By Nancy Roberts
This story is about a moment when the choice of one road over another was critical to the future of a nation, when the guidance seen by an entire regiment of men was so bizarre that it can only have come from the realm of the supernatural.
On July 1, 1863, the Twentieth Maine under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and Colonel Adelbert Ames’s brigade were heading north from Maryland into Pennsylvania to repel Lee’s invasion. Above the marching men, smoke-colored dust billowed and drifted as their column wound along-a solid mass of dark and light blue punctuated by the steely glint of rifles. Infantrymen helped themselves to the large sweet cherries beside the road as they passed through lush green Maryland farm country with knee-high corn and ripening grain.
Leaving the sometimes hostile state of Maryland and crossing into Pennsylvania, the drum corps struck up “Yankee Doodle,” but the inhabitants behind their roadside stands selling bread, milk, cakes, and pies did not respond to this patriotic gesture. Seeing this, many of the hungry men, outraged at the prices, began to help themselves.
“Thieving Rebels!” angry vendors shouted at them. It was the worst insult they could think of. The Union troops ignored them. But the farther north they went, the friendlier people became and the lower the prices.
Nearing Hanover, Pennsylvania, that afternoon, they had a shock. All around lay dead horses and Union cavalrymen with eyes staring upward as though they had seen a sight too horrible to tell. What had happened? Confederate general Jeb Stuart had been through here with a large force of cavalry and skirmished briefly as he passed. The audacious Stuart, emerging from the Blue Ridge Mountains, had galloped boldly around the entire Federal army, past its right flank, proceeding to sever all telegraph lines linking General Meade to his high headquarters in Washington.
Late that afternoon a tired Colonel Chamberlain and his men bivouacked just outside Hanover, and the colonel sat alone, grateful for fresh bread and milk from one of the vendors. What a surprising life he was leading! A graduate of a theological seminary, his only training in supervision had been to run a Sunday school and teach at Bowdoin College. Now thirty-three, he saw soldiering as a romantic adventure. It was downright un-Christian for a man trained for the ministry, he thought with some chagrin.
Watching curiously as a rider, his horse lathered, rode up to brigade commander Ames, he knew it was bad news. The First and Eleventh Corps had run into Lee at a town to the west called Gettysburg. General Reynolds had been killed, and Confederates had pursued the First Corps into town. Union soldiers not taken prisoner were dug in on some hills on the Hanover side of Gettysburg waiting for help. In July, 1863, there were only twenty-four hundred residents in Gettysburg, but the little town was at the center of a network of ten important roads – two leading west to passes in South Mountain, others to Harrisburg, Baltimore, and nearby towns. Some were meandering farm roads rambling over ridges or encircling the bases of scattered granite hills.
Shoving the rest of the homemade bread in his haversack, Chamberlain ordered his tired men to break camp and march. Gettysburg was a dozen miles to the west. In three days – from July 1 to July 3, 1863 – more than one hundred seventy thousand men would shoot, knife, grapple, and kill each other here until pools of blood stood in the small depressions upon the rocks.
Chamberlain himself rode at the head of the column, his well-muscled body erect, a striking man with finely shaped head and classic profile, his dashing moustache swept back from the upper lip. Overhead, the moon rose, and when it was not concealed by the clouds, both soldiers and the Pennsylvania countryside were washed in pale golden light. Along winding, rutted roads, through forests, across fields, and past an occasional farm house, they marched in silence.
And if the minds of these men from Maine sometimes turned homeward, it was to dream of white farm houses and coastal villages, gulls wheeling over blue water and stony shores, fishing boats bobbing on tossing waves, sequestered forests with axes ringing in the cold winter dawn, oxen and stocky farm horses laboring to drag gleaming plow blades through stony earth, and the scent of lilacs in the spring. Spurs constantly led off the road the two colonels had agreed was the most direct. But finally, when they knew they must be getting close to Gettysburg, they came to what appeared to be an important fork. Here the Twentieth Maine halted while the officers debated over which direction to take.
Suddenly the clouds parted, and the moon shone down upon a horseman wearing a bright coat and tricorn hat. Mounted on a magnificent pale horse, he cantered down one of the roads branching off before them. Turning slightly toward them, he waved them to follow.
In his later report Chamberlain described the event.
“At a turn of the road a staff officer, with an air of authority, told each colonel as he came up, ‘General McClellan is in command again, and he’s riding up ahead of us on the road.’
“Men waved their hats, cheered until they were hoarse, and, wild with excitement, followed the figure on horseback. Although weary, they marched with a miraculous enthusiasm believing that their beloved general had returned to lead them into battle.”
Soon an awed murmur began to travel from one man to another, back through the ranks of troops. Now a different name was heard.
“It’s Washington!” exclaimed the men to each other, passing the magic name along. “General Washington himself come to lead us!” And they followed.
The very air was charged with energy and confidence. Although they had no foreknowledge of where they were going or how the land lay, Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine were on their way to one of the most strategic positions in the coming battle.
When Chamberlain’s men arrived at the edge of a wheatfield, they waited, gathered for instructions. Before them the woods were a fearful sight. They seemed to roar as smoke and fiery bursts of light hovered over treetops. Beneath the men’s feet the ground shuddered from bursts of artillery.
Meanwhile Union general Gouverneur K. Warren had ridden to the summit of a hill called Little Round Top. It was a large granite outcropping, and he found it completely undefended. Gazing down at the land around him with the eye of a military engineer and strategist, Warren foresaw its importance. On impulse he sent word to a battery below to fire a shot into the woods. It had its effect. The projectile above the trees caused the ranks of Confederates who were concealed in the forest to look up. When they did, their shifting bayonets caught the rays of the sun and reflected hundreds of flashes of light visible to the Union general.
General Warren thought about the line in Byron’s poem about the Assyrians: “And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea when the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”
He was badly shocked by the enemy’s numbers. So long was the Confederate battle line that it could easily outflank the Union left. It would enable General Longstreet and his men to capture Little Round Top. Warren saw the hill as the key to victory. He immediately sent for help, and Colonel Chamberlain’s men were in the ideal position to respond quickly.
There was no easy approach to this ugly rock-strewn mound of stone called Little Round Top. Colonel Strong Vincent started toward the northwest slope, but he found the rock side too rough to mount. He and Chamberlain stood the base of the hill, conferred, and decided to go up through some woods. Vincent, followed by Chamberlain, began scrambling up the incline. By now the Confederates realized what was happening and were sweeping the lower part of the hill with artillery fire…
First to charge the Twentieth Maine was the 4th Alabama – lean, fierce men crouched among the rocks. The smoke of their gunfire spread across the Twentieth Maine’s entire front. No sooner had the attack begun than a lieutenant spied a mass of Confederates vastly outnumbering the Twentieth Maine advancing toward their flank. It was to be only the first of a multitude of tactical problems they would have.
The great dilemma came in less than two hours. The Twentieth Maine had only sixty rounds per man. They had fired almost every round, and for a short time there was a lull. Colonel Chamberlain stood off alone thinking. His men would be slaughtered here…and so would he.
Meanwhile, across the valley, a Confederate soldier saw the solitary Union officer with a flowing black mustache standing just behind the center of the lines of the Twentieth Maine. From the man’s demeanor, the Confederate knew he must be either the general or an extremely important commander. To steady his rifle the sold rested his rifle upon a large rock. Viewing his human target over the sights, he took aim, but when he started to pull the trigger he felt a strange reluctance to kill the man. He sighted again. This time he was determined to shoot. Once more, to his bewilderment, he was unable to squeeze the trigger.
Now disaster was only minutes away for the Twentieth Maine, and all down the line men’s hoarse, frantic voices shouted, “Ammunition! For God’s sake! Ammunition!”
Hastily they began to search the bodies around them on the ground. They stripped cartridge boxes off the dead and dying and tore them open in their haste. But there was not enough. Men who had fired their last rounds turned desperately to Chamberlain, who had been considering the alternatives. Ordered to hold the ground at all costs, they could not withdraw. There just wasn’t any good option. Then this colonel, who seemed to have a talent for doing the impossible, stepped forward.
Only surprise might work. The men of the Twentieth Maine heard his commanding voice ring out above the sounds of battle.
“Fix Bayonets! Charge!”
Shocked, for a long, tense moment they didn’t move – fishermen, farmers, woodsmen, just ordinary men. They hesitated as men do when facing incredible odds, possibly death. Would they obey?
Suddenly, an imposing figure stood in front of the line, exhorting them to follow. The rays of the afternoon sun set his upraised sword aflame. Once more the Twentieth Maine was seized by the same exultation they had felt following the phantom horseman on the road to Little Round Top Round Top. He was leading them again! Inspired by supernatural bravery they plunged down the hill thrusting their bayonets into the ranks of the amazed Alabamians. Bewildered, the Confederates had no time to fire a decisive volley, and as they fell back their line broke. In spite of courage, weapons, and superior numbers, they fled.
Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine had performed one of the miracles of the war. Seldom in the annals of history has there been a more baffling defeat.
John Pullen, author of The Twentieth Maine, describes it best when he says,
“To find any parallel, it would almost be necessary to go back to Second Kings, 7:3, wherein the four leprous men said to one another, ‘Why sit we here until we die?’ Then they rose up and advanced into the camp of the Syrians, the Lord at the proper moment causing the Syrians to hear ‘a noise of chariots and a noise of horses, even the noise of a great host,’ so that the Syrians all fled for their lives.”
When General Joshua Chamberlain was an old man, an interviewer asked him, “Is there any truth to the story that your men saw the figure of George Washington leading them at Gettysburg?”
Chamberlain gazed thoughtfully out of the window of his home across the Maine fields, and there was a long pause. Then he nodded.
“Yes, that report was circulated through our lines, and I have no doubt that it had a tremendous psychological effect in inspiring the men. Doubtless it was a superstition, but who among us can say that such a thing was impossible? We have not yet sounded or explored the immortal life that lies out beyond the Bar.
“We know not what mystic power may be possessed by those who are now bivouacking with the dead. I only know the effect, but I dare not explain or deny the cause. I do believe that we were enveloped by the powers of the other world that day and who shall say that Washington was lot among the number of those who aided the country that he founded?”
Excerpted from Nancy Roberts, “A Mystic Power at Gettysburg,” Civil War Ghost Stories and Legends (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), 60-70. Note: Nancy is an elegant writer, as witnessed by this piece. She is faithful to the original documents and sensitive to the subject material. She has impressed me with her work, and I’ll be sharing more from her in the future, hopefully.