In doing research for a previous post, I learned about the stand of the Sixteenth Maine at the Battle of Gettysburg. What struck me most about their sacrifice was the fact that before they were captured they made sure to tear up their colors and distribute the pieces among the men. They did this in order to ensure that the Confederates wouldn’t be able to capture their colors, an act that would have disgraced the Sixteenth Maine and detracted from their valiant sacrifice. In addition, this allowed the men to keep a piece of their flag, to be reminded of their sacrifice and courage while they sat in a Confederate prison. Stories about regimental flags such as this one abound, which begs the question of why colors and color bearers were so important that men put themselves in immense danger to protect them.
Civil War color bearers played a practical role as well as a highly symbolic one. The colors helped soldiers see where their units were located in the confusing, smoke-filled battlefield. Color bearers also set the pace for the march, making sure it was the proper length and cadence. Flags were the centerpieces of the battle, often resulting in high casualty rates of color bearers and their guards. In addition, color bearers didn’t carry weapons, increasing their likeliness of being killed or wounded. If a color bearer happened to be shot down, a member of his guard would immediately pick up the colors in order to avoid the disgrace of losing one. Continue reading “For Duty, Honor, and Family: Color Bearers in the Civil War”
How did one transform a group of raw recruits, of men who had no military knowledge, into soldiers? It was not an easy task, especially since many of the men had never even touched a weapon, let alone knew how to use one. This task often fell to private citizens, who, out of patriotic sentiment or the prospect of becoming commissioned, persuaded their neighbors to join their regiment. While this method was convenient and inexpensive for the government it often meant that the commissioned officers were inexperienced and underqualified, chosen only for their skills of persuasion. Because of this, transforming a group of men who were more skilled as farmers or lawyers into soldiers prepared for battle could prove to be a daunting task. It is also a subject that is paid little attention, outshone by the great battles and leaders of the Civil War. However, these regiments and the efforts of the men that raised them allowed for the possibility of those battles to occur and those leaders to emerge.
In an effort to recognize the importance of the act of raising a regiment, Ellis Spear of the Twentieth Maine wrote the story of the establishment of his regiment, entitled The Story of the Raising and Organization of a Regiment of Volunteers in 1862. While it is the story of the Twentieth Maine, it is one that is reflective of the process of raising most Civil War volunteer regiments. For the Twentieth Maine, their story began in the summer of 1862 when Lincoln called for 30,000 more troops. Maine needed to provide four regiments, resulting in the raising of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Maine regiments. The response of Maine men to this call was so overwhelming that they had enough men for a fifth regiment, the Twentieth Maine. Because of this, the Twentieth Maine was a kind of surplus regiment, made up of men from all over the state as opposed to just one region. Continue reading “From Farmers to Soldiers: Raising a Civil War Volunteer Regiment”
On my first of many tours of the Gettysburg Battlefield,my tour guide was thrilled to learn that my family is from Maine. He made sure to show us the monument to the Twentieth Maine and talk about their valiant stand at Little Round Top. Joshua Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine regiment have become known as the heroes of Little Round Top and are what most would readily identify when asked about Maine’s role in the Battle of Gettysburg. One might think that Maine’s only contribution to the battle was Chamberlain’s charge. However, Maine units played a larger role in the battleand were present from the very beginning of the battle until the very end. They were not only present, however; they were engaged at key points of the battle such as Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, the Copse of Trees, Cemetery Hill, and, of course, Little Round Top. There were 4,000 Maine soldiers at the battle, one in four of whom was killed.
Despite the fact that Maine contributed a larger number of soldiers in proportion to its population than any other state in the Union, the efforts of Maine men in the war are not widely remembered or acknowledged. Perhaps to remedy this, a committee was formed to investigate and prepare a report on Maine’s contributions to the Battle of Gettysburg. This large work is entitled Maine at Gettysburg. It was prepared in 1898 by a committee made up of Maine officers that participated in the war as well as some Maine politicians. They did this to “[set] forth the facts more fully, accurately and reliably, and in a manner justly due to the memory of those who so freely gave their lives to their country on this eventful field.” The report begins with an overview of the battle, making sure to highlight each Maine regiment and its role. After this, each unit is given a chapter to discuss its monument on the battlefield and to describe in detail the role that regiment played in the battle. These chapters were usually written by an officer of each regiment. The Twentieth Maine’s, for example, was written in part by Joshua Chamberlain. Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Twentieth: Maine Regiments at Gettysburg”
The order to hold to the last, to continue fighting, to refuse to break no matter the cost, is often held to be a noble and heroic concept, especially in the Victorian context of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War. The most famous action of this kind at the Battle of Gettysburg is of course the stand of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, which has been popularized through the writings of Michael Shaara and the 1993 film Gettysburg. The 20th Maine’s commanding officer, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, reflects upon this unique brand of orders in the film, philosophically wondering what “to the last” can mean, even as his men prepare to receive the enemy. Paradoxically, such a stand only becomes glorious when it is not forced to fulfill the true measure of its orders. Gallant reinforcements arrive to stem the tide; the enemy is broken before the can succeed; the defenders lose hope and retreat rather than being annihilated. Indeed, seldom is the occasion on which men have truly stood “to the last.” One is the case of the 16th Maine at Gettysburg.