A fresh look at the soldiers from Maine who saved the day at Little Round Top.

If you know only one Civil War general from Maine, it’s a good bet it’s Joshua Chamberlain.

Renowned after he and the 20th Maine Regiment made their stand on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, the Bowdoin College president and governor of the state has been spotlighted in Ken Burns’s epic documentary “The Civl War” and immortalized in Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels.” But Chamberlain was far from the only Maine resident to distinguish himself during the three-day confrontation.

In his book “Maine Roads to Gettysburg,” Augusta native Tom Huntington, former editor of American History and Historic Traveler magazines, makes the case for some of the less famous Union warriors. As its subtitle attests, the volume demonstrates “How Joshua Chamberlain, Oliver Howard, and 4,000 Men from the Pine Tree State Helped Win the Civil War’s Bloodiest Battle.”

Reached by phone at his home in Pennsylvania, Huntington talked about the importance of Gettysburg, the sacrifices made by Mainers, and the continuing appeal of Maine Civil War history.

Q: Tell me a bit about your childhood.

A: I was born and bred in Augusta, and went to Cony High School. I had no interest in the Civil War, at least that I can recall. I think I had to get a Boy Scout merit badge on local history, but I don’t recall learning anything about Maine in the Civil War when I was a kid.

Q: What about the subject eventually appealed to you?

A: In 1985, I moved down to Washington, D.C., and I started to explore the region. I remember going to the Manassas battlefield, or, as we call it in the North, first Bull Run, looking at plaques and reading historical information. It was like opening a book halfway through and trying to figure out what had happened. So I started reading about the Civil War.

Tom Huntington

In 1996, I got the job editing Historic Traveler, started assigning people to do stories about Civil War sites and got even more involved in the topic. Now I live 40 minutes away from Gettysburg, and I try to get down there as often as possible.

Q: Did you have any ancestors fight in the War?

A: I do, and I did not know that until I was researching this book. I found out that my great-grandfather fought in the 31st Maine! I found his enlistment papers at the Maine State Archives in Augusta, with his signature. He was an 18-year old farmer when he signed up in 1864.

Q: You attended Bowdoin College for two years. How did that experience shape you as a writer and as an historian?

A: At Bowdoin, I’m sure I was told the name of Joshua Chamberlain, but I don’t recall. It was only years later I realized that the house across Potter Street from the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity was Chamberlain’s house. Back then it was student housing. The Civil War (interest) developed later.

Q: How did Mainers react when war was declared?

A: In general with a great burst of patriotism, a pretty common reaction. The idea that the Southern states were going to secede from the United States – that the great heroes like Washington had founded by breaking away from Britain – just stuck in their craw. So a lot of people signed up. It was a grand adventure until first Bull Run in July 1861 revealed that this war was going to be long, it was going to be costly, and it might not be the grand adventure that a lot of people thought it would be when they first signed up.

Q: How important was Bowdoin as a source for Union recruits?

A: Bowdoin was very important. Chamberlain was a Bowdoin professor. Oliver Howard, who was temporarily in command of the Army of the Potomac forces on the first day of Gettysburg, was from Bowdoin. Thomas Hyde, (who) wrote a very entertaining memoir of his experiences in the Civil War, was still at Bowdoin when the war began. Afterward, Hyde went on to found Bath Iron Works.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?

A: Most surprising were just some of the individual stories. John Haley, who served in the 17th Maine, and Abner Small, who was in the 16th Maine, both left behind accounts of their experiences. I was really surprised by how modern their voices were. They were both somewhat cynical, somewhat sardonic. They weren’t writing about the valor and the glory and all that stuff. They were writing about the real nuts and bolts of Army experiences, with a great deal of humor at times. I was surprised about how entertaining their stories were.

Q: Why was the outcome of Gettysburg so important to the Union?

A: It was close to the center of power in Washington, and if Lee had won at Gettysburg and had been able to threaten Washington, that could have meant all kinds of bad things for the Union. Lee was hoping he could gain a major victory on Northern soil to encourage European powers to intercede for the Confederacy.

Q: What were your richest research resources?

A: I would say the richest was in Augusta at the Maine State Archives. They have what they call the Civil War Regimental Correspondence, and during the War they received thousands of letters of people writing about every aspect of the bureaucratic operation of the war. (There are) lots of letters writing to say “I’d like to be a surgeon in a regiment” or “Can you help find my son? I haven’t heard from him.”

One of the coolest things I found was (correspondence about a) private named Charles Blackstone. He wrote to his father and he said, essentially, “I understand they’re forming a new regiment and I would like to get an officer’s commission. So why don’t you contact all your friends in Maine, and I’m going to work on all the people I know down here.” Then he was killed at Chancellorsville. All his ambition died with him. It just kind of hits you when you see the evidence of these people. They’re not just figures in history books. They’re actual human beings.

Q: How has it been for you promoting the book?

A: I did a talk this (past) summer in Chamberlain’s House in Brunswick, which was wicked cool. I enjoyed that, and it was weird to be looking out the windows and seeing my old fraternity.

Another really cool thing I did was a book festival in Boothbay. I was at a table, and a guy came up to me and said he had an ancestor in the 16th Maine. I said, “No kidding. What was his name?” He said (it was) George Bisby. I said, “He’s in the book!” And I opened it up and showed him the picture. “There he is! That’s George Bisby right there!”

It’s a small world, Maine. Especially during the Civil War.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry