Climax at Gettysburg, Part 2

Continued from Climax at Gettysburg, Part 1

The next assault strikes the left flank. A hole breaks in the line, and Chamberlain pushes his brother to fill it – before sense kicks in that makes him regret his command.2 The assault is fought back once more, but Chamberlain wonders how long it would last. He salutes the brave Rebels, expecting that his line must soon break for them.

Chamberlain uses Ruel Thomas to fill another hole in the line, then gets word from Spear that the left flank is painfully thin and that over 100, or a third of Chamberlain’s force, is down. Officers trickle in, reporting no ammunition among the troops. They demand that they need to pull out. No, Chamberlain thinks, no. Without him, the whole flank falls. He sees as plain as day a Confederate rout if he falls back. Another charge is festering, Kilrain warns. Time is of the essence. So Chamberlain orders a bayonet charge. The officers are taken aback. “We’ll have the advantage of moving downhill,” Chamberlain assures (Shaara, 2004, p. 216). Ellis Spear will lead the outer spoke of Chamberlain’s wheel downhill, and Clarke will hang near the 83rd Pennsylvania.

"Hero of Little Round Top" by Mort Kunstler

Chamberlain calls the charge. The men of his regiment, screaming like wild animals, leap over rocks and logs, dead and wounded, and by sheer momentum send the Confederate assault reeling back. A Confederate surrenders to Chamberlain, an event repeated a hundred times over in the wildly successful offensive.

The retreating Confederates run into Morrill’s men on the left, who easily push them back. In fact, Morrill had ingeniously yelled “Charge!” at the oncoming Confederates, giving the impression of a mighty force, as opposed to his handful of skirmishers (Trulock, 1992, p. 148).

Back to Shaara… Ellis Spear, insanely happy, reports the 20th Maine rolling forward past the 83rd Pennsylvania, chasing the fleeing enemy down the valley under Little Round Top. Morrill reports to Chamberlain at last, having pushed back the last fleeing Confederates by a stone wall quite a distance from Chamberlain’s position. Tom comes up with a prisoner in tow, and when asked for water by the sad Confederate, Chamberlain offers his own canteen – another sign of the colonel’s benevolence.

Chamberlain catches up with Kilrain, who has been shot twice. Chamberlain feels embarrassed by his great victory, seeing old Kilrain as a proud father who knows his son had done something grand. As Chamberlain parts to get something medicinal, Kilrain gratefully admits that he has never served under a better man.

Chamberlain walks along his line. The dead are everywhere and blood-spattered splinters of wood carpet the earth. The sadness of the victory greets him: A dying boy requests promotion; Chamberlain, compassionate, grants it. An injured man is lost to his senses. A crying man despairs that he must tell a mother that both of her sons are dead. In contrast, Spear comes up next offering Chamberlain a flask of celebratory liquor.

(It should be noted that the dying boy who requested promotion was Private George Washington Buck, and Chamberlain discovered him, not after the battle, but in the midst of it, during one of the several lulls in the tide of Confederates. Earlier, Buck was unjustly demoted by a bullish quartermaster. When Chamberlain bent down to comfort him in his death throes, Buck’s face lit up, and he asked that Chamberlain tell his mother that he did not die a coward. “Thinking of a way to right the wrong done Buck and to recognize his bravery, Chamberlain immediately promoted him again to sergeant for his ‘noble courage on the field of Gettysburg.’ The boy, only twenty-one, died knowing he had been exonerated, and his honor restored” [Trulock, 1992, p. 146].)

Next in Shaara’s narrative, we find Tom coming up with some officers – Captain Woodward of the 83rd, Colonel Rice of 44th New York – and reports with a thrill that they had just fought back four Confederate regiments, or about 2000 men, and had taken 500 prisoners. Chamberlain asks what are his mens’ casualties. Chamberlain is thinking about his men, even in this victory.

Rice is aglow with pride, having seen the unprecedented charge from up on the hill. A private whispers to Chamberlain that he’s been guarding prisoners with an empty gun. Chamberlain asks for ammunition. Rice quizzes Chamberlain on his past and the latter finally realizes what he had done out of sheer necessity might be seen as something quite unusual.

"Chamberlain's Charge" by Mort Kunstler

Rice says General Warren would like Big Round Top occupied by Chamberlain’s men. Chamberlain says his men are tired and will take a while, and maybe he could have some ammunition first? The history of this event is actually much more interesting than Shaara lets on. Upon Rice’s request, Chamberlain, in his words, “had not the heart to order the poor fellows up” (qtd. in Trulock, 1992, p. 151). He went by himself with the color guard, calling for volunteers to follow if they so felt inclined. But here we see the inspirational leadership of Chamberlain: Every man, though battered and tired, joined him up to the Big Round Top, despite not knowing what if any confederate force might meet them there. (Trulock, 1992, pp. 150-52)

Tom Chamberlain returns after Rice parts returns with the casualty figures: 40-50 dead, 90 wounded. About 130 casualties in all: half the regiment. At this point, Chamberlain’s tired soberness is being pierced by occasions of elation, and he asks Rice what is the name of the hill he just defended. “Little Round Top” is the answer. He says goodbye to Kilrain and tells himself to relish this moment: “Because you feel as good as a man can feel” (Shaara, 2004, p. 225).

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (photo by Mathew Brady)

Captain Tom Chamberlain, Bangor Public Library

Largely because of this battle, Chamberlain is regarded by many an American hero and a worthy officer. He certainly shows proof for his praise. His commands are clear and direct (note his command to Morrill), his ingenuity, a well-timed masterpiece (the bayonet charge), and the trust between himself and his men, pure and vital (refusing the line). He cared for his men, expressed by his walking the line before the battle to encourage them, his awareness of the mens’ condition. Before the great battle began, several men who were “absent sick” took up the musket and joined Chamberlain (Trulock, 1992, p. 133), no doubt indicative of the inspirational leadership Chamberlain displayed in this hour of need. The greatness with which he led is due to the source from which he himself drew his inspiration, and through him, this cause infused life into his leadership and his men: said Chamberlain,

The inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests wide and far, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone. The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality; of being part of a personality that reaches we know not where, in space and in time, greatens the heart to the limits of the soul’s ideal. (qtd. in Trulock, 1992, pp. 154-55)

:: ::

Historically things were slightly different from Shaara’s version. Stephen Sears’ tremendously researched epic Gettysburg names a few notable differences: The bayonet charge, for example, appears to have been ordered apart from Ellis Spear’s presence. Rather, Lieutenant Melcher of F Company (in the center of Chamberlain’s line) heard the order first when he came up to Chamberlain for permission to move forward slightly to collect the wounded. Melcher returned to his company and started forward. Spear had yet to receive the order, yet he and his men, seeing the movement to the right, took the initiative and joined the surprise attack.

Chamberlain, in encountering the Confederate he was to capture, was actually shot at, but the defiant lieutenant’s bullet missed badly and Chamberlain “knocked the pistol away with his sword and forced the man’s surrender” with a prick of his weapon at the Confederate’s neck (Sears, 2003, p. 296; Trulock, 1992, p. 149).

Confederate Colonel Oates, whose regiments it was that sparred with Chamberlain on the hill, later admitted that “Had I succeeded in capturing Little Round Top isolated as I was I could not have held it ten minutes” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 297). His meaning is found in the fact that not only Chamberlain’s regiment saved the day, but the whole of the gallant and spirited defense by Vincent’s brigade – plus the timely arrivals of Charles Hazlett’s artillery and Paddy O’Rorke’s 140th New York (of Stephen Weed’s Fifth Corps) to the right flank of Colonel Vincent’s Little Round Top defense. The former offered timely artillery support from the north of the hill, and the latter kept the Confederates from very nearly breaking Vincent’s right flank.

Yet the heroics of that day, and the action of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, cannot be denied. His decisions were innovative, his leadership inspiring, and his triumph, of the greatest importance. Said one man who observed his noble officer before the battle:

Up and down the line, with a last word of encouragement or caution, walks the quiet man, whose calm exterior concealed the fire of the warrior and heart of steel, whose careful dispositions and ready resource, whose unswerving courage and audacious nerve in the last desperate crisis, are to crown himself and his faithful soldiers with … fadeless laurels. (qtd. Trulock, 1992, p. 142)

Literary footnotes

1. Shaara thematically uses the word “messy” often in the span of paragraphs describing the following three observations:

  • If the Rebels captured Cemetery Ridge, Chamberlain’s fight could be “messy indeed.”
  • Morrill’s mustache is a “messy” reverse U.
  • Morrill’s being positioned to the left of the 20th Maine is a sadly “messy detail”

2. Shaara does a lovely job of pacing here, spacing Chamberlain’s sending Tom off and the resolution of that regretful order with an unrelated scene of Chamberlain shooting a Confederate officer. He makes us readers wait a bit to see if Tom is all right.


Karle, T. (1998, Sept. 23). The Keystone of Little Round Top. Civil War Times, Aug. 1998. Retrieved from

Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)

Sears, S.W. (2003). Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Trulock, A.R. (1992). In the hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina.

The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.

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