The civil war of the men from Maine by one of their number
Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War by Theodore Gerrish
A Brief History of the 20th Maine Regiment in the American Civil War by H. S. Melcher
lmost all students of the American Civil War are aware of the famous 20th Maine, which under the inspirational leadership of its colonel, Joshua Chamberlain, and positioned on the high ground known as Little Round Top, held the farthest extremity of the Union Army line, under Vincent, at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederates, aware that the key to outflanking the Union Army lay in the taking of Little Round Top, furiously assaulted the high ground with troops under Hood’s command who, despite prodigious displays of valour and self-sacrifice, nevertheless failed to take the position. Chamberlain’s downhill bayonet charge on this occasion remains exceptional in the military history of his nation. The principal work contained in these pages covers these momentous events, but its canvas is far broader than the engagement at Gettysburg. Written by a talented ordinary soldier, a private in the 20th Maine, the book covers most of the wartime actions of that regiment from the perspective of a voice from the ranks. Readers will be pleased to discover that irrespective of the fact that the subject is a particularly famous unit, battle and event, this account is simply a fine first-hand account of the civil war which would be noteworthy irrespective of any other consideration because it is well written and full of incidents, humour, anecdotes and insights of life on campaign and upon the fields of conflict. Theodore Gerrish’s highly regarded account is accompanied in this special Leonaur edition by a brief history of the 20th Maine by H. S Melcher.
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The rebels were confounded at the movement. We struck them with a fearful shock. They recoil, stagger, break and run, and like avenging demons our men pursue. The rebels rush toward a stone wall, but, to our mutual surprise, two scores of rifle barrels gleam over the rocks, and a murderous volley was poured in upon them at close quarters. A band of men leap over the wall and capture at least a hundred prisoners. Piscataquis has been heard from, and as usual it was a good report. This unlooked-for reinforcement was Company B, whom we supposed were all captured.
Our colonel’s commands were simply to hold the hill, and we did not follow the retreating rebels but a short distance. After dark an order came to advance and capture a hill in our front. Through the trees, among the rocks, up the steep hillside, we made our way, captured the position, and also a number of prisoners.
On the morning of July 3rd, we were relieved by the Pennsylvania reserves, and went back to the rear. Of our three hundred and fifty men, one hundred and thirty-five had been killed and wounded. We captured over three hundred prisoners, and a detachment sent out to bury the dead found fifty dead rebels upon the ground where we had fought. Our regiment had won imperishable honour, and our gallant colonel was to be known in history as the hero of “Little Round Top.” We cared for our wounded as well as we could, although there was but little we could do for them.
Our dead were buried, and their graves were marked by the loving hands of their comrades. I suppose that their remains have since been removed to the National Cemetery at Gettysburgh, but somehow, I wish they had been left where they fell, on the rugged brow of Round Top, amid the battle-scarred rocks which they baptised with their blood as they died.
While the desperate encounter was taking place on Little Round Top, the fearful conflict continued to rage in front of Sickles’ command, and when Longstreet’s bleeding brigades fell back in defeat, it was not because they had not fought bravely, but because it was impossible to push back our line of battle. It was a fearful blow to the fortunes of the Confederacy when Longstreet was repulsed on that eventful afternoon. But important events were about to transpire on our right. General Ewell had been massing his troops through the afternoon, and swore with a fearful oath that he would take and hold the positions occupied by Howard and Slocum, or he would die in the attempt.
Just as the sun was sinking from view, the storm burst upon our lines. General Howard, with an empty sleeve pinned to his shoulder, stood calm and erect amid the bursting shells. That Christian gentleman, while scorning to exhibit the profane and reckless deportment of some of his brother officers, was nevertheless as heroic an officer as ever served in the Army of the Potomac. An eye witness on this occasion testifies that, while the shells were falling and bursting on every side of him, he stood leaning against a tombstone, surveying the movements of the enemy with his field-glass, and that his countenance was as unmoved as the marble upon which he leaned for support. His men (the Eleventh corps) remembered the surprise at Chancellorsville, and were anxious to meet the enemy, to regain the prestige that they felt they had lost.
Under the terrible fire of artillery and musketry, the Southern infantry charged in a simultaneous attack upon the central position of Howard, and the long line of defences held by the soldiers of the First and Twelfth corps. Howard’s artillery opened to receive them, and fired with such rapidity that the men were obliged to wait for the guns to cool. The infantry poured volley after volley upon the Southern columns; but in defiance of all this opposition the gallant Southerners swept across those fields covered with the dead, and like a ragged ocean wave broken and lashed by the fury of the gale, reached the breastworks of General Howard.
General Barlow’s division, commanded by General Ames (formerly colonel of the Twentieth Maine Regiment), nobly breasted the avalanche that poured upon them, but they were pressed back, two batteries having been already captured by the rebels. But at this critical moment, the guns of Stevens’ Fifth Maine Battery were brought to bear upon the assaulting column with double-shotted canister. Reinforcements arrive. General Ames rallies his shattered line, and gallantly leads them upon the foe. The Louisiana Tigers swarmed upon the muzzles of his guns. It was now a hand to hand conflict—clubbed rifles, bayonet thrusts, sabre strokes, stones, clubs, and whatever came to hand.
The struggle was brief, bloody and desperate. Many rebels were captured, and the remainder, but a feeble remnant of that gallant corps, went rushing wildly back over that field of carnage and defeat. A wild cheer went up from the victors. Chancellorsville has been redeemed, and the gallant German troops once more have a record of which they may well be proud.
The attack made upon the Twelfth corps had met with a slight success. Only one brigade had been left to guard a long line of rifle-pits, the remainder of the troops having been sent to reinforce the centre. The charging columns of Ewell swept over this feeble line, and as darkness came on, he held a portion of the Union rifle-pits, which perhaps would be the key to a rebel victory on the morrow.