Fact vs. Fiction: Did Hollywood Get the Chamberlain Story Right?

It’s a story made well-known by the likes of Ken Burns, Jeff Daniels, and Ted Turner. A small, inexperienced infantry regiment within the Civil Conflict finds itself defending the important thing to the end result of the most important battle within the historical past of North America. Attacked by a power superior in each numbers and expertise, the little band of Mainers holds off assault after assault and, with a shock bayonet cost, saves the Union military, and maybe the Union itself, from destruction.

Notably up to now few a long time, few tales from the Civil Conflict have obtained as a lot consideration as that of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and his twentieth Maine Infantry at Gettysburg. The topic of novels, documentaries, paintings, and a characteristic movie, the efforts of this one regiment to save lots of the Union military within the epic three-day battle have change into legendary.

Positioned on the far left of the Union place on the battle’s decisive second day, the unit grew to become the goal of a large Accomplice assault on the top of the Yankee line resting on a small hill that later grew to become often known as “Little Spherical High.” After an hour and a half of intense, typically hand-to-hand combating, and with a 3rd of his males down and others operating out of ammunition, Chamberlain and his males went on the offensive, finishing up an surprising bayonet cost that swept their Alabama attackers from the sector and secured the Union left.

Greater than a century in the past, Colonel William C. Oates, commander of the fifteenth Alabama troopers who attacked the twentieth Maine, wrote of his Yankee counterparts: “[Chamberlain’s] talent and persistency and the nice bravery of his males saved Little Spherical High and the Military of the Potomac from defeat.”

As Chamberlain neared obvious demise in June 1864—grievously wounded in a Union assault at Petersburg—he was rapidly promoted to brigadier basic. Not solely did he recuperate, he lived till age 85.
(Library of Congress)

Many years after Oates, Southern historic author Shelby Foote stated of the Mainers and Alabamians who fought on the small however tactically essential hill: “[T]he males of those two outfits fought as if the end result of the battle, and with it the battle, relied on their valor: as certainly maybe it did, since whoever had possession of this craggy top on the Union left would dominate the entire fishhook place.”

Filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 1991 PBS documentary made Foote well-known and without end modified the best way individuals see the Civil Conflict, stated of Chamberlain: “He executed an obscure textbook maneuver that solely an instructional would bear in mind on the battle of Little Spherical High that saved the day, saved the Union Military maybe and perhaps saved the Union.”

However there was no textbook, and the twentieth Maine carried out no obscure maneuver. That there isn’t any proof to assist info comparable to these has seemingly had no impact on the misperceptions of thousands and thousands who encounter the story and the nice significance heaped upon it by fashionable chroniclers.

One of many first issues that occurs to troopers who report back to Officer Candidate College within the U.S. Military is they’re handed a replica of Subject Guide 22-100, the guidebook that can inform their coaching on the highway to changing into officers. The primary lesson they encounter on this e book, starting on web page 8, is the story of the twentieth Maine at Gettysburg. This instance of army management concludes by saying, “For just a few moments, the destiny of an Military [sic] and a nation rested on the shoulders of 358 farmers, woodsmen, and fishermen from Maine.”

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. determined in 2007 to create a sequence of kids’s books referred to as “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s American Heroes,” he selected as the topic of its first quantity Joshua Chamberlain and the American Civil Conflict. In it, he describes how Chamberlain and his males “saved our nation from destruction” on Little Spherical High at Gettysburg.

In his 2014 autobiography, U.S. Military fight veteran and former Congressman Allen West referred to as Chamberlain, “[o]ne of my favourite leaders in American historical past.” He then described the Maine warrior’s most well-known motion by writing, “utilizing a maneuver referred to as a ‘swinging gate,’ (he) created a frontal assault and flanking assault concurrently, main the cost that saved the day at Little Spherical High. Together with his actions, Chamberlain saved the Union Military of the Potomac.”

All the identical, in widespread common tradition, few if any have taken an in-depth have a look at all of the circumstances from that encounter and decided whether or not the position of the twentieth Maine lives as much as the heroic fashionable evaluation utilized to it in literature, movie, and in different methods. By peering behind the legend and the fashionable equipment of myth-making, does the story as advised and believed so extensively immediately evaluate to what our society has constructed it as much as be?

The principle query to be answered is: Was there ever a risk the Rebels may have seized Little Spherical High, positioned artillery there, and used it to “shell the U.S. military into submission”? If that reply isn’t any, then a dialogue about whether or not anybody saved the Union Military or the Union itself on Little Spherical High is moot. To reply this key query, allow us to take into account the very best state of affairs for the Accomplice troops and the worst-case state of affairs for his or her Union counterparts to see if the concept is possible.

The 15th Alabama attack Little Round Top
The twentieth Maine’s place on the southeast nook of Little Spherical High—the Union military’s far left flank—as seen from the angle of Colonel William Oates’ attacking fifteenth Alabama.
(Portray by Dale Gallon)

Unfolding circumstances denied the Confederates the good thing about a reserve power that might have exploited any good points made by those that attacked the hill initially. The motion of the Union left flank southward simply previous to when the Alabamians stepped off on their assault, meant that the far proper of the attacking power needed to transfer and stretch to the precise of their authentic angle of assault. This was compounded when Yankee sharpshooters started harassing the Alabamians from the bottom of Spherical High on their proper, requiring an additional shift on this path to clear their flank of enemy hearth. As this unfolded, it grew to become clear that the road of battle was stretched too skinny and the forty fourth and forty eighth Alabama regiments that will in any other case have supplied assist as reserve troops, stepped as much as the entrance line and as an alternative moved away from the far proper of the assault. These two regiments fought in Satan’s Den with far fewer casualties than different items of their brigade.

An evaluation of strengths and casualties exhibits that in regards to the time of the now well-known cost of the twentieth Maine, Colonel Oates’ fifteenth Alabama had about 330 males nonetheless engaged within the struggle. In a best-case, though unlikely, state of affairs, these may need been supplemented by others within the brigade. If, for instance, 90 males of the forty seventh Alabama, which had left the combating in its preliminary minutes after struggling heavy losses, had by some means rallied and returned to the struggle, and if 260 males remaining on responsibility within the adjoining 4th Alabama had joined the assault, the renewed Accomplice assault may need numbered 680 males.

Assuming the remnants of the three regiments of Legislation’s Alabama Brigade shut sufficient to take advantage of a collapse of the twentieth Maine’s line had been capable of rally and focus their efforts towards the highest of the hill, and likewise assuming that the remaining regiments of Union Colonel Robust Vincent’s third Brigade had been at their weakest level of the battle—neither of which is a protected assumption—then roughly 680 Alabamians, combating uphill, would have needed to dislodge and defeat practically 17,000 Yankee soldiers.

As they joined forces and renewed the assault on Little Spherical High, climbing upward, the Alabamians would first have confronted the 800 males of Vincent’s brigade nonetheless on responsibility. Had they by some means swept these troopers apart, they might have been met by not less than 1,285 troopers of Brig. Gen. Stephen H. Weed’s brigade, together with the remnants of the a hundred and fortieth New York that had simply pushed the 4th and fifth Texas from the hill.

If the remaining 680 Alabamians by some means succeeded in seizing the summit of Little Spherical High, they might have then confronted the total power of Union troopers within the neighborhood in what would certainly have been a direct and forceful effort to retake the hill. In all, there have been greater than 16,900 Union troopers inside simply one-half mile, assuming these close by items had been then at their lowest power ranges of your entire battle. Of those, about 10,000 had but to be engaged in any combating at that time.

Within the unlikely state of affairs during which fewer than 680 Alabamians make an assault on Little Spherical High, and within the worst case for his or her enemy they’re met by practically 17,000 Union troops, the likelihood that the Confederates may have taken and held Little Spherical High is undoubtedly zero.

For argument’s sake, allow us to say these exhausted, outmanned Alabamians by some means took and held the hill. Then they might have—or so legend has it—introduced artillery to the summit and “bombarded the Union military into submission.” As one Pennsylvania professor as soon as wrote, “Accomplice artillery emplaced upon this top may enfilade the Union line and render it untenable.” However is that this assertion supported by the info?

This legend is betrayed by two essential parts: Getting weapons to the hill and discovering floor on which to put them for motion.

First, the summit of Little Spherical High is a really poor artillery platform, notably when aiming northward towards the Union line of battle. The efficient vary of a Accomplice rifled cannon is round 1,820 yards, or simply greater than a mile. Any artillery piece fired from the summit would have been capable of attain not more than a 3rd of the Federal line within reach of the hill, which in flip was little greater than half of the general Union power.

Then there’s the uncooperative form of the summit. Little Spherical High was not so named due to the roundness of its high. It grew to become identified by that identify years after the battle just because it was adjoining to and smaller than its neighbor, Spherical High. Given the decidedly non-round topography of the hill, it’s unlikely that any greater than 4 items of artillery may very well be delivered to bear within the path of the Union line.

Once more, this might solely be achieved if the 17,000 in any other case unoccupied Union troopers within the close to neighborhood determined to not hamper, a lot much less destroy, any Accomplice artillery that grew to become engaged from the summit.

Little Round Top's craggy landscape
Little Spherical High’s craggy summit exhibits how little alternative there was to make use of artillery in opposition to the Union strains on July 2. The underside photograph, from 1909, depicts the restricted line of fireside the Rebels would have had towards the primary Union place (far proper); the highest photograph, taken after the battle by Mathew Brady, is the place the 4th and fifth Texas and a hundred and fortieth New York clashed. Had different Alabama items under the hill renewed the assault, Colonel Robust Vincent’s 800 or so Federals, lodged amongst rocks and breastworks on the higher proper, blocked their path.
(High: College Historical past Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Photographs; Backside: Library of Congress)

Secondly, there is a gigantic drawback of command and management. For even a single piece of Southern artillery to start firing from the summit, some Accomplice officer with the authority to take action, must order it there. The closest out there weapons had been among the many batteries of Cabell’s Artillery Battalion roughly a mile to the west. These, nonetheless, had been underneath the command of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, whose division had borne the brunt of the combating and had incurred heavy casualties on July 2 throughout the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and the decrease a part of Cemetery Ridge.

This left the far proper Accomplice division underneath Maj. Gen. John B. Hood, whose command included Henry’s Artillery Battalion (with Latham and Reilly’s batteries, which had been in place greater than a mile to the west). Hood, nonetheless, had been badly wounded earlier within the assault, properly earlier than the combating on Little Spherical High started. As soon as Hood was faraway from the sector, command of the division fell to Brig. Gen. Evander Legislation, the division’s senior brigade commander, whose items included the attacking Alabama regiments. Legislation’s expertise was a great instance of the problem inherent in finding a selected officer on an lively battlefield since employees officers who went looking for him following Hood’s wounding to tell him that he was now in control of the division had been unable to find him till after the combating ceased.

Assuming somebody, someplace, acknowledged the significance of the hill and located their manner by the chaos of battle to Normal Legislation or every other officer whose command included artillery, and satisfied him of the significance of redirecting cannons to Little Spherical High—any battery to whom he gave that order must decide the right way to relocate his weapons, limbers, caissons, horses, and males to the summit.

Realistically, due to the steepness of the slope in locations and the massive boulders in others, there is just one manner to do that, through the trail on the japanese slope of the hill utilized by Union infantry and two weapons of Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett’s Battery D, fifth U.S. Artillery, to succeed in the crest. To take action safely, the battery would additionally want an escort of cavalry to protect it from Union troops alongside the trail.


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As they neared the hill, they might have confronted 17,000 Union troopers who by then would have been fairly unwilling to permit an enemy battery to ramble previous on its strategy to this key location. Assuming some miracle allowed their protected passage, as soon as their cannons went into place and opened hearth, these working the weapons would have been instantly topic to a hellacious counter battery hearth from not less than 4 Union artillery items simply north of the hill.

All issues thought of, and assuming the very best circumstances favoring the Confederates, there’s clearly no reasonable state of affairs during which Southerners may have used Little Spherical High to bombard the Union military in any respect, a lot much less “into submission.”

It may very well be argued that Accomplice seizure of the hill, regardless of its shortcomings as a base for artillery, would have given them management of the Taneytown Highway, a key provide route into the Union strains that ran inside a number of hundred yards of Little Spherical High. The wooded japanese slope of the hill, nonetheless, shielded the highway from view, and even when Federal commanders selected to not danger use of the highway for provide wagons, there have been not less than two eastward roads north of the Maryland border and properly south of the Spherical Tops that led on to the Baltimore Pike, which was nonetheless securely in Union palms. This concept once more requires greater than 10,000 Yankees who had but to be engaged in battle in any respect to easily permit just a few hundred worn-out Confederates to proceed to occupy such a key place unchallenged.

Because the Confederates by no means had a sensible likelihood of taking and holding Little Spherical High as soon as Union troops arrived there, and positively had no manner to make use of the hill to bombard the Union military into retreat, a failure of the twentieth Maine wouldn’t have meant the lack of the battle for the Military of the Potomac. Though claims the twentieth Maine “saved” the Union military at Gettysburg are unrealistic, their efforts shouldn’t be diminished.

The 20th Maine’s monument at Gettysburg
The twentieth Maine’s monument on Little Spherical High, devoted in 1886. Close by, and sometimes neglected, is a memorial to Firm B—latecomers to the unit’s historic cost.
(Maurice Savage/Alamy inventory photograph)

What’s vital is how properly the regiment carried out regardless of quite a lot of components that might have triggered it to fail. Aside from a number of dozen transfers from the disbanded 2nd Maine Infantry, Gettysburg was what one veteran referred to as the twentieth’s “first actual, standup struggle.” The regiment had marched practically two dozen miles per day for every week or extra however arrived on the sector at Gettysburg within the early morning hours of July 2, giving them practically 12 hours of relaxation earlier than being referred to as to motion.

The fifteenth Alabama, by comparability, had been in each main battle within the East for the reason that First Manassas conflict in July 1861. In his memoir printed in 1905, Colonel Oates recalled that he and his males had marched two dozen miles within the early a part of the day to succeed in Gettysburg. He additionally wrote that quickly after arriving within the place from which they might start their assault, he dispatched two males from every firm to take the entire canteens, discover a water supply, and fill them earlier than returning to the regiment. In response to his recollection, these males had been captured and had not returned when the regiment stepped off on its motion towards the enemy, which means they—and the regiment’s canteens—had been misplaced at some stage in the struggle.

Detailed data of the casualties of the fifteenth Alabama, nonetheless, don’t present not less than two males captured or lacking in every firm, casting doubt on the story. Even with out plentiful water, the climate in Gettysburg on that July 2 didn’t exceed 81 levels underneath principally cloudy skies and the humidity, in response to an area professor, was “unusually low for that season of the yr”—downright snug climate it could appear for males from sizzling and humid southern Alabama.

This text first appeared in America’s Civil Conflict journal

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Joshua Chamberlain returned to his regiment on June 30 after a 10-day absence attributable to sickness, doubtless malarial fever and dysentery that had change into rampant amongst his males within the latter a part of June. Upon his return, he realized that his promotion to colonel and command of the regiment had been permitted, making him the most recent colonel in your entire Union Military at the moment. What he realized about warfare in 10 months since he left a professorship again house had been from books, day by day drilling, and the exceptional instance set by the earlier commander, West Level graduate Adelbert Ames. In battle, Ames confirmed completely no concern, and Chamberlain rapidly realized the worth of two traits that made for a great fight commander; calmness in all circumstances and a willingness to show oneself to hazard. Each look by a soldier again at his commanding officer that exposed a relaxed, assured demeanor was reassuring, and never a lot impressed bravery in these troopers greater than a colonel who would stand uncovered amongst his males within the face of hazard. As to drilling, the various lengthy hours that the lads spent repeatedly finishing up actions and maneuvers on numerous open fields close to camp had been rendered ineffective after they reached the southern finish of Little Spherical High with its plentiful timber, rocks, and sloping hills offering obstacles for which that they had not ready. By all accounts, Chamberlain and his males tailored properly to those sudden challenges, and it in all probability saved lots of their lives.

Demonstrating these two key qualities of command nearly triggered Chamberlain to lose every of his legs to Accomplice bullets: the primary one hitting the underside of his proper foot and tearing open the arch of his boot; the second placing the scabbard of his sword hanging at his left facet. The blow broke the scabbard into two items and badly bruised his left leg. Between these two wounds and the draining results of his sicknesses, it’s a marvel the Maine professor-​turned-warrior may stand upright in any respect at Gettysburg, a lot much less successfully command an infantry regiment.

Had he been in the perfect of well being, the prospect {that a} man educated as a professor—often known as he was for dealing with issues with extended examine in quiet environments—may react immediately to the battlefield conditions that introduced themselves, and accomplish that successfully, is actually exceptional. Additionally contemplating his sickness, wounds, and lack of fight management expertise, Chamberlain certainly would’ve been forgiven a misstep or two. When the smoke of battle had cleared, nonetheless, there was no want for forgiveness, solely marvel.

Regardless of the challenges, which included dealing with a big power of battle-hardened Alabamians, Chamberlain acted calmly, maneuvered his regiment to fulfill every risk, and supplied a stalwart inspiration to his males, even after greater than a 3rd of them had been killed or wounded.

Due to its elevation to legendary standing over the previous few a long time, the actual story of the twentieth Maine’s work at Gettysburg is commonly overshadowed by the story individuals need to consider. That is unlucky since the actual story of non-public braveness, sacrifice, and in the end success reveals a exceptional accomplishment even with out the fashionable elaborations.

An eleventh technology Mainer, Tom Desjardin has studied the twentieth Maine for the reason that age of 10. He was actor Jeff Daniels’ historic adviser for the film Gettysburg. His The Autobiography of Joshua L. Chamberlain and The Legend of Joshua L. Chamberlain are scheduled for publication in late 2022 or early 2023.