Beyond The 20th Maine

I have something to confess. I committed sacrilege in the Gettysburg historical community. How? I didn’t write about (or even mention) Colonel J. L. Chamberlain or the 20th Maine regiment in my book.

gettysburg-1993-12I know, it seems unbelievable. And for your information, I have seen the movie Gettysburg, I have stood at the 20th Maine position on Little Round Top, and – being a young woman who’s not blind – I’ve swooned (a little) over The Colonel’s photos. So how did the un-imaginable, “horrifying” act of sacrilege happen?

Well, let me share three things I learned while reading a good-size stack of Gettysburg military books. And at the end of the article, I’ll share the regiments of the soldiers who interact with the civilians in my story.

1. The 20th Maine Was Not The Only Regiment At Gettysburg

We know this. (Or at least we think we do!) But I just LOVE – that’s sarcasm, there folks – how Every. Single. Book. published since about 1994 mentions the 20th Maine and the crucially dramatic fight on the Union’s left flank. It’s everywhere; the children’s books, the YA books, the large 3 inch thick history books. Chamberlain, Chamberlain, Chamberlain, 20th Maine, 20th Maine, 20th Maine.

However, the interesting thing? Chamberlain himself acknowledged that without the rest of the brigade – gracious, without the rest of the Union army – the battle wouldn’t have been won. (See I have read his writings!) Little Round Top wouldn’t have mattered if the 1st Minnesota hadn’t kept the Rebels off Cemetery Ridge. Little Round Top wouldn’t have mattered if the XI Corps hadn’t held onto to Cemetery Hill. And hey, why don’t we ever hear much about the units on Culp’s Hill, which was the right flank of the Union line? If they’d collapsed, Chamberlain would’ve really been in a mess. (Though he’d probably have said something like “Bayonet them both ways” – apologies to General Forrest for misusing his quote.)

So, there were hundreds of regiments holding the Gettysburg line. Many played a significant role in the defensive battle. And yes, there were other bayonet charges!

391px-Gettysburg_Battle_Map_Day2

I’ve circled Culp’s Hill on the map

2. The Union’s Right Flank Was Far More Significant Than Most Of Us Realize

If you’d asked me when I was 14 about the Union right flank at Gettysburg, I could’ve told you it was on Culp’s Hill…and not much else. After all, most of the action was on the left flank with the 20th Maine, right? Wrong. Here’s what I learned later on –

Culp’s Hill (see map) was very important to the Union line. It was guarding their escape route, down Baltimore Pike. (Fortunately, General Meade never had to issue escape orders.) It was also guarding the rear of the Union position.

One startling reality for the Culp’s Hill fighting is that it lasted significantly longer than left flank conflict. Artillery fire toward the right flank began in the late afternoon of July 2, then faded off after a couple hours; the attacks disintegrated into confused night fighting, paused, and then exploded for another six hours of battle in the morning of July 3.

Keep in mind that artillery wasn't real effective on Culp's Hill - so this tree was shot down by bullets. This photo gives a dramatic example of how metal was flying through the air during this infantry fight.

Keep in mind that artillery wasn’t effective on Culp’s Hill – so this tree was probably shot down by bullets. This photo gives a dramatic example of how metal was flying through the air during this infantry fight.

3. The Culp’s Hill Conflict Is Unique At Gettysburg

As I’m writing this, I’m imagining the confused looks after that last heading, so let me explain. Culp’s Hill was densely wooded. True, the undergrowth had been cleared in previously years, so it was fairly “open”, but let’s just say it’d be hard to see the forest for the trees. All those trees meant something very significant – it was next to impossible to use artillery on this part of the battlefield. Culp’s Hill is an infantry – and infantry only – fight. No cavalry, limited, ineffective artillery. That’s very unique in the Gettysburg battle. (**Note: there was artillery around the Union right flank area, but as far as the attacks actually on Culp’s Hill, it is insignificant.)

Another interesting development in the Union right flank lines is the intentional order to build fortifications. Okay, yes, all across Gettysburg battlefield men piled up fence rails or stones for some shelter. But, on Culp’s Hill, the generals actually gave orders for the men to dig and build fortifications. This is one of the first times in Civil War history that trenches are built during a battle. Unfortunately for the Union soldiers the entrenching tools (handy shovels and big axes) were in the supply wagons, which were still a long distance away, so they had to use their cups, plates, and bayonets to construct their shelters!

So…Culp’s Hill (like other places at Gettysburg) evolves into its own unique conflict and it really deserves more study and “limelight.”

The Lucky Regiments

I didn’t write about the 20th Maine in Blue, Gray & Crimson. I decided it was time for new regiments to get some attention or glory. How about the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 27th Indiana, or 10th Virginia?

Since the book isn’t due for release for a few more l…o…n…g weeks (Yes, I’m having trouble waiting too!), I thought I’d introduce you to the real regiments featured in the story. Hopefully, you’ll enjoying “meeting” the real units of the fictional characters who interact with the civilians.

So unfurl your Union flag and polish those bayonets because next week we’re making a bayonet charge with the 27th Indiana Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think? Time for some new regiments to have their recognized moment of glory? Or shall we continue watching the 20th Maine’s charge on replay?

(Where is my Gettysburg DVD anyway…that still sounds like an interesting way to spend the evening!)

Mad at me about my tirade about Chamberlain? Okay, here’s my four part series on that hero; Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Blue Gray & Crimson, Gettysburg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Beyond The 20th Maine

  1. Pingback: The 27th Indiana: Bayonets & Flags | Gazette665

  2. Bill K. says:

    I think we can see the power of what a book and/or movie can do to history. A great read on this subject is Garry Adelman’s Myth of Little Round Top. This post reminded me of that book. I agree for the most part. Not to downplay the drama that happened on LRT, but it might not have been such an important position as many think.

  3. Pingback: General Ewell’s Gettysburg: Prudence or Folly? | Gazette665

  4. Pingback: By The Banks Of Rock Creek | Gazette665

  5. Pingback: Good-bye, Gettysburg (I’ll Miss You) | Gazette665

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