Little Round Top: Remembering What They Did Here

By Abigail Cocco ’19

At Dedication Day, we remember Lincoln’s dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. At the dedication ceremony, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a speech that has become enshrined in the American consciousness. In just a few short minutes, Lincoln delivered a speech that evoked the spirit of the Founding Fathers, honored the sacrifice of the dead, and challenged the living to commit themselves to the young nation and the principles upon which it was founded. Through the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln shaped the collective memory of the Civil War and of American ideals.

Monuments and wayside markers also shape public memory. When asked to develop a wayside marker for Little Round Top, my colleague, Savannah, and I hoped to fully honor the sacrifice of the 20th Maine men by avoiding a purely romantic interpretation of their heroism and instead acknowledging their humanness. Like the rest of us, the Maine men were imperfect. Though many fought for high ideals like patriotism and duty, others fought for less noble reasons. They fought because desertion was a crime, because everyone else did, or because they craved adventure. We wanted our wayside to show that the men who fought on Little Round Top were individuals with their own lives and motivations.

20th maine marker
Photo courtesy of the author.

Whatever their reasons for fighting, the Maine men experienced the brutal reality of war on Little Round Top. We felt that it would do these men a disservice if we used our wayside to tell a comfortable tale about heroic action or tactical maneuvers. Instead, we hoped to develop a wayside that illustrated the savagery of war. Men were killed indiscriminately, their bodies strewn across the rocks. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain described the men, “torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring stark into the sky.”

The battle at Little Round Top was incredibly brutal, but in no way did we want to suggest that the casualties were senseless. The 20th Maine men died for a purpose much higher than themselves. They were sacrificed for the freedom of millions of enslaved people and for the preservation of a country that was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

maine grave
Photo courtesy of the author.

The Gettysburg Address is surrounded by myths. It is a widely-held belief that Lincoln wrote the Address on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. This story remains popular in the public imagination because people want to remember Lincoln as a common man with a great gift that allowed him to assume the highest office in the United States. The ways in which people alter memory are often reflective of how they want to remember historic moments.

Many want to remember Little Round Top as the place where Colonel Chamberlain led the 20th Maine to a victory that saved the Union. Popular culture, specifically the movie Gettysburg, has reinforced this version of events in the nation’s collective memory. When designing our wayside, Savannah and I had to contend with the preconceptions that tourists bring to Little Round Top.  There is no doubt that Joshua Chamberlain was an able leader, but he was nothing without the dedication of his men. The 20th Maine did not save the Union, but it was one of many vital parts that contributed to the Union victory. We hope to use our wayside to complicate the traditional story of the 20th Maine.

Making our vision for the wayside text a reality proved to be a challenge. Savannah and I were given 250 words to tell a nuanced version of the events at Little Round Top, and it seemed an impossible task. But then we remembered the Gettysburg Address. In 272 words, Abraham Lincoln both inspired and redefined the nation. Surely, we could give park visitors a better understanding of the 20th Maine men and their fight for a hilltop.

Remembrance Day: History, Memory and the 20th Maine

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Every November, on the Saturday closest to the 19th, the town of Gettysburg celebrates Remembrance Day. This day is held in memory of those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg and during the Civil War as a whole. On November 19th, crowds gather to celebrate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. These events pose a few very important questions: why do we still remember the Civil War in this manner? Why do we find it so important to have an entire day dedicated just to Civil War soldiers? Why does Civil War memory matter?

Over the semester, I have been working on a project in which similar questions have arisen. I am working to create a new wayside for the 20th Maine on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one that currently sits there is more a wayside to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain than it is to the men of the regiment. Why do officers seem to loom so far above regular soldiers? During Remembrance Day, the ordinary soldiers who sacrificed their lives are remembered, which is very important because without them, the generals who are usually highlighted would not have been able to accomplish the feats they are best remembered for. Something I have been attempting to do in developing the text for the wayside is remember the ordinary soldier and shift the 20th Maine’s story away from only being about Joshua Chamberlain. This has proved a challenging task, as the ghosts of the movie Gettysburg that propelled Chamberlain to fame do not seem to want to leave.

Gettysburg,_Little_Round_Top,_20th_ME_left
20th Maine memorial on Little Round Top. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As I am from Maine, this project has been a special one for me. I am helping shape the legacy of fellow Mainers. I am also working to write a text that will influence visitor’s perceptions of the battle and Maine’s role in it. While Maine did have many other regiments at Gettysburg, the 20th is the one that is best remembered and most likely offers battlefield visitors’ only glimpse of the state. I want to do my fellow Mainers and their sacrifice at Little Round Top justice while at the same time making sure I am not being plagued by Chamberlain’s ghost and the idea that the 20th Maine saved the Union. In addition to all of this, I am left with the question of why this matters. Why is the 20th Maine so important, and how will the words I write shape their memory? This is not an easy question to grapple with, but as a history major, I believe that history matters and  the way we remember it is important.

History helps us learn from our past and gives us context for the problems in the present, and thus, how we tell this history and how we shape the past has important contemporary implications. Do we present a past that paints the Maine men as noble and dedicated heroes, or do we portray them as men who had flaws and may not even have wanted to fight? I believe the solution is a combination of both. The 20th Maine was made up of regular men, but they did do something heroic and important. Theirs was a critical position in the Union line but, at the same time, the battle raged on for another day and the war for another two years, so by no means did the 20th Maine save the Union. This question of how to best remember is an important one, and I believe it is raised in both my wayside project and on Remembrance Day. Is it right to remember the men who died through reenactments and parades? How do we shape memory in a way that is true to history, and how do we do justice to the men that died at Gettysburg while at the same time being careful not to make them akin to gods?

Joshua Chamberlain on Mars: Chambermania and Beyond!

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to observe one fact about Mars: it has a lot of rocks. While each is typically given a name based on protocols of scientific classification, many are known by informal, often humorous names like “Grandma” and “Space Ghost.” And now on Mars, there’s a rock for fans of Civil War history—“Chamberlain,” named of course for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top.

Chambermars
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is now on Mars.

Aileen Yingst, the NASA scientist who named the rock, is a resident of Brunswick, Maine—the southern Maine town where JLC notably spent most of his adult life. And to this day, his presence there is inescapable. In Brunswick’s old town center, one can find pictures honoring him in numerous nearby restaurants, including one explicitly named for him. A local ice cream store reminds visitors to recycle their dishes because “Joshua Chamberlain would.” A bronze statue of him stands in a highly visible location close to the gates of the local Bowdoin College—the institution which Chamberlain attended as a student, taught at as a professor, and later served as president. Continue reading “Joshua Chamberlain on Mars: Chambermania and Beyond!”