The History We Know and The Rest of The Story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Volunteers

History is always an incomplete reality. Part of the reason is that it is often told by the victors and partly because there is so much to tell and to know that decisions have to be made, and priorities considered in which stories are told and which are not. But just because many more stories are not told, for whatever reason, does not mean that they are inconsequential or unimportant. Indeed, learning the stories that are not told often deepens, and broadens our understandings of history. These untold stories are as real and important when it comes to truly understanding any given historical moment.

This video is intended to inspire a deeper look at one of the most important moments in our nation’s history, the Civil War. We all know the main characters, but most of us know very little about the secondary and tertiary level personalities and events that were intimate parts of that monumental almost 5 year long war that threatened to end the dream of the Founding Fathers and that ended the “peculiar institution” of slavery forever in our country.  

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, with his 20th Maine volunteers helped turn the tide of the Civil War.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, with his 20th Maine volunteers helped turn the tide of the Civil War.

You will be reminded of the big names, Lincoln, Jefferson, Grant and Lee, but you will also be introduced to some of the other important personalities whose roles were immensely important to the efforts of both sides in the Civil War. One of those names, and one of my favorites, was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who, with his 20th Maine volunteers, turned the tide of battle in favor of the Union on one part of the Gettysburg battlefield at a position called Little Round Top.

For me, Chamberlain is one of the most fascinating characters of the Civil War. He was a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine when the war broke out. He would be put in command of the 20th Maine Volunteers as a Colonel and find himself in a desperate position at the great Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. He was ordered to take his men to the heights of Little Round Top and to hold it at all cost. On his arrival there he immediately saw the strategic significance of that small hill to the entire battle. The Confederates also saw that significance and launched several heavy attacks on the hill in an attempt to flank the Union forces.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine when the war broke out.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine when the war broke out.

The Confederates attacked time and time again against the 20th Maine’s position. Each time Chamberlain’s men from Maine held off the ferocious charges of several Confederate units. The 20th Maine sustained a great number of casualties while inflicting major losses on the Confederates. The Maine boys were pressured hard almost doubled back on themselves. 

With ammunition running desperately low and the 20th weakened by so many casualties, Chamberlain recognized the dire circumstances and ordered a desperate move. He ordered his left wing to initiate a bayonet charge. 

He said, “At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.” 

Chamberlain later served as governor of Maine.
Chamberlain later served as governor of Maine.

The 20th charged madly down the hill at the oncoming Confederates with their bayonets fixed.  Chamberlain ordered the left wing to wheel continually to make the charging line swing like a hinge, thus creating a simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver.  

The Confederates were stunned by the madness and the swiftness of the charge. Other union snipers also opened up on the Confederates from concealed positions behind rocks on the hill. In the end, the Confederate force was plunged into full retreat and Chamberlain’s men from Maine captured 101 of the Confederates. Little Round Top was held and the tide of the battle began to turn in the Union direction.   

If you are interested in this moment in the battle, read the book “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara. Shara’s description of the battle is so powerfully wrought that it will send chills down you spine. 

Chamberlain later in life with his Civil War uniform.
Chamberlain later in life with his Civil War uniform.

Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment would fight at Fredricksburg before Gettysburg and at Cold Harbor, the second Battle of Petersburg, the Battle of White Oak Road, the Battle of Five Forks and in the Appomattox Campaign after Gettysburg. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg some 30 years after the war.  

Chamberlain would go on after the war to become the President of his alma mater, Bowdoin College. After resigning from Bowdoin, he would practice law in New York City and would eventually become the Governor of Maine. Chamberlain was one of the most fascinating so-called minor characters in both the Civil War and in American history. Learning about him deepened and broadened my understanding of those time.  

Little Round Top was a critical point in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Little Round Top was a critical point in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Let this video challenge you to dig deeper into the history of the Civil War. Read about Chamberlain, or any of the others mentioned in this video. Watch the movie Gettysburg, or better yet, read the book “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, or the books; “Gods and Generals” and “The Last Full Measure” written by Jeff Shaara, Michael Shaara’s son. They are beautifully written and cover some of the “minor” character’s roles as well as the more famous characters with grace and power.  

To know history is to have a greater understanding of the present and to possess the tools necessary to learn from it.  

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