15
Sep
11

CR3 #74: Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign by Thomas Desjardins

One of my peculiar enthusiasms is the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s probably in the “Top Five Subjects I Know a Lot About” along with the Titanic, the Lincoln assassination, the Holocaust, and the American campaign in Europe in WWII. I’ve always been particularly fond of Colonel Joshua Laurence Chamberlain and the exploits of the 20th Maine regiment during the second day’s battle at Little Round Top. This book details how that particular regiment arrived at that point in history, who their opposition were, why the battle turned out the way it did, and what happened to the group after that notable day.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has apparently over-dramatized slightly the impressive feat that was accomplished on July 2, 1863. Apparently the brave bayonet charge that swept the 15th Alabama down off the hill was less a brilliant strategy from Chamberlain and more something that occurred almost organically. And it might not have even worked had the Alabamians not been split off from many of their fellow troops…and also without any water. Chamberlain actually spent the rest of his life trying to correct some of the misconceptions about his deeds, and many of the men became estranged due to their varied ideas of exactly what happened that day.

It’s kind of a sad story, really. When portrayed in the movie Gettysburg (an AMAZING film that I highly recommend), the bravery of the charge and the glory of the moment are breathtaking. It’s too bad that some (if not most) of that tale is untrue, or at the very least highly exaggerated. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while the story may be hyperbolic, it’s still a fairly impressive moment. Regardless the reasons for the charge or the way it began, a group of battered, exhausted men who were under attack by a determined enemy and had little to no ammunition left did charge down a hill and drive off the enemy, protecting the extreme left flank of the union army from being collapsed. Had that short battle–it’s estimated to have been just over ninety minutes of fighting–turned out differently, the battle of Gettysburg might have turned out very differently.

The book itself is rather dry–it’s clearly written to be a scholarly text rather than a pleasure read. It’s extensively footnoted, and it’s clear that the author was very careful in his research. He does his best to support his every argument with documented evidence, which is reassuring. He also includes several lists at the back of the book with information about the individual men who fought in the battle.

I’ve visited the 20th Maine memorial at Gettysburg, and it’s fairly impressive. Although there’s a neat path there now, it’s still a surprisingly steep hill, and hard to imagine anyone trying to charge either up or down it without serious injury (let alone dressed in layers of wool on a July day in Pennsylvania). While the book does ruin some of the romantic notions about what these men did, it’s still a great reminder of the things they accomplished and I’d recommend it to any Civil War enthusiast.

(I took this photo off the top of the Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg. It overlooks the memorials to the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 4th New York Cavalry, and the 2nd New York Cavalry, as well as the 8th Pennsylvania infantry and an information plaque about the Cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac.)

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