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Real Men: Joshua Chamberlain

by Jon Stonger on 30 July 2009

How one man really can change history . . . provided he’s standing on top of a critical hill with a regiment of troops under his command.

Joshua Chamberlain 500

I’ll admit I fell asleep in history class a few times. I remember in particular one college professor lecturing at length about how the British Parliament sought to control the prices of corn through the Corn Acts of 1855 (or something like that). Sure enough, I felt that warm fuzzy feeling that afflicts so many students of history creep over me. My eyelids grew heavy, and before long, I was unconscious.

To the surprise of many, history is not always boring. There are stories in the past that are as compelling as any fiction, times where the actions of a single person or small group changed the face of our world forever. Alexander the Great was nearly killed at the battle of Granicus in 334 B.C., before his bodyguard leapt in front of him at the last second and turned away the fatal blow. The light of western civilization was almost snuffed out in ancient Greece by the invasions of Darius and Xerxes, were it not for the brave actions of men like Leonidas and Themistocles and the warriors of Sparta and Athens.

In modern times, the fate of our nation has also hinged upon the actions of a single person. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was offered the crown of a king. Instead, he famously turned in his sword to the Continental Congress and returned home to his farm in Virginia. If he had acted differently, the whole history of the United States would have been unrecognizably different.

The American Civil War is often presented with an air of inevitability. The North, after all, outnumbered the South by nearly 4 to 1, fielded twice as many soldiers, held 90% of the heavy industry and 70% of the miles of railroad. There was a point, however, where the North’s material advantage came close to being nullified on the battlefield.

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July1-3 of 1863, the armies of North and South met in the largest battle ever on American soil. We rightly mourn the passing of over 4,000 dead soldiers in Iraq; on those three days in July, there were more than 8,000 killed, with total casualties around 50,000. The battle marked a turning point in the war, and the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. A Union victory was far from assured, and it almost went the other way. It all came down to one man in command of one hill on one summer afternoon in 1863.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was not a military man by training. When the war broke out, he was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdin College in Maine. He knew nine languages other than English, and eventually taught every subject at the school except mathematics and science. His ancestors had fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. When the Civil War started, he took a leave of absence and promptly joined the US Army as a Lt. Colonel.

At the end of the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, the Union had been pushed back into a defensive position resembling a long fishhook. The southern end of the line terminated at Little Round Top. If the South could take that hill, they could move artillery up and shoot downwards along the entire length of the Union line, destroying their defensive position. As of the afternoon of July 2, the second day of battle, the hill was undefended. The Confederates began to advance.

Realizing the danger of their position, Colonel Strong Vincent ordered four regiments to the hill. The 20th Maine, commanded by Chamberlain, held the far southern edge of the hill with 385 men. Vincent ordered Chamberlain to hold the hill at all costs.

The Union arrived 10 minutes before the Confederates.

The Confederates from Alabama charged the hill. The Union repelled them. Again the Confederates regrouped and charged again. The two sides battled desperately for 90 minutes in the hot July sun, but the Union held, despite heavy losses.

The Confederates regrouped and prepared to charge again. This time they would not be stopped.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain took stock of the situation. His troops were nearly out of ammunition, and many were wounded. They could not repel another charge.

To his right, the Union line stretched out to the north. If the Confederates captured the hill, the whole position was in jeopardy.

So here was one man, on top of the critical hill in the critical battle of the most destructive war the world had ever seen. Perhaps a lesser man would have retreated or surrendered, but Chamberlain new he could not afford to lose the hill. Yet how could his men defeat the Confederates without ammunition?

He decided on a desperate maneuver, hoping the element of surprise would carry them through.

He ordered his men to fix bayonets, a tactic more suited for the Revolutionary War. He waited as the Alabamans moved up the hill. Then, he ordered a charge.

The far end of the line swung around like a gate as the center charged forward, catching the Southern forces in a vise. The momentum of the charge carried them through the Southern lines, sweeping them off the hill.

The Northern line was saved. The Union went on to win the battle and the war. Pickett’s Charge occurred on the third day, and it is memorialized as the ‘High Water Mark’ of the Confederacy. From that day, the Union pushed the Confederate forces south, and ended the war two years later at Appomattox.

Fittingly, it was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, then a general, who accepted General Lee’s sword in surrender.

He survived the war and returned to Maine, where he served as governor and president of Bowdin College.

History, and war in particular, is complex and chaotic. Sometimes the massive forces in play on both sides come down to one person standing at a critical juncture of history. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain stood at such a juncture on the critical hill in the critical battle of the war to separate the United States. His heroic actions preserved victory for the Union, and have consequences that reach down to the present day. If another man had stood there, perhaps things would have gone differently. The fact that they did not is testament to the impact that one brave individual can have.

This article appeared previously on Heretical Ideas.

About Jon Stonger

Jon Stonger is a novelist and short story writer. His first book, The Adventures of the Delineator: The Slimy and the Sentient, is now available. He currently resides in Suwon City, Korea.

{ 3 comments }

1 Triumph 30 July 2009 at 14:58

Yeah, J. Chamberlain is da bomb–especially after his great pitching performance against the Rays last night.

2 jsallison 3 August 2009 at 20:59

Part and parcel of his regiment’s defense of the hill is that he didn’t just sit there and take it. He ordered some movements that regular forces likely wouldn’t have tried while in contact. Turner’s Gettysburg mini series makes note of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. Forget Pickett’s charge, that was an ill-fated, expensive, last hurrah. Without the 20th Maine’s stand we have a whole different conflict, and subsequent history.

3 bdavey 4 August 2009 at 16:44

For insight into the Battle of Gettysburg and Chamberlain (as well as several other commanders from each side of the conflict) read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.

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