Friday, July 3, 1863 – Near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment were positioned on Little Round Top, a hill at the extreme left end of a line of 80,000 Union soldiers, which stretched out three miles all the way to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thirty-four years old, Chamberlain spoke seven languages and a year earlier had been a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. On this afternoon, he was the colonel in charge of the Union Army’s 20th Maine.
The 20th Maine, part of the Army of the Potomac, had formed in the summer of 1862 with almost 1,000 volunteers. A year later they had orders to join General Meade in southern Pennsylvania. After marching a hundred miles in five days in the hottest weather any of them had ever experienced, Chamberlain and his regiment finally reached their position at Little Round Top at midnight on Wednesday, July 1,1863.
Chamberlain’s orders were to defend their position, the highest point on the battlefield, at all costs. He had been commanded, “You can’t withdraw under any conditions. You must defend this position to the last.” Chamberlain understood that if he let the Rebels break through, the battle might be lost. He couldn’t retreat, and he knew it.
All day Thursday the fighting was fierce. Although they successfully defended their position, casualties were high and Chamberlain was concerned that another day like that would decimate his remaining 300 men. They awoke Friday morning, exhausted and hungry, their meager food rations gone.
At about 3:00 PM on Friday the Alabama 15th and 47th Regiments of the Confederate Army made a charge up Little Round Top. Chamberlain’s men were positioned behind a hundred-yard low rock wall, which they had built. The 20th Maine stopped the Rebel charge, only to face a second charge, a third, and then a fourth charge. As the sun was sinking low, the Rebels were regrouping again at the bottom of the hill. The 20th Maine was down to roughly 200 soldiers, and they were low on ammunition – most men were down to 1-2 rounds.
First Sergeant Ellis Spear reported to Chamberlain, “Colonel, they are forming again, we’ve lost almost a third of the men, we’re almost out of ammo.” Spear suggested they consider pulling out. Chamberlain shouted, “Take ammunition from the wounded. Not pulling out, carry out the order!” Spear shouted back, “If they come again, don’t know if we can stop ‘em. You know we won’t hold ‘em again.”
Chamberlain paused as Spear and several officers awaited his decision. No one spoke or moved. Chamberlain looked from face to face. If his line broke, the hill was gone. After a long moment, he shouted, “Fix bayonets – Charge!”
The men stared at Chamberlain in disbelief. Then jumping the wall, stepping over the bodies of the dead, and screaming like wild animals, they charged down the hill. Chamberlain watched as the soldiers in gray turned and ran back down the hill. The Rebel troops were surprised and uncertain about what was happening. Assuming Union reinforcements had arrived, the Rebel soldiers surrendered. With help from the 83rdPennsylvania Regiment, as night fell Chamberlain captured about 400 Confederate soldiers.
For 150 years, people have debated the impact of the fierce fighting at Little Round Top and its importance to the Union victory at Gettysburg. More than one-third of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was killed or wounded. Historians believe that the Pennsylvania battlefield was the turning point in the Civil War. And they think that if Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine had retreated the South would have won at Gettysburg. And with that victory, some historians believe the South would have won the Civil War.
Joshua Chamberlain knew his position at Little Round Top was a critical one, but he had no idea of the potential implications of carrying out his orders. Like Chamberlain, we may never know the consequences of our decisions when we choose to take a stand and not give up. Never give up – there is too is too much at stake!
“Never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in, except to convictions of honor or good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. “ Winston Churchill