If you ask someone to name the first battle that comes to mind regarding the Civil War, no doubt “Gettysburg” will be near or at the top of the list. Owing to its decisiveness in the War’s outcome, the number of soldiers left dead on the battlefield (51,000 is the total casualty figure–making it the bloodiest battle of the war), and Lincoln’s famous speech at the cemetery dedication there four months later, Gettysburg looms colossal in the nation’s collective memory.
Obviously, Pennsylvania takes top honors as the state with the most claim to Gettysburg history–5,700 acres of battlefields, 40 miles of battlefield roads–and you can spend days there taking it in. Some 1,000 monuments mark various sites of importance during the three day battle and the Visitor’s Center has a 22,000 square foot museum. It’s a pilgrimage every American should make.
But given the number of men who fought and died there, a great many other states boast important ties to the site, and the corresponding archives and collections to support them.
In Maine, of course, we honor the crucial role then-Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment played holding back Confederate soldiers from taking Little Round Top, a small rocky hill that proved to be one of the turning points in the three-day campaign.
Chamberlain, who was born in Brewer and who went on to achieve the rank of major general and served as Maine’s 32nd governor, led a bayonet charge down Little Round Top that is one of the more famous moments of Gettysburg, if not the entire War. What’s especially remarkable about Chamberlain is that he was previously a professor at Bowdoin–also his alma mater–and before enlisting to fight for the Union at age 33, he had no formal military training. One can tour his adult home in Brunswick, now a museum maintained by Pejepscot Historical Society, which owns the largest collection of Chamberlain material assembled in a single place.
The Maine State Archives, which has digitized and transcribed a huge number of Civil War-related artifacts in its collection as a way to mark the War’s sesquicentennial, features a July, 1863 letter from Chamberlain to then-governor of Maine Abner Coburn that describes the Little Round Top battle in some detail. Apparently, the bayonet charge was largely a last resort:
After two hours fighting on the defensive, our loss had been so great and the remaining men were so much exhausted & having fired all the cartridges we could gather from the scattered boxes of the fallen around us, friend & foe, I saw no way left but to take the offensive & accordingly we charged on the enemy – trying “cold steel” on them.”
In 1889, Chamberlain and those who served under him traveled to Gettysburg for a reunion. One can only imagine what an experience it would have been for those surviving soldiers to gather together in the same place they had fought so valiantly 26 years earlier–and where they had lost fellow soldiers.
Though Gettysburg took place when it did simply because of what had led up to it, our contemporary selves cannot help but feel moved by its proximity to July 4. During this 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, Independence Day gains new prominence as not only a Revolutionary moment, but as a solemn, day-after commemoration to those brave souls who salvaged our Union.