The story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—the scholar-turned-general who led the 20th Maine at Gettysburg on July 2—is indeed a compelling one. The regiment’s main monument, on the spot where it made its stubborn defense on the right flank of Little Round Top, has become a pilgrimage site, with many people leaving notes and other tributes to the regiment’s men.
In Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, I mention how it’s become somewhat fashionable to disparage Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. For example, in 2011 Gary Gallagher listed Chamberlain as one of the war’s five overrated officers. I guess you could call it a backlash. Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and then Gettysburg, the movie adaptation, propelled Chamberlain and his regiment to a new level of recognition and some people believe Chamberlain and his regiment now receive more credit than they deserve for the Union victory at Gettysburg.
I hail from Maine myself and for a time I lived across the street from Chamberlain’s residence in Brunswick, Maine. Far be it for me to say that anyone from Maine is overrated! But rather than defending Chamberlain’s reputation myself, I’ll let his division commander, Brigadier General James Barnes, do it for me. This is what Barnes wrote in his official report of the battle.
Colonel Chamberlain at once threw back his left wing, and extended his right wing by intervals toward the left, in order to avoid diminishing the extent of his front. The brigade of the enemy alluded to reaching a proper position, attacked him furiously on the left flank, advancing within 10 paces and rapidly firing. They were first checked and then repulsed by the left wing of the regiment, thrown back for that purpose.
A second, third, and fourth time the enemy renewed their attempt to break this line, and each time were they successfully repelled by that handful of men. Four times that little interval of 10 paces was the scene of a desperate conflict. The ground was strewed with dead and wounded men of both sides, promiscuously mingled. Their ammunition was exhausted; they replenished it from the cartridge boxes of the men lying around them, whether friends or foes, but even this resource soon failed them; the enemy in greatly superior numbers pressed hard; men and officers began to look to the rear for safety, but the gallant commander of the regiment ordered the bayonets to be fixed, and, at the command “Forward,” that wearied and worn body of men rushed onward with a shout. The enemy fell back. Pressing on, and wheeling to the right in open intervals, the left wing came again in line with the right wing, and then the whole regiment, deployed at intervals of 5 paces, followed up the advantage they had gained. The enemy threw down their arms and surrendered in large numbers; the others fled rapidly from the contest; 368 prisoners, including 1 colonel, 1 lieutenant-colonel, and a dozen other officers of lesser rank were sent to the rear; 50 of their dead lay upon the field, and large numbers of their wounded; 30 of this gallant regiment were killed, over 100 were wounded, but not one was taken a prisoner, and none were missing.
It was now nearly dark. A portion of the enemy appeared to have occupied the summit of the rocky hill to the left. The men of this brave regiment, exhausted by their labors, had thrown themselves upon the ground, and many of them sunk at once in sleep. Colonel Rice, now in command of the brigade, directed Colonel Chamberlain to drive the enemy from this height. The order was at once given. Roused again to action, and advancing with fixed bayonets and without firing, lest the smallness of their numbers might be suspected, they rushed up the hill.
Twenty-five more prisoners, including some staff officers, were added to the number previously taken, with a loss to the regiment of 1 officer mortally wounded and 1 man taken prisoner by the enemy. It was ascertained that these troops occupying the hill had been sent from Hood’s division, which was then massed a few hundred yards distant, and that their object was to reconnoiter the position as a preliminary to taking possession of the height.
In addition to the prisoners above mentioned as taken by this regiment, 300 stand of arms were also captured by them, it is due to this regiment and to its commander that their service should be thus recorded in some detail.
That was, in fact, a lot of detail for a division commander to include about one of his regiments. Barnes went on to say, “Colonel Chamberlain, of the Twentieth Maine Volunteers, whose service I have endeavored briefly to describe, deserves especial mention.”
Colonel James Rice, who took over the Third Brigade in Barnes’ division following the death of Colonel Strong Vincent, also dedicated space in his official report to the action of the 20th Maine on Little and Big Round Tops, and singled out Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas for their actions on July 2. “Especially would I call the attention of the general commanding to the distinguished services rendered by Colonel Chamberlain throughout the entire struggle,” wrote Rice.
Barnes’ report appears in Official Records, Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 1, pages 599-605. Rice’s is in the same volume, pages 616-620.