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July 2, 2013

Unlikely hero rises from rocky hilltop

Crossroads at Gettysburg

---- — Andy Rooney said it best in a manner that only he could get away with.

“During World War II I spent three years attached to the 8th Air Force in England, and I am here to tell you that not every serviceman is a hero.”

“During World War II I spent three years attached to the 8th Air Force in England, and I am here to tell you that not every serviceman is a hero.”

“Hero” has become, without doubt, the most overused word in the American usage of the English language. In our post 9/11 world it seems everybody is a hero: every member of the military, every policeman and emergency responder, every doctor, nurse and teacher, every volunteer who has every given up a Saturday for whatever cause, every Cub Scout, all the way down to the helper who shelves books at the library is a hero.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for all of these people, especially when it’s my house that’s on fire, and there are plenty who are worthy of the title. But everyone a “hero?” Not hardly. In every profession there are plenty of people who simply fill a job, and Lord knows there are screw-ups in every line of work, even journalism.

The word “hero,” therefore, must be used appropriately, reserved for those individuals who actually do something that is truly heroic. Otherwise, its meaning is cheapened.

With that said, the second day at Gettysburg produced a genuine hero.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was not a trained warrior from West Point but rather a professor of rhetoric and oratory from Bowdoin College in Maine. He took leave from his classes to join the newly formed 20th Maine Regiment and was given an officer’s commission. He would later lead it as its colonel.

He was a sensitive, bookish academic, the most unlikely of heroes. But in a desperate moment, he summoned the courage to order an extraordinary action to save something greater than himself, as all heroes do.

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(July 2, 1863)

Chamberlain and his men were drowsing on the ground south of Gettysburg that afternoon when drums called for assembly. They had been on the move for nearly 24 hours and had marched through the night.

They were ordered to the top of a high crest that lay before them. The Union command that held the spot had recklessly disobeyed orders to stay there and moved from it to encounter the enemy. Vital high ground stood completely undefended.

Little Round Top was not the highest point on the field; that distinction belonged to the neighboring hill, Big Round Top. But it was covered with trees, whereas Little Round Top had been mostly timbered off and at 150 feet high presented a commanding view of the entire field.

It anchored the far left end of the Union army, and now that it was empty, it exposed and jeopardized the entire Federal line. Should rebel forces seize the crest, batteries of cannon placed there could smash the Union army in order.

Advancing Confederates saw their opportunity and made for the top along the western slope. Chamberlain’s regiment and three others scrambled up the eastern side to beat them there.

They won the race by minutes.

Brigade commander Col. Strong Vincent of Erie placed the regiments along the crest and put the 20th Maine at the far southern point. They were now the very end of the Union line, 300 men at the flank of 90,000.

Chamberlain was ordered to hold the ground at all costs. Giving way would imperil the entire army.

Confederate artillery that had targeted the crest, sending splinters of trees, rock and iron among the occupying Federals, stopped. Chamberlain described the pause as “a lull, then the crash of Hell.”

A tide of Confederates rose up against the sides of Little Round Top, pressing every Federal regiment there. Before the 20th Maine were two regiments from Alabama. They outnumbered the Maine men by more than 2 to 1 and moved to get around their left end.

A formal infantry battle line in the Civil War consisted of two lines of men, one close behind the other to produce the most strength and firepower. But that formation could not hold against such an end-around, flanking attack that threatened men from Maine; it was too short. Chamberlain saw this, and ordered his men into one single rank and had them spread out, effectively doubling the length of his line. Then he had its left wing bend back on itself, forming a great “V” and placed the regimental colors at the point. It would make it harder for the Alabamians to get around the end.

But that didn’t stop the onslaught. That afternoon Confederates charged, fell back, and charged again repeatedly like stormy waves upon a coast. Chamberlain’s regiment staggered but held on desperately, all the while losing men and ammunition.

“At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men; gaps opening, swallowing, closing again with sharp convulsive energy. … All around a strange mingled roar – shouts of defiance, rally and desperation, and underneath, murmured and stifled moans, gasping prayers, snatches of Sabbath song, whispers of loved names, everywhere men torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring stark into the sky.”

Finally, the Maine men had reached the end. Their numbers were thinned and cartridges spent, and they could remain no longer. But the order still stood, to hold to the last. Chamberlain could not retreat, but could not stay; his only option was to attack.

His order was one word: “Bayonet!”

Without hesitation the Maine men fixed bayonets and leveled their muskets for what would be their last desperate action.

At that moment, from somewhere within his studies, Chamberlain altered his order. Instead of charging straight down the hill, he had his left wing move first at a right wheel, in a sweeping motion like a large gate upon a hinge. Once that was moving the rest of the regiment bounded over the rocks and down the slope and met the Confederates with a screaming “Huzzah!”

The rebels, thinking that reinforcements had arrived, were caught completely by surprise. Half of them dropped their weapons in surrender; the other half turned and ran for their lives.

The remnant of the 20th Maine pursued the retreating Confederates half way down the face of hillside and captured nearly 400 of them, twice the size of their own force, all at the point of empty muskets.

Little Round Top was saved.

Heroism is not confined to a battlefield, and neither was Chamberlain’s. At war’s end, he was present at Appomattox Court House, Va., to receive the Confederate’s surrendered arms. His men stood at attention while the defeated rebels slowly filed toward them. Then he had his soldiers salute.

“(Gen. John B.) Gordon was riding in advance of his troops, his chin dropped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, Gen. Gordon started, caught in a moment of its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier.  He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion; the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow and Gen. Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.”

It was a heroic gesture of respect and healing.

 

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top. He later served as governor of Maine and president of his alma mater Bowdoin College. His wartime experiences were written in “Bayonet, Forward.” He would return to Gettysburg in 1913 for the Grand Reunion of veterans.

Next: Heaven and Earth collide.

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