July 1, 2013

Why Gettysburg's called a 'Maine battlefield'

For three days in July, 150 years ago, the course of this nation's history took a dramatic turn in a Pennsylvania town, and Mainers by the hundreds did their part to see the Union preserved.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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“Bayonet - July 2, 1863,” a painting by American historical artist Don Troiani, depicts the 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pa. With his men running out of ammunition, Col. Joshua Chamberlain leads a bayonet charge during the three-day battle, generally considered the turning point in the American Civil War. This week marks the battle’s 150th anniversary.

Painting by Don Troiani

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FOR MORE about artist Don Troiani and his paintings of historic battle scenes, visit his website.


The battle opens with a minor skirmish on a ridge a mile and a half west of Gettysburg, as the outer edge of the Confederate Army marches toward the town and is met by a smaller number of Federal troops.

Most of the Union Army is stretched miles southward from Gettysburg, and the objective of the first Federal soldiers at Gettysburg is to stall the Confederate advance and give the rest of the Union Army time to arrive, Desjardin said. 

The 2nd Maine Battery, among the first Union units engaged in the fight, fires the battle’s first significant cannon shot at 10:45 a.m.

Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard arrives to take command. Howard, from Leeds, Maine, attended North Yarmouth Academy and Bowdoin College. He is an amputee, having lost his right arm a year before after he’d been shot during a battle in Virginia.

Deeply religious, he had contemplated becoming a minister before the war broke out. That day, Howard makes a decision that will later prove to give the Federals a significant strategic advantage.

He sends a brigade to occupy Cemetery Hill, recognizing that the high ground south of town provides the best defensive position in the area. Over the course of the three-day battle, thousands of soldiers will be killed trying to take the hill or defend it.

On the first day, the fighting grows more fierce as both armies pour into Gettsyburg. The Confederates push back the Federal troops, who retreat through the town and dig into the hills south of town, from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Hill.

To give the retreating Union soldiers more time, the 16th Maine Voluntary Infantry Regiment is ordered to charge into the attacking Confederate troops and blunt the assault long enough for the rest of the Union soldiers in the area to escape. It is a suicide mission.

Of 275 soldiers from the 16th Maine engaged that day, 11 are killed, 62 wounded and 159 captured, a casualty rate of 84 percent.

Just before they’re captured, the men tear up the regiment’s silk flags and hide the shreds in their clothing, preventing the Confederates from seizing their colors as a prize of war.

“We were sacrificed to steady the retreat,” Capt. Abner Small of Waterville said in a written account of the regiment’s actions that day. Small was one of the few soldiers in the regiment to escape.


During the night, thousands of soldiers from each side arrive, and by morning 50,000 Confederates and 60,000 Union troops are eyeballing one another across an open field. The second day of the battle is essentially a massive Confederate attack on the Union left. The Confederates nearly break the Union line, but a Maine unit at every key point plays a pivotal role holding them back, Desjardin said.

At the Devil’s Den – a rugged, overgrown area of huge boulders at the base of a ridge – there’s a wild fight, with men stabbing each other with bayonets or shooting muzzle-to-muzzle. Here the 4th Maine is fighting, along with troops from New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Nearby at the Peach Orchard, the 3rd Maine finds itself in a similar brawl, with 58 percent of the regiment missing, captured or dead.

At the Wheat Field, the 17th Maine suffers heavy losses as the field changes hands four or five times.

The Confederates gain ground and push forward. A gap opens up in the Union lines, and the rebels have a chance to break through at the Union Army’s weakest point, capture a key road and divide the Union Army in half. The Confederates now have the greatest chance of winning the battle and turning the course of the war in their favor, Desjardin said.

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Additional Photos

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Capt. William Livermore, from Milo and a color guard with the 20th Maine, described this battle carnage in a letter to his brother.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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The fields and hills around Gettysburg are littered with dead soldiers and horses, a gruesome landscape described by Capt. William Livermore in a letter to his brother. The Milo man served on the Color Guard with the 20th Maine.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Livermore wrote: “There were as many as 30 or 40 lay dead there of that (regiment). They had laid there 3 days in hot July weather and I wish I never could see another such a sight. It is nothing to see men that have just been killed. But every man was swollen as large as two men and purple and black.”

Courtesy Tom Desjardin

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Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909) of Leeds sent a brigade to occupy Cemetery Hill on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It provided the Union Army with a superior defensive position during the conflict.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Nineteen-year-old John Chase of Augusta was piled upon a wagon of dead soldiers when he moaned and was found alive by the driver. Hit by 48 shell fragments, Chase lost an arm and an eye but survived.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a former Bowdoin College professor, commanded the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. Congress awarded the Maine man the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle at Gettysburg.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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A monument marks the burial place for 104 Mainers at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. Ninety-six more casualties from Maine are buried elsewhere at the site.

Photo courtesy Tom Desjardin

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