Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Chamberlain

              No, not Neville Chamberlain, former British Prime Minister from 1937-40, who was so infamously duped by “Der Fuhrer,” Adolph Hitler, into believing that the Nazis would not attack anymore of their European neighbors. The Chamberlain I’m choosing to discuss in this article was an American from Maine who commanded troops in the field at a little town in Pennsylvania known as Gettysburg.

The population of Gettysburg at the time of the battle was 2400. The two opposing armies numbered slightly less than 165,000 men of which nearly one-third were killed or wounded.

It was during this most famous of Civil War battles that the Medal of Honor (MOH) was designed and established. The citation for the Medal of Honor for Col Chamberlain reads, “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 2 July 1863, while serving with 20th Maine Infantry, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top.”

This altogether brief description of Colonel Chamberlain’s heroic feats that July day fails to tell of his magnificent command of his unit. They were placed in the woods of Little Round Top as a reserve force for the main battle. As Confederate forces looked for a way to circle around behind the Union Army, they ran into a tenacious 20th Maine Infantry. Confederate forces were determined to root out this band of troublesome Union troops. Chamberlain would have none of it. He successfully countered the repeated advances against his position. However his men were running low on bullets and gun powder. Not wanting the enemy to realize their depleted and vulnerable condition, he ordered his men to “Fix Bayonets!” The next advance by General Lee’s boys was met with a banshee-like scream from the charging fellas from Maine. This maniacal charge was so unexpected that the southern boys took off running to get away from the crazy Mainers. It’s true that the 20th Maine was virtually out of ammunition, but the tide was turned, and the Battle of Gettysburg was won by the Union forces.

Some interesting facts about the three days of battle at Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), are: 1) After the battle 37,574 rifles left lying on the battlefield were collected, 2) 24,000 were still loaded, 3) 6,000 had one round in the barrel, 4) 12,000 had two rounds in the barrel, and 5) 6,000 had three to ten rounds in the barrel. Rounds left in the barrels of the guns (muskets) means that many soldiers loaded their guns but did not fire. Many of these boys simply could not bring themselves to shoot and kill another man, especially a fellow countryman, or worse yet, a relative. And lastly, this interesting tidbit: The Confederate wagon train of wounded sent back to Virginia after the battle was 17 miles long!

If you saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” actor Tom Hanks plays Army Captain John H. Miller who is assigned a squad of soldiers to search for the last of four brothers, Private James Ryan, last known to be somewhere in northern France. Throughout the movie the Hank’s character was constantly being harried about his civilian occupation. Because he was a relentless leader the men were always guessing what he did before the war. Captain Miller eventually tells the men that he had been an elementary school teacher. This shocked them, because it seemed so out of character from the man they saw as their captain.

The same is true for Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, only his story did not come from Hollywood. Before the Civil War, Chamberlain had been a professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He was an expert in linguistics, being fluent in nine languages besides English. They were: Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac.

General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander of Union Forces, met with General Robert E. Lee, Commander of Confederate Forces at Appomattox Court House to finalize the terms of surrender. Grant appointed then Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain to receive the arms (weapons) of the Confederate army.

In all, Chamberlain was wounded six times, had six horses shot out from under him, fought in 20 battles and numerous skirmishes, and was cited for bravery four different times. He was wildly popular back home and was elected as Maine’s 32nd governor. He eventually went back to Bowdoin College, becoming president of his alma mater.

I have been vacationing with my brother, John, for the last two weeks. This included a family reunion in Richmond, Virginia for the Coppage/Coppedge family. My mother’s mother was a Coppedge. Then John and I drove to Belgrade Lakes, Maine where we played golf, and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of a cabin on Long Pond.

A friend, knowing my love of, and interest in the Civil War, told me about a 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg display at the State Museum in Augusta, Maine. John and I stopped in and thoroughly enjoyed the information provided regarding the contributions of the men and women from Maine in keeping the Union intact.

Chamberlain’s father was a preacher, and Joshua was encouraged to follow in his footsteps. However, being shy in front of crowds, and having a life-long speech impediment, he chose a different course for his life. However, he knew God was guiding him. His only desire was to serve God and his fellow man faithfully.

I’d say he did so splendidly!

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