20th Maine Volunteer Infantry
by Ray Bisio
version 1/1/1998, version 3/7/2003
return to 20th Maine Homepage
The Twentieth Maine, perhaps one of the most famous Infantry units in the American Civil War, was organized at Portland, Maine, during August, 1862, and was officially mustered into Federal military service there on August 29, 1862. Its' original ranks consisted of nine hundred and sixty-one officers and enlisted men to be mustered in as part of the 20th Maine Regiment. The men were organized into the following 10 companies: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K.
Adelbert Ames had been a lieutenant in the Artillery at the outbreak of the War. He was badly wounded at the Battle of First Bull Run. He eventually became the first commander of the 20th Maine Infantry. On May 20, 1863, he was appointed to the rank of Brigadier General and he commanded various brigades during the remainder of the War. In the final weeks of the War, he was promoted to the rank of Major General.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the regiment's original Lt. Colonel and upon the promotion of Ames, he was made Colonel of the 20th Maine. He was wounded six times during the War. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General for his conduct of the 20th Maine at Petersburg, Virginia, in June, 1864. In April, 1865, Chamberlain was promoted to the rank of Major General.
On September 3, 1862, the 20th Maine Infantry was moved to Alexandria, Virginia. Here it was assigned to the Army of the Potomac. Throughout its career the 20th Maine served with the Army of the Potomac as a member of the Fifth Corps, First Division, Third Brigade. The 20th Maine participated in the following actions:
Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Globe Tavern, Poplar Springs Church, Dabney's Mill, Five Forks, and Appomattox Court House.
At the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were selected to receive the colors and arms of the Confederate units. Following the surrender and the completion of its assignment there, the 20th Maine was ordered back to Washington, D.C., where it took part in the Grand Review of Eastern Troops on May 23, 1865.
During its career, the 20th Maine sustained the loss of nine officers and one hundred thirty eight enlisted men killed or mortally wounded. An additional one officer and one hundred forty five enlisted men died of diseases or other non combatant causes.
Four members of the 20th Maine were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their conduct during the War. In truth, a fifth member had also won this medal honor: Adelbert Ames. His award was presented for his conduct at the Battle of First Bull Run, prior to the official organization of the 20th Maine. These awards were for:
When in August of 1862, Col. Ames went to Portland, Maine, to take command of a new volunteer infantry regiment, he was a little more than fourteen months out of West Point, and a year out of his first battle; where he had received a painful wound. Thus it had been impressed upon him an important principle: that discipline is a mighty good thing to have among your soldiers when the shooting starts. Therefore, Col. Ames was disgusted and horrified when he arrived at Camp Mason, near Portland, and got his first look at the soldiers gathering there for the formation of the 20th Maine.
Instead of saluting him, a typical Maine soldier would more than likely say, "How d'ye do, Colonel!"; and often as not he would be seen leaning against a wall or a tree, with his legs crossed. For it has been told that a man from Maine will not normally waste any of his personal energy holding himself erect if there is an inanimate object nearby ready to assist him in doing that. The military posture of one man, standing in ranks, was so atrocious that Col. Ames reportedly yelled at him, "For God's sake, draw up your bowels."
If Ames had been asked to pick an unlikely regiment that was earmarked for greatness, he certainly would not have picked the 20th Maine, in that month of August, 1862, as having any "date with destiny." "This is a hell of a regiment," commented Col. Ames, in August of 1862, when he took over command. It would be rather difficult to believe that in one short year, he would be saying,
"This is one hell of a regiment." Both the unit and the commander grew together towards a destiny with greatness.
The Twentieth Maine Gathers:
According to Army Regulations, the Civil War volunteer infantry regiment was to consist of ten companies, each having sixty-four to eighty two privates, thirteen non commissioned officers, a wagoner, two musicians, a captain, and two lieutenants. The regiment was commanded by a colonel, aided by a lieutenant colonel, a major, and a small regimental staff of commissioned and non-commissioned officers.
At the top of the 20th Maine, during that August of 1862, was Adelbert Ames, a West Point graduate and a Maine man. Thus he was both able and eligible to command this regiment. Ames already had a distinguished record for bravery and what Maine people would call "stick-to-it-iveness."
He was serving with an artillery battery at the first battle of Bull Run when he had taken a Minie ball through the thigh, but he had refused to leave the field. Instead, he was being lifted on and off a caisson as the battery changed position, and he continued to give fire commands until his boot ran full of blood and he keeled over from exhaustion and blood loss. Ames was an able, intelligent, and intensely ambitious man. He had been mentioned in several official reports and marked as a young officer who was on his way up for honors. For his brave performance at Bull Run, he would be later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The lieutenant colonel of the regiment was a man worth looking at twice. This was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, age thirty-three. He was a graceful, erect gentleman of medium, but strong, build, with a classic forehead and a mustache that swept back with a distinguished flair. Chamberlain had a talent for doing the impossible, which seems to have been encouraged by his childhood training. He had joined the faculty of Bowdoin College, where he had taught rhetoric, oratory, and modern languages. The college had not wanted Professor Chamberlain to go this war. So he took a two years' leave of absence for the purpose of visiting Europe. Instead, he visited the state capitol in Augusta, where he secured an officer's commission as a lieutenant colonel of Maine volunteers. The Governor had wished to make him a colonel and give him a regiment of his own to command, but Chamberlain said "no". Chamberlain's reason was that he would like to start at a lower rank and thus learn the business of war first hand.
The major, Charles D. Gilmore, had seen service as a captain in the 7th Maine, a regiment that went into the field in 1861. Gilmore was evidently a man of some managerial ability. He had contrived to get himself a transfer back to Maine, a leave of absence, and a promotion to major in the 20th Maine, all at one stroke. For sometime he had been the only uniformed person in camp and he had looked extremely lonesome.
As for the enlisted men, as Colonel Ames walked up and down the ranks of his first parade formation, he could begin to see certain possibilities and drawbacks. For in the ranks there were many men who had obviously been passed over by patriotically blind examining physicians, who had no business whatsoever being in the army. But there were others who looked very rugged individuals indeed. These were the flat bellied, hard muscled men and boys from farms, forests and coast towns. Basically all hard workers. These were individuals who worked in lumber camps, got up before dawn, walked through snow several miles a day, hauled large loads, moved mountains of materials, ate cold lunches and started work when the light of day first broke and stopped only when the sun had gone down from the sky. Thus to many of the soldiers of the 20th Maine, physical hardships were not strange to them; it was accepted as being the ordinary and accustomed way of life.
In addition, many of the 20th Maine soldiers were already familiar with firearms. Plus they were all volunteers, inspired by strong persuasions to rush to the colors of their nation. The year before, in 1861, Maine had no difficulty in filling up the ranks and raising regiments. But as the War stretched from weeks to months, the nation's call for "three hundred thousand more" as issued by President Lincoln, became harder and even more difficult to attain.
Usually, ordinary citizens, with authorization from the Governor, did the recruiting and paid for their own expenses. The recruiters were men from all classes in society: ambitious young lawyers, budding politicians, school teachers who thought they knew something about discipline, farmers, clerks, youngsters just out of college, and others who knew "a thing or two." There was a sort of understanding with the Governor that if they had succeeded in filling the ranks then they would receive an officer's commission. Therefore they had given many hopeful promises, employed proud persuasions, and deals of various kinds which would not leave the recruiter in an enviable position when it came time for future discipline.
In the character of its men, the 20th Maine approached a fairly good cross section of the entire state of Maine, despite the fact that the majority of its volunteers came mostly from the smaller villages and rural sections. This regiment was the last of the three year regiments raised in Maine in patriotic response to the President's call. The 20th Maine was formed from detachments originally enlisted for the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Maine. About eighty five percent had been born in New England states. The rest were mostly English, Scotch, and Irish in their origins. Of all the men enlisted, thirty-two percent were farmers, twenty-nine percent were mechanics by trade, twenty-four percent were laborers, eleven percent were grouped as miscellaneous (which included seamen), two percent as commercial, and two percent as professional.
In age, the men of the 20th Maine ranged all the way from eighteen (being the lowest legal age limit), to forty-five, as the upper limit. Sixty-seven of the men were forty and older. The oldest rifleman listed on the records was Glazier Estabrook, from Amity, at age forty-five.
All this was the raw material waiting for Colonel Ames. The men, he soon realized, would never be considered as regulation government issue soldiers. For they were too independent, for one thing, and although they acknowledged the necessity for obeying orders, they simply could not help resenting these invasions of their "personal rights". For example, a private, when he was admonished by his company commander for a lack of personal cleanliness at inspection, he would retort that he thought it was "a cussed mean business to go around and peek in other folk's ears." But the men of the 20th Maine were basically an enthusiastic and willing lot, and many of the officers showed potential promise, even though they had not been selected on the basis of military merits. It was believed by most that the Governor had commissioned them after thinking it out in this manner: "These fellows who have recruited so many men and have actually landed them in camp must have military qualifications."
In the few days that Colonel Ames had before the regiment received orders to move into the theater of war, everything seemed to happen all at once. Commissions for the officers arrived, a regular army officer mustered the regiment into service, and the uniforms finally came and were issued.
The 20th Maine At Antietam:
The usual, issued uniform for Federal troops in 1862 was a dark blue sack coat with light blue trousers. But initially the 20th Maine wore all dark blue costs and dark blue trousers alike. This overall effect must have given the regiment, as seen from a distance, something of the appearance of a group of railroad conductors out on an outing. The effect of all these new uniforms was remarkable. Compared with the sober drab colors of civilian life, the dark blue cloth with its gold-colored brass buttons and the new shoulder straps were comparatively gorgeous. The camp finally put on a military appearance, and the regiment, if not yet a lion in spirit, was at least clothed in the skin of that formidable beast. Given sturdy brogans to march in, but as yet to be armed with a rifle and bayonet, the soldier was at least prepared to go forth to serve his country.
In addition to his issued uniform, each man was to receive from the state a woolen blanket, a rubber blanket, a haversack, knapsack, canteen, a tin plate, a tin cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and if he were lucky, a towel. From the Portland peddlers the men also bought patented drinking tubes, pencils, stencil plates and ink, stationery, combs and brushes, revolvers, murderous-looking knives, money-belts, patent medicines, and everything else that could be imagined as to be helpful in crushing the rebellion. Colonel Ames knew that most of this stuff, and much of the government-issued materials too, would probably be found scattered along some backwoods Virginia roadway after the first long hard march.
As for the issued military arms, the 20th Maine was scheduled to draw muskets and ammunition when they had arrived in Washington, D.C. Colonel Ames went through the list of other regimental property requirements and it didn't take him too long to acquire such needed items as camp kettles, tents, shovels, axes, mess pans and assorted gear. With very little time devoted for training, the 965 men and officers of the 20th Maine, as basically raw recruits, with scanty equipment that included ten drums, five bugles, ten pounds of nails and a handsaw, with Colonel Ames as the represented commander of this infantry regiment, was to report, forthwith, to the commanding General of the Army of the Potomac.
The 20th Maine departed quietly from the state of Maine. Probably because of the scattered nature of its origin, it was not, as Chamberlain had noted, to be one of the state's favorites. For no one county would claim it as its own, no single city gave it a flag, and there was no ceremonial send-off at the railroad station.
On Sunday, September 7, 1862, the 20th Maine finally arrived in Washington, D.C., after having traveled by rail and river steamer. The regiment spent their first night here camped in a vacant lot near the U.S. Arsenal, on what was described as a "bed of dead cats, bricks and broken bottles."
The next day, the men finally drew their government issued rifles and ammunition from the Arsenal. Then the regiment started to march for Fort Craig, on the Arlington Heights. Aware of the fact that they were mostly country boys in a big city, the Maine soldiers wanted to make a good impression on the local folks. Instead, what really happened, was the drum musicians got out of marching time, the men got out of step, and the march turned into a frustrating experience, all with civilian onlookers and old soldiers laughing and jeering them along the way. By the end of the march, the regiment had straggled so badly that Ames could no longer contain himself. He was reported to have shouted, "If you can't do any better than you have tonight, you better all desert and go home!" This remark, naturally, did not endear him to his men.
Five days later, on September 12th, the men of the 20th Maine started on a forced march that was to take them to Antietam. The weather was unusually hot and oppressive. The men were not used to it. As they pushed forward at the route step, sweat ran down their backs, down their legs, into their shoes, where the ill-fashioned shoe leather was rubbing up numerous blisters the size of silver dollars. Hardly a breeze stirred. Dust rose up and hung over the road in thick, suffocating masses. Columns of dust traced the roadways in the air, from horizon to horizon, as the Army of the Potomac pressed towards their destiny at Antietam.
After a while, excessive equipment was now being discarded, then came the blankets, and finally the rest. The march that day would cover sixteen miles, and even stripped down to light marching order, the 20th Maine didn't make it. By nightfall, hardly a corporal's guard was left fit for duty. This punishing experience was by no means limited to the 20th Maine only. There were other new regiments which had joined the Corps at the same time. One particular regiment was the 118th Pennsylvania, known as the Corn Exchange Regiment (because they had been raised through the efforts and considerable financial expenses from the Corn Exchange in Philadelphia. These two regiments, from Maine and Pennsylvania respectively, would have much in common throughout the War, just as on this very day they were sharing the same introduction to Army life.
On September 14th, there was evidence that something was ahead of them as for the first time the men of the 20th Maine began to hear the soft, thudding thunder of distant artillery fire. They passed through Frederick into the long blue-shadowed South Mountain range, where there had been reported fighting ahead of them. They met their first Confederates, which were prisoners being escorted to the rear. They noted torn-up earth, white-gashed trees, fallen branches, and splintered barns. Burial parties were already at work on their dead comrades, leaving the Confederate dead until last. They descended South Mountain and joined the forces below.
On the next morning, the 20th Maine was found to be resting behind what came to be known to them as the Middle Bridge. The Fifth Corps was being held in reserve while the right wing of the army began their assault across the stream.
The walking wounded started coming back. To be seen were frightful men with shocked, staring faces, croaking in the doleful manner of the wounded who feared more of an impending disaster. In the backwash of the battle, there were other equally horrible and dismal sights, but when nightfall came, the Fifth Corps, along with the 20th Maine, was still being held in reserve.
Among the many criticisms directed against General McClellan, for his conduct at the battle of Antietam, has been the accusation that he left the Fifth Corps standing idle, when it, along with other available troops, might have turned the tide of the battle into the Union favor. But on the other hand, when considering the facts that green troops, like the 20th Maine at this time, made up the bulk of the units available for combat duty, then perhaps the regiments could thank its lucky stars for McClellan's excessive sense of caution.
In truth, there had been no adequate time given to the 20th Maine for even the basic rudimentary training for combat. This unit was still basically a shambling mob, and efficiency in drill for the battlefield was still something more than desired, rather than only the parade ground marching formations that they had received so far. In order to deliver effective fire and to be able to defend itself, a regiment had to be drilled to maneuver in precise formations.
At Antietam, one of the bloodiest and most violent battles of the War, this was not the place for a green outfit to receive its baptism of fire. More than likely it would have got its feet tangled up and possibly even slaughtered in the process.
That night, the Confederates withdrew from their front, and the battle of Antietam was over for the 20th Maine. Except for one all important event. They did see President Lincoln. According to Lt. Colonel Chamberlain, the men conceived an affection for "Abe" Lincoln that was "wonderful in its intensity."
The Twentieth Maine at Fredericksburg
They laid in camp at Warrenton for a week and then they set off through mud and drizzling rain towards the southeast. They arrived after various delays at a place known as Stoneman's Switch. This rather dismal place was located along the railroad line between Fredericksburg and Adquia Creek. Here the men of the 20th Maine discovered that their expedition towards the southern climate had not far enough removed them from the freezing temperatures so similar to their own northern Maine exposure. A Maine physical constitution has no special protection against very low temperatures. On the night of December 6th, four inches of snow fell. It was so bitterly cold that two men of the 20th Maine froze to death in their inadequate shelter tents.
At Stoneman's Switch, the regiment settled down for a spell of camp and picket duty. Meanwhile they waited to see what their new army commander, Major General Ambrose Burnside, would be like. Typically, what came through to them was a mixture of impressions. One observer noted that Burnside was a tremendously imposing man. It was only after talking with him for some time that one witness discovered that his intelligence fell far short of matching his physical size and uniformed presence. With characteristic modesty, Burnside quite freely admitted this apparent lack, of competence. An admission that did nothing whatsoever to, encourage the confidence of his subordinates. Worst of all, in the light of the dubious qualifications, the new commanding general was energetic and quite ambitious. General Burnside was prone to get many brave men killed in large numbers.
As they camped near the Rappahannock River, it came down to the men of the 20th Maine, through the enlisted men's channels of communication, that Burnside was planning to cross the river at or near Fredericksburg, and then head straight for Richmond. But a few obstacles had interposed themselves into his plan.
First, the necessary pontoons for the bridges had not yet arrived in time. Washington had somehow neglected to follow through on this important arrangement. By the time the pontoons had arrived, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had already entrenched themselves on the heights across the river overlooking Fredericksburg.
In the late afternoon, the Fifth Corps went in to get and hold what ground it could attain in support of the various brigades that had preceded it in their attacks. As the 20th Maine crossed over on a pontoon bridge, Chamberlain recalled that "the air was thick with flying, bursting shells; whooping solid shot swept lengthwise our narrow bridge causing men and animals to shrink beneath it, knowing it was then too late."
Once into town, the men were ordered to unsling their knapsacks and to leave them to be cared for by the quartermaster. As the regiment moved out, Lt. Col. Chamberlain saw a Confederate battery swing its guns down to sweep their front. The guns flashed, and the air around the 20th Maine was suddenly full of shocking noise and masses of smoke that seemed to materialize from nowhere. Colonel Ames called to Chamberlain, "God help us now!"
They were caught into the afternoon blood mowing now. It was a terrible mess. Everywhere they looked, they witnessed smashed bodies, ownerless arms and legs, and scattered equipment blown all over the place. Maine men were beginning to go down dying.
A man in one of the other regiments, which had preceded them, and was now pinned down on the slope ahead, had turned in his prone position and looked back. He left this record of what he saw, "the 20th Maine coming across the field in line of battle, as if upon parade, was easily recognized by their new state colors, the great gaps plainly visible as the shot and shell tore through the now tremulous line. It was a grand sight, and a striking example of what discipline will do for such material in such a battle."
It turned out to be a very rough night. The weather became intensely cold during the evening. Many of the men had left their overcoats and blankets behind in Fredericksburg with their knapsacks. They now became violently chilled. Freezing live men were looking for dead men, with the practical idea of removing the clothing that they no longer needed. The reports that the Confederates had despoiled the dead were true, but at Fredericksburg, on that horrible night, it was the Union soldiers who had stripped the dead in order to survive in the field.
Lt. Col. Chamberlain made a ghastly bed. "For myself it seemed best to place my body between two dead men who were among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, for a pillow, pull1ng the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the cold, chilling winds and the still more chilling deep voices of the wounded and dying." The wind roared and kept swinging a loosen window-blind in an abandoned house near by. As the blind flapped back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm, Chamberlain thought it was saying "Never-forever; forever-never'" He remembered the sound all the rest of his life.
Finally the dawn came, It arrived with a splatter of Rebel bullets. Once again the dead were brought into service. On the flank, facing the firing, the men had laid up a breast work of corpses. It worked in protecting the living soldiers. But a man could easily get sick to his stomach listening to the bullets thud into the dead men's flesh. Cold and covered with mud, they laid there on the ground all day long, It would have been fatal for anyone to have to get up and retreat. Necessary reinforcements could not reach them. At last night came again and with it came the orders to withdraw into the town.
But there was something the men had to do before they left this bloody area. The 20th Maine wanted to bury their own dead. They were to follow this loyal practice on nearly every battlefield wherever the regiment had lost men in combat. Perhaps it was here, where they felt it was most important since the dead had sheltered the living from harm, that this sense of obligation was formed.
Back in Fredericksburg, they spread their blakets on top of the frozen street pavement and tried to get some sleep. All day long, on that Monday, they stayed in town, now packed with troops from various other commands. Everyone was mixed up and very demoralized.
Finally a staff officer arrived and he announced, "Get yourselves out of this as quick as God will let you. The whole army is across the river!" Then the staff officer and his horse were immediately shot and they both fell dead at Chamberlain's feet. In a leap-frogging action they pulled back to the pontoon bridge and with great difficulty they successfully crossed over safely to the other side.
The 20th Maine had lost four men killed and had thirty-two wounded. They had not been disorganized. They had maneuvered and fought as a cohesive, thinking unit. They knew now that they were finally a real infantry regiment.
Leaning wearily against a tree, Chamberlain was thinking about this battle. He reflected upon the fact that the division had not been committed in as a single body of troops. Just then, General Hooker came riding by. Seeing the muddy, beaten-up infantrymen beside the road, he called out to Chamberlain, "You've had a hard chance, Colonel; I am glad to see you out of it "
Chamberlain was obviously very tired, hungry, and quite disgusted with this entire affair. Also he was nursing a slight wound in the right cheek, so he was somewhat more than figuratively sore-headed. He called back to Hooker, "It was chance General, not much intelligent design there!"
Hooker responded with a sharp edge in his voice, "God knows I did not put you in"'
Chamberlain then practically put his neck on the chopping block with this reply, "That was the trouble, General," he shouted, "you should have put us in. We were handled in piecemeal, and on toasting forks."
There was a shocked silence for a moment. The rain continued to cast a gray haze over the ruins across the river. Then Hooker rode on without a reprimand. Somehow this didn't seem to be the time or the place for the chopping off of an officer's head.
The 20th Maine at Chancellorsville
The practice of preventive inoculation-- that is, of inducing a mild form of the disease to provide immunity against the real dangerous thing-- was far from being new. On the whole, the results were generally good, but a number of times, things could and did go wrong. When the time came for the men of the 20th Maine, it did go wrong.
Following the vaccination at Stoneman's Switch, with what the men of the 20th Maine always believed was a smallpox virus instead of a vaccine, the Surgeon Monroe reported on the 17th of April, that there were eighty-four cases of smallpox infection in the regiment. Of them, thirty-two were gravely serious and that three men had actually died of this disease. Monroe was highly alarmed for he could visualize the entire Union Army of the Potomac being infected by the 20th Maine and probably losing the next battle as a result. In that case, with the Union forces falling, probably Monroe would be blamed as being responsible for the whole disaster.
Colonel Ames received this report from his regimental surgeon with utter dismay. He fervently wanted to get into the forthcoming battle. Ames did not forward the report until April 19th, perhaps hoping that the surgeon's alarm was ill-founded. Then he sent it on and immediately got himself detached from the regiment and assigned to the staff of General Meade, whereby here there would be a chance of getting into the action.
All at once three things happened to the 20th Maine which made Chancellorsville stand out in the minds of the men. Colonel Ames departed for greener fields, Chamberlain being promoted to full Colonel and thus given command, and the entire regiment was moved apart from the rest of the Army and sequestered to a place to be forever known to them as Quarantine Hill.
When Chamberlain heard the booming of the first guns opening the battle of Chancellorsville, he simply could not hold still at Quarantine Hill. Mounting his horse, he galloped off to Army Headquarters. Here he pleaded with General Butterfield to put the 20th Maine into the fight. The answer he received was thoroughly negative. Addressing Butterfield, Chamberlain made this argument that must rank as one of the most surprising statement ever coming from an ex-theologian. For he cried, "If we couldn't do anything else we could give the rebels smallpox." The 20th Maine received the inglorious assignment of guarding telegraph lines in the rear of the combat area.
The telegraph line ran from Falmouth, the headquarters of the Army, which was near Stoneman's Switch, all the way to United States Ford. Guarding this line was really important because it was a main channel of communication, and telegraph wires were always getting cut if they were not being watched carefully. It was just as important to guard against Union men, as it was to watch out for enemy agents. For Union teamsters had been known to cut up the wire for use in repairing their wagons, and these patriots had also used it for tying up fodder on occasions. Also for some back-country soldiers, who had never seen an insulated wire before, would sometimes be just as likely to stop and cut it with their bayonets simply to see what was inside the wire.
Yet the duty was rather ignominious, because it was a known fact that skedaddlers would often go to the rear with the proclaimed purpose of guarding the telegraph line. More than once would an officer often see a man, that he suspected of being a straggler, and he would say to him, "What are you doing back here?" And the man would reply, "I'm guarding the telegraph, sir." Sometimes there would be a man guarding every few feet of wire, enough, in all, to withstand a regiment of enemy wire-cutters.
Thus Chancellorsville passed by into history for the 20th Maine. By then the regiment was in need of replacements. Sickness, which had swept so many brave men away during their stay at Chancellorsville, continued on through the month of May. The regiment was now down to about four hundred men present and fit for duty. Only three replacement recruits had arrived so far from Maine. Chamberlain was badly in need of more soldiers. He got them under somewhat peculiar circumstances.
The 2nd Maine was scheduled to go home. It was decided to transfer approximately 120 soldiers from the 2nd Maine to the 20th Maine. But many of these 120 soldiers violently disagreed with this decision. When they were ordered to march into the 20th Maine's camp, under an escort of armed guards, these replacements looked very angry. Chamberlain was ordered to make them stand to do duty, and if necessary, to shoot anyone of them down if they refused. The story was passed around that they were mutineers.
On the whole, leadership is a quality that is generally complex and not too well understood by many. Yet a great deal could be learned about this subject from a closer study of Chamberlain's life in the Army.
Leadership, in military affairs, is usually thought of as being the clarion shout, the waved sword, and the command, "Follow me, men"' But it is also the use of the right words, spoken quietly, at the right time. In addition, leadership is many other things, and whatever these desirable attributes are, Chamberlain seemed to have had most of them. And he would soon have the ample opportunity to prove it to others. Within a couple of weeks, this new Colonel would be on his way up, as he headed for Gettysburg and a rendezvous with destiny.
Of the 120 men, from the 2nd Maine, who violently disagreed with the decision that they should remain in the war, only six men were kept as prisoners to await court-martial. All the rest yielded to Chamberlain's persuasions and returned to duty with the 20th Maine. This group, in fact, proved to add a measurable degree of added strength to the 20th Maine, that later on was to be a decisive factor for this regiment, and perhaps for the country, in just a little more than a month's time later. They were also to prove the fact that stubborn soldiers, men who won't be pushed around, are sometimes worth cultivating by other means of reasoning rather than the use of force. The chances are that they are just the sort of men whom the enemy won't likely push around, either.
The 20th Maine at Gettysburg
The 20th Maine Infantry was the designated regiment to hold the extreme left flank of the Union battle line late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain had been given the orders to hold this crucial position at all costs. To retreat would mean jeopardizing the entire safety of the rest of the Union Army of the Potomac. The men quickly deployed into defensive positions overlooking a small valley which had separated the two prominent hills here, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. Company B was sent off into the woods just east of the main position to guard against any flank attacks there.
As the Confederates swept over the slopes of Big Round Top and down into this valley, the men of the 20th Maine held on tenaciously to their little defensive ledge of rocks. They stubbornly repelled attack after attack.
One image, that was impressed upon the surviving men of the 20th Maine, and which was told and retold whenever and wherever they met in the future, was that of the fight which raged around the company's colors, under the command and protection of Color Sergeant Andrew Tozier.
The story usually goes like this: The Color Company detachment had already sustained heavy casualties. Oftentimes the heavy smoke of firing would obscure from their sights the regimental flag. For one moment, when the smoke clouds had cleared, all could see the sight of the Color Sergeant Tozier standing there on a boulder alone, seemingly above the fury of the battle, with the flag planted firmly at his feet. This brave, heroic image would forever remain etched in the minds of the men of the 20th Maine who witnessed it on that hot July day. There he was, holding onto that flag so erect against his body, with his arms free to load and fire a rifle. There he remained, standing in the midst of danger, assisting his comrades in the defense of their important line.
Ammunition was running dangerously low. Thus it became very apparent that to remain in this exposed position would probably invite a potential disaster to the Union flank. To retreat would mean admitting to certain defeat. The only real option left was to mount an attack to change the present outcome. Chamberlain was now faced with a very difficult decision. As the Confederates launched another charge against them, the choice was finally made.
Colonel Chamberlain ordered his men to "fix bayonets", and on his command, the attacked suddenly became the attackers. Chamberlain, along with his dependable Color Sergeant Tozier, and the surviving men of the 20th Maine, all swept down through that little valley to confront what many would consider to be a certain death for all. Just as it seemed that the attack could possibly fail, up popped Company B from its hidden position behind the rocks. With a well delivered withering fire, they cut into the exposed Confederate's flank. This concentrated effort by the 20th Maine drove the Confederates out of the area and thereby safely secured the vital left flank of the Army of the Potomac. On the slope of that little hill, where the 20th Maine had so courageously defended, lay the bodies of dozens of their brave dead and wounded comrades.
This one day's action would result in the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and to Color Sergeant Andrew Tozier.
This report now concludes the story of the 20th Maine up to this designated time period that being July, 1863. The 20th Maine continued in its dedicated service to the nation by engaging in all the major battles that were to confront the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and 1865, up to and including the final surrender of General Robert E. Lee's brave Army of Northern Virginia. The Grand Review Parade held in Washington D.C. was its last official duty as a military unit. What remains to be reported can be found in the official records of the 20th Maine Infantry, a volunteer regiment in the American Civil War.
After Gettysburg The 20th Maine Continues Its
Rendevous With Destiny
On May 23, 1865, as he stood on the presidential reviewing stand, which was in place on Constitution Avenue in preparation for the Grand Review, Breveted Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain could not know that his whole life had been transformed by his war record -- That the presidency of Bowdoin College, the governorship of Maine, and the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor, awaited him. But he did know that something was passing that would never be regained. As the 20th Maine came past, he could not take his eyes off the men and the battle-worn colors. Of those who had fought with him at Little Round Top, not many were left; but some were left, and there were others, unseen who marched with a procession of grim names that moved under the cheering like a roll of muffled drums; Antietam, Shepardtown Ford, Fredricksburg, Middleburg, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, Mine Run, The Wilderness, Laurel Hill, North Anna, Bethesda Church, Petersburg, Weldon Railroad, Peebles Farm, Hatcher's Run, Quaker Road, White Oak Road, Five Forks, and Appomattox.
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