Joshua L. Chamberlain
July 02, 1863
In a letter to Maine Governor Abner Coburn after the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Joshua Chamberlain, Colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, matter-of-factly informs the Governor that "Within a month…this regiment has been in three fights, in as many different States, within that time."
Chamberlain was referring to the 20th Maine's support of the 1st Maine Cavalry at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville in Virginia, as well another skirmish as the Regiment passed through Maryland.
On July 2, after a 26 mile march, Chamberlain and his men arrived on the field at Gettysburg around four o’clock. They were immediately rushed by Colonel Strong Vincent of the 3rd Brigade, 5th Corps, to an undefended rocky hill, locally known as "Little Round Top."
Scrambling to position themselves to defend the hill, the 20th Maine was nearly overwhelmed by a Confederate Brigade. But, as Chamberlain indicates, "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."
The 20th Maine was ordered to "Fix bayonets," and to charge down the hill toward the Confederates. The charge succeeded and prevented the entire left of the Union battle line from collapsing under the Confederate attack.
The day’s work was not done, however. Chamberlain goes on the say "We were ordered, or asked to carry a height which afforded the rebels a very advantageous position & was considered by our generals a strong point to carry. Exhausted as we were, the one hundred and & ninety eight bayonets I had left after that day's fighting charged up that hill & carried every thing before them."
The "height" was known to the locals as "Big Round Top." The regiment's assault was made after dark up a very steep and rocky terrain that would have been a difficult climb in broad daylight.
Chamberlain writes as much about the capture of Big Round Top as he does the afternoon fight on Little Round Top. Many 20th Maine survivors remembered the night assault as being more terrifying than the desperate bayonet charge they had made that afternoon.
After the hard toil of July 2, the 20th Maine was ordered into a reserve position on July 3 near the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.
- Civil War soldiers dreaded the order to "Fix Bayonets!" Why?