GETTYSBURG, Pa. – National Guard members from Maine and Alabama gathered Wednesday on a wooded hillside in rural Pennsylvania to commemorate a more violent meeting of their predecessors 150 years ago this month.
The weather was hot and humid – as it was on July 2, 1863, when citizen soldiers from the two states clashed on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top in one of the key skirmishes of the Civil War’s pivotal battle.
Although there were a few ceremonial rifles Wednesday, the 170 men and women dressed in camouflage stood side by side, posed for pictures together and shared the camaraderie of soldiers who have served in battle with each other.
“My message is, thank God we unified the country, for now we are one, a great nation,” Gov. Paul LePage, commander in chief of the Maine Army and Air National Guard, said during the ceremony. “And we owe it all to you — the liberty and the freedoms that you fight for every day.”
The scene on Little Round Top was far different a century and a half ago.
Nearly 400 members of the 20th Maine Regiment — under Col. Joshua Chamberlain — fought back repeated waves of Col. William Oates’ larger 15th Alabama Regiment. The 20th Maine held the far left position of the Union Army as Confederates tried to flank its lines in a maneuver that — if successful — could have changed the course of the battle.
Exhausted, nearly out of ammunition and likely unable to withstand another assault, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets, and the Maine volunteers charged downhill into the oncoming Alabamans. The surprise move thwarted the Confederates’ flanking attempt and earned Chamberlain and his regiment instant fame.
Both sides paid a heavy price, with hundreds of soldiers killed or wounded.
Some of the units that came to Gettysburg on Wednesday are direct descendants of those that clashed in July 1863. In fact, some of the soldiers at the ceremony had ancestors who were there 150 years earlier.
Maine Army National Guard Spc. Adam Simmler said one of his uncles on his mother’s side (so far back he isn’t sure how many “greats” to put before “uncle”) served in the 20th Maine.
On Wednesday, he documented the commemoration ceremony as a photojournalist for the Guard’s 121st Public Affairs unit.
“I always heard about Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War,” Simmler said after the ceremony. “Coming here and seeing it and learning more about my state and how my state participated gave me a whole new perspective on my job, what I do in the Guard and what soldiers from my state did before me.”
The planning for Wednesday’s ceremony began more than a year ago, when Brig. Gen. James Campbell, the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, contacted his counterpart in Alabama, Maj. Gen. Perry Smith. The two immediately began working with the National Park Service to arrange a ceremony.
“It is important to do this kind of thing because this (battle) helped make us who we are as soldiers and as people,” Campbell said. And if today’s soldiers lose touch with that heritage, he said, they lose some of their identity.
Standing atop a rock where the 20th Maine’s men lined up, Smith reminded those who gathered that citizen soldiers, organized as militias, date back more than 370 years.
“Citizen soldiers, throughout the history of this country, have kept this nation united and free,” he said.
Smith said later in an interview that some of his Guard members had told him about serving alongside Mainers in Afghanistan.
The top commanders from the two states exchanged gifts. Maine presented Alabama with a framed picture depicting the battle of Little Round Top from each side’s perspective. Alabama presented Maine with an engraved eagle made from clay found only in Alabama.
The two states presented Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard bureau, with a large plaque featuring renditions of the battle.
In his remarks, Grass pointed toward the color guards carrying battle flags from Alabama and Maine, adorned with streamers representing the major battles in which units participated, back to the Civil War.
“This is a special event, to come here and to look back 150 years at what occurred and to have soldiers and airmen of the guard standing in the ranks, looking back at these flags and these colors, and how you have carried that tradition to this battlefield today,” Grass said.
After the ceremony, the 120 members of the Maine National Guard and 50 members of the Alabama National Guard marched down to the base of Little Round Top to pose for a group picture with LePage and others. They gathered again at the base of Devil’s Den, a nearby spot where Mainers and Alabamans clashed that same day in July 1863.
Afterward, the Guard members enjoyed dinner and drinks together in downtown Gettysburg, in perhaps their last rendezvous before they meet again at the next Gettysburg commemoration, or on a more modern battlefield.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: