July 3, 1863, morning
Oddly, it is near the climax of Michael Shaara’s famed novel The Killer Angels that he parts from history the most. Chapter 1 of his depiction of the third day of battle at Gettysburg has us see Chamberlain placed near the center of the line, near to the soon-infamous locale of Pickett’s Charge. In fact, Chamberlain and his 20th Maine regiment were never near that location. But poetic license permitted Shaara to make the change. Further historically questionable events pepper the first three chapters of July 3.
The first chapter begins with Chamberlain, watching from a tree the dawn at Little Round Top, which he had so valiantly defended the day before. From this vantage point at the highest point and flank of the Union line, he can see the whole Federal army, all the way to Gettysburg. Below him, his men were dug in behind a stone wall, joined by the 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York regiments. Through the night every half hour, he received reports from the pickets he had posted on the field, pickets he replaced every two hours. There were no rations, so he could not relieve his tired mind with coffee. His foot injury is still bleeding and bugging him. He tries to keep awake and thinks of his wife, whom he loves very much.
Tom, his brother, comes up and offers him a cup of coffee. Chamberlain wonders where it could have come from. They both sit on the tree, Tom glowing that they are above both armies. Chamberlain feels guilty about having put Tom in harm’s way the day before. He misses Buster Kilrain – the old man is like a father to him – but Tom says he’ll be all right.
Tom confesses that he just couldn’t use his bayonet the day before, and was glad to see that many had not killed by the blade either. Chamberlain believes that this is nothing to be ashamed of. Tom admires his brother’s courage, but Chamberlain brushes it off. “Too busy,” he says, to “think about getting hurt” (Shaara, 2004, p. 266). Indeed, heroism is a word that often never enters the mind of the heroic.
Tom and Chamberlain ponder the possibility of the Confederates attacking again, and thunder to the north prompts Chamberlain to send his brother away to check if it is a diversion for another attack on the flank. They have 200 men, a good position, and are just waiting for Colonel Rice of the 44th New York to give them more ammunition. The ground behind and before him is steep and rocky.
He moves down from the tree and tries to work his injured foot to keep it from getting stiff. No attack comes on his side; the thunder must have come from a right flank by the Confederates, he thinks. He oddly feels disappointed – another example of the strange incongruity of reactions a man has in battle.
He walks through his regiment, feeling a special bond with these men who had gone with him through that dream world of war, that indescribable mist of battle. No one wanted to leave his fellow soldier to tend to personal injuries, no one wanted to face the fear of the hospital or to “be away from the men they knew, men they could trust, the Regiment of Home” (Shaara, 2004, p. 268). This feeling is indeed an accurate portrayal of the bond soldiers feel in time of battle. This brotherhood and camaraderie, foreign to the civilian, is built on the most striking fear a man can face and in the most joyous triumph. It is one of the attractions of war for a man, and one of the things most veterans will never forget (Ambrose, 2001, p. 227).
Chamberlain moves on, feeling terrible that he cannot feed his men: Maybe high command forgot about them, or doesn’t know what they had done for the Union. His foot wound breaks open again, and he wonders philosophically about how much you can push a man. His regiment went from 1000 to now 200. He feels a dreading sense of the end, and unlike the optimistic prediction of a Union victory his brother had espoused earlier that morning, he feels an end in sight, a sighing death, each few lives left precious. His regiment will bleed out of existence, he fears.
The northern thunder grows, and Chamberlain has no information on what is happening. A courier from Colonel Rice says Colonel Fisher (of First Brigade from General Sykes’ Third Division) will take Chamberlain’s place, while the 20th Maine moves to what the courier calls the “safest spot on the battlefield” – the center of the line (Shaara, 2004, p. 271). Chamberlain feels sad to leave this spot – Little Round Top, this place he defended, this extreme left of the line. Now he will move to the anonymous mass of the middle. He has a loving affection for the Little Round Top.
There are only a few boldly inaccurate events in this chapter of Shaara’s narrative, yet they each are significant. Firstly, the 20th Maine was never relieved to the center of the Federal line. The brigade of Colonel Fisher’s Pennsylvania Reserves did indeed arrive at Chamberlain’s position on the Little Round Top – not to replace him after the battle as Shaara has us believe, but to aid him in the midst of the battle, sometime after the bayonet order. But Fisher was too late to assist the rout and was placed behind Vincent’s Third Brigade (now commanded by Colonel Rice from the 44th New York). (Trulock, 1992, pp. 149-50; Chamberlain to Herendeen, July 6, OR 27.1:72)
After the battle, Rice asked Colonel Fisher to take the western slope of the Big Round Top for the Union, to ensure the Confederates would not settle there. Yet Fisher delayed and soon Chamberlain and his men became “apprehensive that if the enemy were allowed to strengthen himself in that position, he would have a great advantage in renewing the attack on us at daylight or before” (Chamberlain to Herendeen, July 6, OR 27.1:72). At 9 o’clock that night, Rice told Chamberlain and his men to take the Big Round Top. Chamberlain, sorry to order his weary men to move, asked merely for volunteers, yet all his men joined him up the mountain. Bayonets fixed and still without much ammunition, the 200 men stealthily moved up the slope, careful to keep quiet, lest the fled Confederates and their regiments hear and attack. The tension of the muted, dark, and precipitous advance struck such a fear that brave men of the 20th admitted feeling the scare. (Trulock, 1992, pp. 150-51; Chamberlain to Herendeen, July 6, OR 27.1:72)
At the summit, Chamberlain met fire from Confederates who were retreating before them. Yet his men held back natural reaction to return the fire and kept silent, letting the fire pass over them and keeping the size of their small strength unknown to the enemy. Chamberlain, sensing their precarious and isolated position, sent out pickets for information. He captured scouts from General Evander M. Law’s brigade (from Hood’s division under Longstreet) and was able to determine that 200-300 Confederates under Hood were massed in front of him, having been sent to determine the Federal force before taking Big Round Top themselves. But Chamberlain had captured all of Law’s scouting party, and no word reached back to Law. Chamberlain placed his men among the rocks, so close to the enemy that their conversations could be heard. (Trulock, 1992, pp. 151; Chamberlain to Herendeen, July 6, OR 27.1:72)
Confusion erupted when some of Colonel Fisher’s Pennsylvania Reserves began to arrive to support Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. Their advance, from the right and below, caused Chamberlain to believe it was the enemy approaching; he prepared to open fire. Just in time, contact was made. Yet the Pennsylvania men’s blundering movement in the dark alerted the Confederates and as Chamberlain set about forming the new men to support his right, the enemy began firing. Fisher’s men, uncoordinated by the skirmish and suddenly fearful, fell back from where they came, and Chamberlain heard from them no more. (Trulock, 1992, pp. 154; Chamberlain to Herendeen, July 6, OR 27.1:72)
Yet Chamberlain felt “somewhat insecure in this isolated position” (Chamberlain to Herendeen, July 6, OR 27.1:72) and asked for support from the 83rd Pennsylvania, which came with some of the 44th New York. About midnight, the regiments linked on the left of the 20th Maine, later joined by a few regiments of Fisher’s Pennsylvanians. Chamberlain posted pickets downhill near the enemy, to report to him every half an hour. Yet no attack came. The disappearance of Law’s scouts, combined with the absence of response to the initial Confederate fire, had discouraged the Confederates, Chamberlain believed, from attempting to take Big Round Top that night. (Trulock, 1992, p. 154)
By morning, the Confederate opportunity of taking the hill was lost. At noon on July 3, the 20th Maine was finally relieved and amassed with the other regiments near General Sykes’ headquarters to the right of the Little Round Top. Here, for two hours, Chamberlain and his men experienced the earth-shattering artillery that preceded Pickett’s fateful charge. (Trulock, 1992, p. 154)
In summation, we find that Shaara is clever in mildly adjusting fact for his fiction. In his narrative, he admits Chamberlain sent out pickets in the night and was accompanied by the 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York regiments. Yet he places all this action on the Little Round Top, instead of the Big Round Top, and skips over the transitionary movement and skirmishes from one hill to another. Furthermore, Shaara embellishes Fisher’s place in history, having him replace Chamberlain at Little Round Top, when in fact Fisher’s men had fled from Chamberlain and the Big Round Top and only much later arrived in small sections to help him.
Ambrose, S. (2001). Band of brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster. (Original work published 1992)
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
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.
U.S. War Dept. (1880-1901). War of the rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
(Chamberlain to Herendeen, retrieved from http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/sources/recordView.cfm?Content=043/0625 and www.civilwarhome.com/chamberl.htm)
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.