Top, which would have forced Meade's whole left wing to retire." (Wallace, 98)

Once again, the 15th and 47th Alabamians reformed, and Chamberlain knew that, this time, his men could not hold. His line was thinning, and every able-bodied



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