The Battle of Gettysburg is widely considered to be the turning point that enabled the Union to defeat the Confederates in the Civil War. Had the war gone the other way, America would be very different today. While no single person can take all the credit for the victory at Gettysburg, a man by the name of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was definitely an integral piece of the puzzle.
“I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn.” –Joshua Chamberlain
Chamberlain was a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine. But as the Civil War progressed, he began to feel a sense of urgency to enlist in the military. His determination and desire to serve the Union eventually opened the door for him to command the 20th Maine, a hodgepodge unit made up of other regiment’s extra men. While other units were given a flag and sent off with the support of their cities, Chamberlain’s men went to war without fanfare or farewell.
If leading an unsupported unit of men into battle wasn’t hard enough, Chamberlain was also given orders to absorb 120 three-year enlistees from the 2nd Maine Infantry into his regiment.
The 2nd Maine men were veterans in the war. They had all served for two years. However, the men were in a state of mutiny. They refused to fight because their unit had been disbanded and the majority of their regiment had been discharged and sent home. While the bulk of the 2nd Maine had signed two-year enlistments, the 120 remaining men had signed three-year enlistments and still had a year left.
Chamberlain was told to shoot the mutinous men who refused duty. Luckily for those men, Chamberlain took compassion on them and worked to fix the situation before it became an issue. He distributed the experienced men of the disbanded 2nd Maine evenly into the ranks of the inexperienced 20th Maine.
Little Round Top
The Battle of Little Round Top was a significant victory that helped make the victory at Gettysburg possible. It was at the Battle of Little Round Top that Chamberlain earned the Medal of Honor for valiantly leading his men in the face of danger.
Geographically, Little Round Top was the far left line of the Union’s defense and a strategic stronghold for anyone who could hold it. If the Confederate troops took the hill, it is not a stretch to assume they would have been able to pick apart the rest of the Union troops, which would have made a significant impact on the outcome at Gettysburg.
To emphasize the strategic importance of Chamberlain’s position on the hill, Colonel Strong Vincent left him with the following order.
“This is the left of the Union line. You are to hold this ground at all costs!”
All or Nothing
Leading up to the Battle of Little Round Top, Chamberlain made a crucial move to band his regiment together. He elevated former 2nd Maine solider, Andrew J. Tozier, to Color Sergeant. As Color Sergeant was usually reserved for the bravest soldier in the unit, Chamberlain was able to instill loyalty and pride in the men who were still feeling mutinous. They began to feel that Chamberlain trusted and respected them. They were ready to go to battle with him.
Once the fighting had begun, Tozier stood his ground in a flurry of gunfire and kept a vulnerable part of the Union line from being overtaken. This act of bravery instilled strength into the rest of the unit, and Tozier was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.
Though the hill still belonged to the Union, the 20th Maine was weakening. Chamberlain’s men were running dangerously low on ammunition, and many men who had advanced on the Confederates were wounded and close to the enemy. One of Chamberlain’s lieutenants, Holman Melcher, wanted to advance and retrieve the wounded men. Chamberlain agreed and decided not only to retrieve the wounded, but also to mount a bayonet charge on the enemy in a final, all-or-nothing attempt to defend the hill. If death was his fate, he was going to die knowing he had done everything he could.
In the heat of the battle, Chamberlain ordered the bayonet charge. Melcher responded quickly and lead the way into the enemy troops, which were only 30 yards away.
The order was a success. The Confederates had no idea how to respond to such a charge and, in the midst of confusion and fear, were captured. The hill did not fall.
Living With Valor
Chamberlain was a man deeply rooted in academics, but in serving a cause greater than himself, he became an exemplar of valor.
While most of us will never be in Chamberlain’s situation, we all will have opportunities to be courageous and face our fears. Things that are trying to overtake us may come from the outside, or they may come from the inside. Whatever battles we are facing, it is important that we face our enemies with valor. Doing so will ultimately lead us to the most fulfilling experiences of our lives.
I invite you to look for and take opportunities that will help you grow—no matter how daunting the task may seem. You won’t regret it if you do.