Holman S. Melcher: Forgotten Hero of Little Round Top

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OldBaldy63

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Holman S. Melcher: Forgotten Hero of Little Round Top

250px-Melcher.jpg


Holman S. Melcher was born on June 30th, 1841 in Topsham, Maine. A teacher at the onset of war Melcher gave up his career and enlisted in the Union Army on August 19th, 1862. He was award the rank of corporal and joined the immortal 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. Over the months that followed he would form friendships with the likes of Adelbert Ames, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Ellis Spear. Melcher and 20th Maine would see limited action during the Maryland Campaign. At Fredericksburg in December of 1862, Melcher and his unit advanced through withering fire in the failed attempt to take the Confederate held heights. Melcher and his comrades endured the harrowing experience of spending the night within range of the Confederate fire. Playing no role in the Chancellorsville campaign, Melcher would again see action at the Battle of Gettysburg.

At Gettysburg in July of 1863, Melcher would perform meritorious service in the defense of Little Round Top. As commander of Company F, the color company, Melcher held the central position between the 20th Maine’s left and right wings. The 20th Maine would repel repeated Confederate assaults upon their lines before counterattacking. According to some accounts of the engagement, it was Melcher rather than Chamberlain who actually launched the fame bayonet charge. Melcher seeing comrades wounded had ordered his men forward to their aid. Though critical to the defense, Melcher’s efforts have been sadly overlooked.

"Lieutenant H.S. Melcher saw the situation and did not hesitate, and for his gallant act deserves as much as any other man the honor of victory on Round Top. With a cheer and a flash of his sword that sent an inspiration along the line, full ten pace to the front he sprang-ten paces-more than half the distance between hostile lines. 'Come on! Come on! Come on boys!' he shouts. The color sergeant and the brave color guard follow, and with one wild yell of anguish wrung from its tortured heart the regiment charged."
(Account of Theodore Gerrish, Portland Advertiser March 13, 1882)

20th Maine.jpg

(20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg, author's photo)

The following year, Melcher would see service in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. He would capture some thirty Confederates in a chaotic action at the Battle of the Wilderness. At the following engagement at Spotsylvania, Melcher would sustain a serious wound. This wound would take him out of action until the fall of 1864. He would return as a brevet major and a staff officer of the 5th Corps, under Gouverneur K. Warren and Charles Griffin. He would hold this staff position until the conflict's end. Following the war, Melcher founded the 20th Maine Regiment Association. He would serve as president of the association for thirty years and also Mayor of Portland Maine. He would die of Bright’s Disease on June 25th, 1905 at the age of 64.

Further Reading:

Melcher, Holman S. With a Flash of His Sword: The Writings of Major Holman S. Melcher 20th Maine Infantry, Edited by William B. Styple. New Jersey: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 1994.
 
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WJC

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Thanks for reminding us of this true hero.
I may have read about him, but- if I did- I had forgotten. So much of the 'glory' has been given Chamberlain over the years that it almost seems like he was there alone on July 2, 1863. There ought to be room for more than one 'hero of Little Round Top'.
 

rpkennedy

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IIRC, Chamberlain wrote to Gerrish to correct his remembrance of how the charge occurred. Personally, I think that Melcher's move to cover the wounded to his front took place at nearly the same time that Chamberlain ordered the advance. Some members of the regiment wrote that they witnessed the colors moving forward and followed along (in other words, they didn't hear the order to charge) but whether this was Melcher's advance of a handful of yards or the regiment's move forward is difficult to determine.

Ryan
 

rpkennedy

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A possible sequence of events is that Lt. Melcher went to Chamberlain and told him about the men who had fallen to his front and that he wanted to advance a few yards to cover the injured. Chamberlain told him to wait a moment as he's getting ready to order an advance and starts to pass the word to his company commanders. Melcher goes back to Company F and, anticipating the order to charge, he reforms his line and uses that as an excuse to advance his men in order to accomplish what he wants. The men see the colors move forward at the same time that the order is being made to charge and so everyone is going.

Ryan
 
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OldBaldy63

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@rpkennedy thank you for the comments! It is difficult to assess what actually happened, your second post is an interesting scenario. William B. Styple gives a possible interpretation that Chamberlain never gave an order to advance and simply called for "bayonets." That it was Melcher impulsive movement that initiated the charge and preempted any move by Chamberlain.
 
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rpkennedy

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@rpkennedy thank you for the comments! It is difficult to assess what actually happened, your second post is an interesting scenario. William B. Styple gives a possible interpretation that Chamberlain never gave an order to advance and simply called for "bayonets." That it was Melcher impulsive movement that initiated the charge and preempted any move by Chamberlain.
Not a problem, my friend. Chamberlain claimed that he ordered the charge. Some men on the left claimed that they never heard the order and moved forward when they saw the colors advancing. In the maelstrom of combat, who knows? I wouldn't put money on any particular scenario because I don't know which is more plausible but they are all possible.

Ryan
 
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