July 2, 1863: Col. Joshua Chamberlain (1828-1914) of Brunswick, while suffering from malaria and dysentery, successfully leads the 20th Maine Regiment in fending off a Confederate attack by Col. William Oates’ 15th Alabama Regiment at the extreme left of the Union Army’s line at Little Round Top, helping enable the Union forces to win the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

On the same day, and in another action of the Battle of Gettysburg, Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames (1835-1933), a native of what now is Rockland and the 20th Maine’s previous commander, takes part in hand-to-hand combat alongside his XI Corps division troops while successfully fending off a Confederate assault on Cemetery Hill.

Carte de Visite of Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Infantry Image courtesy of the Maine State Archives

Chamberlain, a former Bowdoin College professor, approached the strategic boulder-strewn prominence known as Little Round Top with two of his brothers, Tom and John. When a Rebel shot whizzes past all of their faces, he suggests the brothers split up, or another such shot “might make it hard for Mother.”

Late that afternoon, Chamberlain’s brigade commander, Col. Strong Vincent, shows him the spot on the hill that his men must defend. Failure to do so would imperil the entire Union force at Gettysburg. With his men interspersed among trees and boulders to give them good firing positions, Chamberlain notices suddenly that the enemy artillery has stopped firing. He knows that means the Confederate infantry is coming up the hill, and that the Confederate battery wants to avoid striking its own troops.

Firing breaks out all along the line formed by Vincent’s brigade. Chamberlain steps up onto a boulder and sees that Oates’ Alabama troops are rushing to his left to try to make an end run around his regiment and attack it from the side and rear. He bends his line into a hook so the 20th Maine units on the far left will be in position to face the attackers dead on. When the Rebels emerge from cover, they face a well-positioned Union line firing at them.

The ensuing fight lasts nearly two hours at great cost to both sides. The line of skirmish moves backward and forward in waves. Oates’ brother is killed, shot from multiple directions. The Rebels withdraw, then advance a second time without breaking through the Union line. When a third charge seems imminent, and with many of his men having run out of ammunition, Chamberlain orders a bayonet charge with his front line wheeling about to the right, like a gate swinging shut.


Dead on Little Round Top, Gettysburg 1863 Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The sight of 200 screaming Union soldiers racing down the hill, with Yankee sharpshooters behind them firing into the Confederate lines, throws the Rebels into panic. Many run away. Those who are not shot down or bayonetted are captured en masse. When Oates orders a retreat, his entire force flees in disorderly panic.

With that costly burst of courage, Little Round Top remains in Union hands; and after the Confederates fare no better during Pickett’s Charge and other combat the following day, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army withdraws from Pennsylvania and back to Virginia, never to set foot on Northern territory again.

Actor Jeff Daniels portrays Chamberlain in the 1993 film “Gettysburg,” and does so again in the 2003 film “Gods and Generals,” the plot of which precedes that of “Gettysburg.”

After the war ends in 1865, Chamberlain serves four consecutive one-year terms as Maine’s governor. He dies in 1914 from complications of a wartime wound suffered during combat in 1864 at Petersburg, Virginia.

Adelbert Ames eventually becomes the last surviving permanently promoted Civil War general officer. Like Chamberlain, Ames becomes a governor, although appointed provisionally by Congress, not elected. He serves as governor of Mississippi while it is under post-Civil War martial law, then as a U.S. senator from that state after it is readmitted to the union in 1870.

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Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: jowen@mainetoday.com.

This story was changed at 9:30 p.m. on July 2, 2020, to remove the Portland Rum Riot, which occurred on June 2, 1855.

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