Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Holding the Union Left Flank: The 20th Maine at Gettysburg

The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment was recruited in Piscataquis, Penobscot, Lincoln and Knox Counties in Maine in August 1862 in response to President Lincoln's July 1862 call for 300,000 troops.  The unit, consisting of 1,621 farmers, shop clerks, woodsman and seaman and commanded by Lt. Colonel and  May 6, 1861 West Point graduate Adelbert Ames, was mustered into federal service August 29, 1862. Bowdoin College professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, served as the regiments colonel under Ames.
The 20th Maine joined the 1st Brigade, 1st Division V Army Corps, commanded by Major General Fitz John Porter prior to the Battle of Antietam, where they were held in reserve.  The regiment saw action at Fredericksburg but was relegated to guard duty at Chancellorsville because many of the soldiers had come down with smallpox.
In May 1863 Adelbert Ames was promoted to Brigadier General and the colonelency of the 20th Maine devolved upon Joshua Chamberlain.  Chamberlain would lead the regiment in to Battle at Gettysburg as part of Colonel Strong Vincent's 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps.  
The Battle of Gettysburg opened on July 1, 1862 while the 20th Maine was still en route to the battlefield.  They arrived early in the morning of July 2, after an arduous 25 mile march and before noon rested in a field west of the Baltimore Pike behind the union lines on Cemetery Ridge.
The Union Army held a strong defensive position on July 2nd but problems arose when Major General Daniel Sickles did not align with the right of the II Corps which formed a line along Cemetery Ridge. Instead he moved his troops westward into a position that left both his flanks exposed a move which in turn threatened the left flank of the Union Army.  A second threat to the Union Army left flank was the fact that the high ground on Little and Big Round Top was not defended and was being threatened in the early afternoon by Confederate troops under James Longstreet.    Brigadier General Gouverneur K Warren realized this  and because Sickles could not provide support he obtained troops from the V Corp who were ordered to ascend Little Round Top and protect the army's left flank.   The 20th Maine was one of the regiments dispatched to Little Round Top with the order to hold the extreme left flank of the army at all hazard.
The 20th Maine was positioned on the south end of Little Round Top by Colonel Chamberlain with their left flank resting on the east side of the mountain and their right on the west side.  The regiment withstood a handful of assaults by the 15th Alabama and with a third of their number dead or wounded and ammunition running low Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge which finally drove back the Alabamians and saved the Union left flank.  Chamberlain would later become famous for his exploits at Gettysburg, amongst other things, as would the 20th Maine to a lesser extent.

Today there are markers on Little Round Top that show the position of the 20th Maine's right and left flank and a monument dedicated to the regiment within their lines.  Remnants of the rifle pits they manned on that hot July day in 1862 still remain on the summit.
 It is a great place where solitude now reigns and where one can to stop and reflect on the courage and sacrifice of the men of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry and their commander Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.    

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hancock at Gettysburg: He was superb here too.

Although Winfield Scott Hancock earned the sobriquet "Hancock the Superb" following the May 5, 1862 Battle of Williamsburg it was at Gettysburg the first three days of July 1863 that Hancock exhibited the traits that had earned him the nickname.

Hancock was born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania February 14, 1824.  He graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1844, ranking 18th in a class of 25.  He saw action in the Mexican War and against the Seminoles in Florida. 
 When the civil war started Captain Hancock was serving as Chief Quartermaster of the Southern District of California.  On August 3, 1861 he was ordered east. On September 23, 1861 at Major General George B. McClellan's request he was commissioned Brigadier General of Volunteers serving under "Baldy" Smith. When Israel Richardson was mortally wounded at  the Battle of Antietam Major General Hancock assumed command of the 1st Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac. On June 25, 1863  he was elevated to command of the II Corps.
When Major General George Meade heard that Major General John Reynolds, who commanded the Left Wing of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, had been killed he sent Hancock to Gettysburg to assume command of the forces there even though several generals already on the field out ranked him.  Hancock set up the defensive perimeter of the Union Army on Cemetery Hill and made the decision to stay and fight instead of withdrawing.  On July 2nd he commanded the left center of the Union Army and was instrumental in directing troops to positions that saved the day after Major General Daniel Sickles was wounded. 
On July 3, 1863 the Confederate attack was directed at the section of the field under Hancock's command.  During the artillery bombardment that preceded Pickett's Charge  Hancock was riding his horse along the lines in front of his troops.  When one of his subordinates protested, "General, the corps commander ought not to risk his life that way," Hancock reportedly replied, "There are times when a corps commander's life does not count." 
Hancock was wounded in the right thigh at the height of the fighting on July 3rd, 1863.  He refused to be carried from the field until he knew Pickett's Charge had been repulsed.  
Hancock's  superb performance at Gettysburg is recognized by three monuments erected to honor him there.  One depicts the spot within his lines where he was wounded.  A second sits on East Cemetery Hill and the 3rd is a bronze statue on the Pennsylvania State Monument. 

            Marker where  Major General Winfield Scott Hancock was wounded

            Hancock statue on the Pennsylvania State Monument

  Hancock's equestrian statue on East Cemetery Hill

Maybe when it was all said and done another superb general who fought in the civil war said it best when describing Winfield Scott Hancock at Gettysburg and elsewhere:  
"Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command.  He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned  as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible.  He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance.  Tall well-formed and, at the time of the  which I now write, young and fresh looking, he presented an appearance that would attract the attention of an army as he passed.  His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him.  No matter how hard the fight, the 2nd Corps always felt that their commander was looking after them." (quote from the Personal Memorial of Ulysses Grant)