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

(Continued from page 2)

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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.

Standing on Cemetery Ridge, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery, a former merchant sailor from Searsport, sees a wide hole in the Federal lines. Without any infantry support, he grabs all the artillery he can find and patches together a line of cannons and halts the Confederate attack.

Around the same time,  Federal troops are arriving at Little Round Top, a hill on the left side of the Union position. On the far left side – at the very end of the Union line – stand 358 infantrymen with the 20th Maine, with their new commander, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, who before the war was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College.

If the 20th Maine retreats here, the entire Union line would be flanked and exposed. Chamberlain is ordered to hold the hill “at all hazards,” a military phrase that means a fight to the death.

Almost immediately, Confederate troops charge up the slope, and Mainers fire back.

The last man at the far extreme of the entire Union line is Sgt. Abner Hiscock, 27, a mechanic from Damariscotta, whose arm is soon shattered by a mini-ball. His commander is Capt. Ellis Spear, a teacher from Wiscasset.

Alerted that the rebels seem to be extending their line toward the regiment’s left in an attempt to go around its flank, Chamberlain orders his left wing to drop back, creating a formation like the letter V, making it easier to defend a side attack.

When the Confederates attack a third time, the 20th Maine’s center crumbles. Color Sgt. Andrew Tozier, 25, from Plymouth, stands in the center. Remaining upright while holding the flag staff in the hollow of his shoulder, he fires back using a musket and cartridge box from a wounded comrade. 

“Tozier was fighting his own private war,” Chamberlain would later recall.

The Union ranks eventually reform. With their ammunition almost out, Chamberlain decides to fix bayonets and charge down the hill, with the left side wheeling to the right as in a gate swinging shut. Tozier, flag in hand, is at the center of the charge, serving as a linchpin as the gate swings around. Chamberlain runs beside him.

The surprised Confederates turn and run, and nearly 200 are captured.

Chamberlain and Tozier would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

If the rebels had taken the hill that day, they could have rolled up the Union lines from the side and won the battle, said Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, who on Wednesday delivered a 13-minute description of the battle on the Senate floor. King said a Union defeat could have led the North to negotiate a peace that allowed the nation to break apart.

The volunteer soldiers from Maine, he said, made the difference.

“It’s arguable that they saved the country.”

DAY THREE

On the last day of the battle, Lee tries to break through the Union lines by launching a massive frontal assault aimed its very center.  Following a thunderous, two-hour duel of artillery batteries, 12,500 rebel soldiers, forming a line almost a mile wide, march over a field toward the Union line. A clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge serves as their target landmark. Here is the 19th Maine. And this place, the only spot where Confederate troops momentarily break though the lines, will become known as the Bloody Angle for the intensity of the fighting.

The 19th Maine, which had 405 men at the start of the battle, had 206 by the end of the third day. Most of its losses occur in the 15-minute fight at the Bloody Angle.

The Confederate losses are staggering. Lee gathers what’s left of his army and leads them back to Virginia.

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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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