On June 3, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee began the Army of Northern Virginia’s second invasion of the North. Lee’s main objective was to move across the Potomac River and try to separate the Union forces from Washington.
When the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, belatedly became aware of the Confederates’ movement, he began to force-march his army north, trying to keep Lee to the west and screen Washington from the Rebel troops.
On June 28, as the bulk of the Federal troops enjoyed a brief respite near Frederick, Md., Meade replaced Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Lacking adequate intelligence from his scouting forces, Lee directed his army to gather at Gettysburg. The general did not want to fight at Gettysburg, but alert Union horsemen had reached the area — a fact that would put a wrinkle in Lee’s plans.
On July 1, Major General Henry Heth headed toward Gettysburg with four brigades of infantry to drive off the reported Union troopers and secure the town.
To Heth’s surprise, waiting for him was Union Brigadier General John Buford, who had dismounted and deployed his cavalry on McPherson’s Ridge, west of Gettysburg. Buford’s forces fired first, temporarily halting Heth’s force and starting the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Confederates managed to exploit weaknesses in the Federals’ deployment, and their attacks caused heavy losses to the Union troops, who were forced to retreat. Confederate General Ewell’s failure to carry out his orders and attack Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1 wasted a golden opportunity for a quick, decisive victory. The Union had lost 4,000 men by that time — and the town of Gettysburg itself — but Meade quickly moved reinforcing divisions onto the high ground south of Gettysburg. The two armies spent a restless night.
The Union defensive line on Cemetery Ridge resembled an inverted fishhook, extending from Culp’s Hill on the north, down Cemetery Ridge and southward toward Big and Little Round Tops. Although the 650-foot-high Little Round Top was overshadowed by its larger neighbor, its position was more important because much of the hill was cleared of trees and it could better accommodate troops. Strategically, Little Round Top held the key to the developing battle. If the Southern troops could take and hold the hill, they could theoretically roll up the entire Union line.
Robert E. Lee, with his eerie sense of a battlefield, was hastily assembling a force to attack the Union left on the morning of July 2nd. Unfortunately for the South, it took him the greater part of the day to get his men ready to strike.
Meade, realizing the danger of not holding the high ground on his left flank, sent his chief of engineers, Brig. Gen. Warren, to assess the situation. To his utter chagrin, Warren found Little Round Top completely undefended. He hastily sent messengers to Meade and Sickles, requesting immediate assistance. Colonel Strong Vincent, who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division of the V Corps, received word from a harried courier about the threat to Little Round Top and led his men to the hill at the double-quick. Vincent’s brigade included the 358-man 20th Maine under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
The afternoon of July 2nd, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, found the Twentieth Maine on the extreme left of the Union line. Colonel Vincent said to Chamberlain: “You cannot withdraw under any conditions. If you go, the line is flanked. If you go, they’ll go right up the hilltop and take us in the rear. You must defend this place to the last.”
Chamberlain thought of that statement as he toured his Regiment’s preparations. Hold to the last. To the last what? Last man? Last shell? Last foot of ground?
Then he saw the Rebels. Gray-green-yellow uniforms, rolling up in a mass.
They seemed to be rising out of the ground. Suddenly he heard the terrible scream – the infamous Rebel yell. The wave of Rebels hit the stone wall and stalled.
This gave Chamberlain the opportunity to move towards the right side of his line. He saw that the casualties were significant. He knew he could not remain for long Because the emptiness to his left was a vacuum drawing him back that way.
The second attack broke before he could get back to the left side of his line. The attack came all down the line, a full, wild, leaping charge. This time three Rebels came over the low stone wall. It took some hand-to-hand fighting to take care of the intruders but the second attack was beaten back.
As Chamberlain moved to a set of boulders to get a better view of the battlefield, he felt an explosion under his right foot. The foot hurt and he felt the blood but did not see a hole in the boot. Thank God!
Chamberlain clambered up on a high boulder. He knew that he gave the Rebels a big target but he needed to see what was coming. From rock to rock, from tree to tree, the third attack was coming. It was not as wild as the first two but the masses of men and flags were coming. To his alarm, he saw that many were moving out to encircle his left. He yelled: “They are going to turn us!”
Bam! He was knocked clean off the rock. The blow in his side felt like a lightning bolt. Hands pulled him up. He looked down. Blood? No. But the hip, oh the hip hurt. He steadied his mind. He remembered: “They are flanking us!”
He yelled to his aide: “Get all of the company commanders.” What was the phrase in the manual? Oh yes, refuse the line.
The commanders were arriving. Chamberlain for the first time, raised his voice: “We’re about to be flanked. Now here’s what we do. Keep up a good hot masking fire. That will force the Rebels to keep their heads down. Keeping up the fire, I want to hold very tightly to the 83rd on our right. Men will sidestep to the left, thinning out to twice the present distance. See that boulder on the far left? When we reach that point we’ll refuse the line and form a new line at right angles. That boulder will be the salient. Any questions?”
The third attack struck the angle at the boulder and lapped around it only to run into the new line. The charge collapsed again. Chamberlain looked around. Everywhere were bodies, smoke, and the sound of guns firing.
The fourth assault came against both flanks and at the center all at once.
Chamberlain dizzy in the smoke, began to lose track of events. The assault so pressed the Twentieth Maine that there was only a few yards between the line on the right and on the left.
As the assault again failed, Chamberlain asked what the state of ammunition was. “We can’t get any ammunition, sir.” Chamberlain ordered: “Send out the word to take ammunition from the wounded. Make every round count.”
He heard the fifth assault coming. Up the rocks, clawing through the bushes, through the shattered trees – it struck the left flank. Men fell all around him. Chamberlain himself had to shoot two Rebels at point blank range.
Chamberlain thought: “They can’t keep coming. We can’t keep stopping them.” He limped along the line. There were signs of exhaustion everywhere. He thought: “We cannot hold.”
He checked with two of his aides. One said: “We’ve lost a third of the men, Colonel. The left is too thin.” Chamberlain asked: “How’s the ammunition?”
The other aide answered: “Some of the boys have nothing at all. Should we pull out?” Chamberlain said: “We can’t. If we don’t hold, they go right on by and over the hill and whole flank of the army caves in.”
“Colonel, they’re coming again.” Chamberlain marveled. We can’t go back. We can’t stay where we are. The Rebels coming up the hill for the sixth time stopped to volley. The Union weakly returned the fire.
An idea formed in Chamberlain’s mind. “The Rebels have got to be tired. They’ve got to be close to the end. We’ll have the advantage of moving downhill.”
Chamberlain said: “Fix bayonets! I want a right wheel forward of the whole Regiment.”
One of the lieutenants said: “Sir, excuse me, but what’s a right wheel forward?” One of the other lieutenants answered: “He means charge.”
Chamberlain added: “Not quite. We charge, swinging down to the right. We straighten out our line. The right end holds to the 83rd and we swing like a door sweeping them down the hill. Let’s go.”
The Rebels were just coming into plain view, moving and firing. Chamberlain raised his saber, let loose the shout that was the greatest sound he could make: “Fix bayonets! Charge!”
He leaped down from the boulder, still screaming, and all around him his men were roaring animal screams. The whole Regiment arose and poured over the wall and charged down the hill.
Chamberlain saw gray men stop, freeze, crouch, and then quickly turn. He could not believe it. The Rebels were turning and running. He had never seen them run. The Regiment was driving the line and men in gray were moving down the hill. The Regiment swung in front of the 83rd on the right but kept chasing the Rebels down the long valley between the hills. Rebels had stopped everywhere and were surrendering. Up the hill, the soldiers of the 83rd were waving and cheering.
Chamberlain said to his aide: “Go on and stop the boys. They’ve gone far enough.” The aide said: “Yes, sir. But they are on their way to Richmond.”
“Not today,” Chamberlain said. “They’ve done enough today.”
Part Four Lessons
There is one additional lesson that we can take from the Battle of Little Round Top and apply them to ourselves:
8. Be willing to be audacious and do the unexpected.
Dare to be different! That’s what made Churchill, Reagan, and Lincoln tower above the crowd. Leaders don’t play it safe. Leaders don’t always follow the script. They do the unexpected. They pull surprises. They catch their audience unawares.
What did Reagan do when he met Premier Gorbachev at Berlin for the 1986 conference? Did he observe the usual niceties of negotiation? Did he follow the traditional dictates of diplomacy? Was his speech type bureaucratese? No, he was blunt: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” Reagan knew that what the situation called for was not some bland cant of banalities but words that would move and shape history.
An unconditional display of courage can send an unusually strong message. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, General McArthur flew to Japan, landing at Narita Airport, which is close to thirty miles from the center of the metropolis. An armored car had been selected as his conveyance into the city. MacArthur chose instead an open limousine. Staff members who were traveling with him inspected their rifles and pistols, but MacArthur said: “No firearms.”
Then the slow drive into Tokyo commenced. MacArthur stood in the back of the open car, arms raised high as he passed by hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops lining the road, all standing at attention. The Japanese were awed by this display of courage. MacArthur dared to be different.
Chamberlain’s charge – a nearly defeated, inferior foe against a nearly victorious, superior foe – was bold. It was audacious. It was different. Learn from Chamberlain. Be bold. Act audaciously. Dare to be different. Do the unexpected.