The 20th Maine and the 137th New York: Similar Stories, Different Historical Fates

HeftyLefty04

Private
Joined
Apr 2, 2019
While the popular narrative of the engagements on July 2nd focuses almost solely on the action at the left end of the Federal fishhook (Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and Little Round Top), the action on the right end of the hook that took place during and after nightfall was undoubtedly just as consequential to the eventual outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg as the more famous "Longstreet vs. the III, V, and VI Corps" saga that unfolded on the left end earlier in the day.

There are numerous reasons why this inequity in historical attention might exist, the most obvious, in my opinion, being the wealth of primary sources left behind by men such as III Corps commander General Daniel Sickles, 20th Maine regimental commander Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Confederate First Corps commander General James Longstreet. These men and others wrote about their experiences extensively, giving posterity a detailed blueprint of what happened on the southern end of the battlefield on July 2nd. On the other hand, we see far fewer primary sources coming from many of the major figures who fought on the right end of the fishhook atop Culp's Hill such as XII Corps commander General Henry Slocum, 137th New York regimental commander Colonel David Ireland, and Confederate Second Corps commander General Dick Ewell. I do believe that the disparity in available primary sources certainly contributed to the respective storylines of The Killer Angels and Gettysburg, which have defined the events at the left end of the Federal line as popular history's summary of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

With that being said, it is amazing just how similar the experiences of the 20th Maine (left flank of the Federal line) and the 137th New York (right flank of the Federal line) were on July 2nd. Early in the evening, the 20th Maine repelled the 15th Alabama and preserved the position of the Federal left via a downhill bayonet charge. Hours later, around 10 PM, the 137th New York preserved the position of the Federal right via two downhill bayonet charges that repelled the 10th and 23rd Virginia regiments (see maps showing the respective positions of the 20th Maine and 137th New York below; both maps sourced from Wikimedia).

As far as my research has brought me, I see incredible similarities in the experiences of the 20th Maine and 137th New York on July 2nd. Both regiments played pivotal, consequential roles at Gettysburg by successfully guarding the two flanks of the Federal line. Yet, the memory of the 20th Maine's gallant actions atop Little Round Top continues to thrive while the memory of the 137th New York's similar actions atop Culp's Hill is distant to nearly everyone who is not a dedicated Civil War buff or scholar.

Any further insights about the historiographical inequity between the Union's left and right flanks on July 2nd or the comparison between the 20th Maine and the 137th New York would be greatly appreciated!

800px-Little_Round_Top2.png
Gettysburg_Day2_Culp's_Hill_Evening.png
 

ErnieMac

Major
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Retired Moderator
Joined
May 3, 2013
Location
Pennsylvania
I've attached an article that details the 137th's experiences at Culp's Hill.
 

ronzzo

Private
Annual Winner
Joined
Mar 7, 2009
Location
Sadsburyville, PA
Another similarity between the two regiments is that the casualty rate was the same at 32.4 %. The big difference is that the 20th fought against two regiments for about an hour and a half, while the 137th fought for around a total of ten hours (three on July 2, ~ seven on July 3) against close to four regiments. That says something about the value of breast works.
 

HeftyLefty04

Private
Joined
Apr 2, 2019
Another similarity between the two regiments is that the casualty rate was the same at 32.4 %. The big difference is that the 20th fought against two regiments for about an hour and a half, while the 137th fought for around a total of ten hours (three on July 2, ~ seven on July 3) against close to four regiments. That says something about the value of breast works.
Absolutely; from everything I have read, the Federal right built much more solid breastworks. Perhaps time was a critical factor there, as the Federal left was fully engaged by late afternoon while the Federal right was only demonstrated against during the majority of the daylight hours.

Nevertheless, the fact that the two regiments had exactly the same casualty rate is astounding when all of the other similarities are taken into consideration. Even more incredible is the reality that, after the reinforcements from the 71st Pennsylvania were called back due to supposedly extreme casualties, the 137th New York repelled the Virginia regiments alone despite being surrounded on three sides.
 

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
There is another similarity in that the initial assault in both cases probably offered the best chance for Confederate success. With time the Federals heavily reinforced both flanks, which made them increasingly harder to overcome.

There are also differences. For one thing, the 137th New York eventually broke and (I believe) was briefly routed (when the three right companies of the 149th also pulled back from the works in my estimation), but they were saved with a little help from their friends (like the Beatles once said), particularly the 6th Wisconsin, with assistance from 14th Brooklyn. Some others were on hand, but provided little or no help: 71st Pennsylvania, 61st Ohio and 157th New York. The Federals were also saved by the onset of darkness by 8 p.m., which at times caused confusion and made it impossible to distinguish friend from foe (and which likely contributed to blurred memories).

Attached draft map is my interpretation of the moment the 137th broke, just when it was nearly pitch dark. As an aside, it was about the same time that the 1st North Carolina approached from the rear and fired into the backs of the 3rd North Carolina, mistaking them for the enemy:
 

Attachments

  • Culp'sHill2000Jul2.pdf
    1.8 MB · Views: 19

Gettysburg Guide #154

Sergeant
Member of the Month
Joined
Dec 30, 2019
While we cannot know what he might have written after the war, Col. David Ireland did not survive the war. He died of disease (I think, dysentery) during the Atlanta Campaign. In my opinion, part of the reason that Ireland is ignored is that it just doesn't make for a good movie.

By way of further praise for Ireland, consider Tom Elmore's post above. If the 137th did start to break, it must have difficult for Ireland to rally his men, especially considering the growing darkness. Yet he did so, and they held.
 

Similar threads

Top