The 20th Maine, led by a college professor, took one of the boldest, most famous actions in the history of warfare at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The regiment had run out of ammunition at Little Round Top when it charged the Confederates with bayonets. The bayonet charge is credited with turning the tide of battle and saving the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.
Their bravery inspired the Rev. Theodore Gerrish, in a reminiscence of the battle, to pen the words:
Stand firm ye boys from Maine, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibility for freedom and justice, for God and humanity as are now placed upon you.
The 20th Maine
During the desperate fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Army Col. Strong Vincent responded to the urgent news that Little Round Top was undefended. That gave the Confederate Army a chance to break through and overrun the Army of the Potomac. Strong then moved his brigade into position 15 minutes before the rebels tried to take the hill. Defending the hill were the 20th Maine, the 83rd Pennsylvania, the 44th New York and the 16th Michigan. Strong told Chamberlain to ‘hold this ground at all costs.’
At 4 pm on July 2, 1863, the 20th Maine began to hold off three fierce charges by the 15th Alabama and other Confederate regiments with about 650 men. Among galling fire, the 20th Maine moved forward and back like a wave during the attacks and counterattacks. Sometimes their own dead and dying lay within the enemy lines.
At one point the line began to break, but 25-year-old Color Sgt. Andrew J. Tozier stood and held the regiment’s flag as bullets flew past his head. The line behind him then held. His Medal of Honor citation reads,
At the crisis of the engagement this soldier, a color bearer, stood alone in an advanced position, the regiment having been borne back, and defended his colors with musket and ammunition picked up at his feet.
By 7 pm, the regiment was running low on ammunition. Joshua Chamberlain had two choices: Hold the hill, which meant certain destruction of the Maine 20th, or retreat, which meant the Confederates would overrun and destroy the Army of the Potomac.
Exactly what happened has been lost in the smoke and fog of war. What is clear is that a third course was chosen. On the brink of extinction, the men fixed their bayonets and charged down the hill. Lt. Holman Melcher sprang ahead brandishing his sword, shouting ‘come on.’
The shocked rebels broke and ran. The 20th Maine captured about 100 of them.
The 20th Maine
Confederate Col. William C. Oates, who commanded the 15th Alabama, paid tribute to the brave soldiers of the 20th Maine. “There was no better regiment in the Confederate Army than the 15th Alabama, and if it failed to carry any point against which it was thrown, no other single regiment need try it,” he wrote.
“It fought hard and persistently. The other regiments of the brigade did their duty at Gettysburg, but the 15th struck the hardest knot. There never were harder fighters than the 20th Maine and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistence and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top, and the Army of the Potomac, from defeat. Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.”
The Rest of the Story
The 20th Maine reunited at Gettysburg in October 1889 and posed for the picture below. They gathered for the dedication of the regiment’s monuments on Little and Big Round Tops.
Thanks to Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign. This story was updated in 2023. Image of Little Roundtop By Alana Iesu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21393781.