Chamberlain Was Chamberlain honest about Little Round Top in his memoir?

Rusk County Avengers

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by Mort Kunstler



In honor of this legendary man's birthday, I think a good thread evaluating an action he is most famous for, and the discontent among the 20th Maine with his version of events is in order. Now some may look at this and say, "A thread trying to discover if he was a liar or not on his birthday is real classy." or with some folks "What makes you think he was lying?" but this isn't to bash him, or try to destroy his incredible legacy, its just to see if his version of events were skewed. Plus being the Trans-Mississippi nut I am, that doesn't really delve into such things back east, I'm curious to hear what other folks more in the know than myself will say. I think the best way to go about dissecting this is to take many factors into consideration, and compare them with other accounts:

The beginning of the fight in Chamberlain's reports-of which he wrote several in days after the fight-"The artillery was replaced by a vigorous infantry assault upon the center of our brigade to my right, but soon involved the right of my regiment and gradually extended along my entire front. The action was quite sharp and at close quarters. In the midst of this, an officer from my center informed me that some important movement of the enemy was going on in his front. beyond that of the line with which we were engaged."

As the beginning of the battle is not in question, lets skip on over to the end.

Chamberlain had "sent several messengers to the rear for ammunition, and also for reinforcements" and according to Chamberlain "One-half of my left wing had fallen and a third of my regiment lay just behind us, dead or badly wounded" and in the midst of all this is when Chamberlain said one word was enough: "BAYONNETS!!!" writing in one his multiple official reports "The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line...we made an extended right wheel, before which the enemy's second line broke...until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of the entire brigade."

Its at that point things get convoluted, Captain A.M. Judson of the 83rd Pennsylvania confirmed the 20th Maine swung like a pivot and charged down the valley, but various memoirs of soldier in the 20th Maine make no mention of a right wheel, though Co. B in the woods away from the main body of the regiment did a right wheel joining the rest of the regiment. Chamberlain himself is inconsistent with his multiple official reports, and never mentions other officers, just himself, and he was always in complete control according to him, but the captain of Co. G, soon to be Major Ellis Spear was seemingly vehement in disagreeing with Chamberlain's version of the fight, he said:

Chamberlain was on the right...I went quickly over to him and advised him of the situation, suggesting that it seemed best to bend back two companies to meet the threat on the flank. He assented... I'm aware of a report that we were out of ammunition. That was not the case on the left. It has also been reported that the charge was ordered, because of that, but of this I have no knowledge. I received no such orders. Sergeant Thomas of Co. I, was at the time acting as a sort of messenger for the Colonel and has subsequently told me he knew of no such orders." He continued "Suddenly, on the right I heard the shout of "advance" "forward" I saw the line begin to move, I had received no orders to charge and there was no time to deliberate on the result. The whole line, as far as I could see it, was moving and shouting, or appeared to be and if any were going forward, all must and I shouted "forward" and down the slope we plunged, and in not a very orderly line, but with a great deal of momentum and no small bit of noise"

Now lets recap, Chamberlain paints a picture of him in complete control, giving the order to fix bayonets, and Major Spear, knew nothing of his version events, never mentioned hearing the order to fix bayonets or charge and just reacted to what he saw going on. (well that fights depiction in the movie "Gettysburg" is now flying out the window with a vengeance) Plus looking around more, Captain Howard Prince in his history of the 20th Maine sided with Spear to some extent, but still makes mention of Chamberlain saying "forward" and says very few actually heard the order, but it spread along the lines. So a third version of events comes to play.

I'm curious about this, what are everyone else's thoughts.
(Also a disclaimer, as said previously I'm not a big Gettysburg student, I'm mainly aware of this from reading an article about this in an article when I was a kid about what really happened at Little Round Top in a August 2005 "Civil War Times" and luckily I still had the copy for reference, which I really relied on it for source material.)
 
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O' Be Joyful

Sergeant Major
This should be interesting as Chamberlain and Spear had a bit of a feud in their later years over the "proper" account of what actually happened. Unfortunately @suzenatale has not posted for almost 2 years and would be of great help, but here is one of her posts,

https://civilwartalk.com/threads/a-...mberlain-and-ellis-spear.133577/#post-1519201

as well as the link she referred to at History.Net, concerning their feud over the facts of the charge.

A Broken Bond? The Little Round Top Feud Between Joshua Chamberlain and Ellis Spear







 

redbob

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I believe that Chamberlin has been elevated to a higher status in the modern times than in his era by TV, paintings and movies and to some he's a hero and others he's not. No doubt he used whatever events occurred that day to further his career and ambitions and he can't be faulted for that because by any measure he was a good officer. Whatever occurred that day took place in the fog of war and probably the complete and unvarnished truth will never be known and I doubt that if you had asked any two people (North or South) what actually occurred that afternoon so long ago on that hill that they probably couldn't/wouldn't have agreed. To sum it up, whatever he is to you; he will continue to be that and nothing that is written or said will probably ever change that.:D
 

Irishtom29

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I'd like to see Kunstler do one of his Men's Action "weasels ripped my flesh" paintings with Chamberlain as the character.
 
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Rusk County Avengers

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I believe that Chamberlin has been elevated to a higher status in the modern times than in his era by TV, paintings and movies and to some he's a hero and others he's not. No doubt he used whatever events occurred that day to further his career and ambitions and he can't be faulted for that because by any measure he was a good officer. Whatever occurred that day took place in the fog of war and probably the complete and unvarnished truth will never be known and I doubt that if you had asked any two people (North or South) what actually occurred that afternoon so long ago on that hill that they probably couldn't/wouldn't have agreed. To sum it up, whatever he is to you; he will continue to be that and nothing that is written or said will probably ever change that.:D

Wise words.

To be honest the whole thing reminds me a lot of a family story my maternal grandfather told me over and over when I was growing up. His father had been a Private in Company I of the 1st Texas Infantry during the Spanish-American War, and he told me many stories his father had told him of that war. The main one, was of San Juan Hill, according to my G-Grandfather, his regiment was on the opposite side of San Juan Hill and was attacking the Spanish, while the entire US Army was getting its teeth kicked in by the Spanish. Supposedly all of Roosevelt's Rough Riders were black, and being pushed back, when Roosevelt told the black bugler to blow retreat in disobedience of orders, but the bugler blew charge instead, to which the Rough Riders and their horses responded and charged winning the battle with Roosevelt changing the story and making himself to be a wonderful military genius that saved the day.

When I was a kid I loved that story, and as a teenager I read up on the Spanish-American War and learned a lot of things. First off the Rough Riders were not a black regiment, second they had no horses, and the biggest kicker, that the 1st Texas wasn't even at San Juan Hill! They missed all the battles and spent their time in Cuba as part of the occupation force. I expect my G-Granddad told that story with him and his regiment there just to inspire his only son, which my Grandad believed that story till the day he died. But who knows, it may have been a version of events he heard from soldiers who were at San Juan Hill.

This story of Chamberlain at Little Round Top always brings that memory of my G-Grandfather in Cuba to mind.
 

Rusk County Avengers

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It would not be a surprise to learn that most memoirs are self serving and intended to put the writer of the memoir in the most favorable light. That's understandable and its why memoirs must be read with a dose of skepticism.

Actually I think most memoirs are a genuine effort to just tell the authors side of the story, with no desire to be a hero. Its the memoirs of people who were out to get catch glory that one has to watch out for.

After reading hundreds of memoirs, I've found most are trustworthy, except for ones written by officers, or their "better half" who were out to get glory. Its usually easy to get a good read on the author's intention by the end of the first chapter and know whether the rest of the book will be worth reading.
 

Ole Miss

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Regardless of whether the story related by Chamberlain is correct or not he had the writing skills necessary to present his view as the truth. The man was a genuine hero who fought with his men in the front lines and was in charge when the victory was won. The man was a real artist with the written word!
Regards
David
 

privateflemming

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I find this fascinating although I know very little about it other than from the famous movie and book.

Just going off the quotes in the OP though, it sounds like both Chamberlain and Spear agree that the 20th Maine's charged started on the right flank after there had been reports of ammunition running out. Maybe it was more chaotic uncontrolled than Chamberlain later made it sound (although I don't know since I haven't read what he wrote) but I wouldn't say that makes him some sort of Machiavellian liar or something. If they ran out of ammunition and Chamberlain then gave the order to charge and fix bayonets which started a chain reaction down the line, I feel like it's pretty nitpicky to say that's even a significant distortion from what is portrayed in the movie Gettysburg.
 

Rusk County Avengers

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but I wouldn't say that makes him some sort of Machiavellian liar or something

I don't know, according to Spear and several others officers, he was only wounded once at Petersburg, and his other supposed five wounds, were either near misses that only tore his clothing, or never happened at all.

That alone points to a lying glory hunter. But hey I guess what they say is true, the pen is mightier than the sword.
 

cake1979

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Actually I think most memoirs are a genuine effort to just tell the authors side of the story, with no desire to be a hero. Its the memoirs of people who were out to get catch glory that one has to watch out for.
Or to make money for the family and dig the knife in a little deeper. See Grant, U.S.........

Surely Chamberlain embellished things a little bit. He was a gifted writer and a great storyteller. Did the 20th charge like madmen down that hill and shatter the Confederate assault? Well, someone stopped that assault, because Oates didn’t take the hill. Some reports say that Chamberlain actually hesitated a little, but he most likely ordered the charge, and it worked. Many men have claimed more for lesser deeds (John Schofield won the Medal of Honor). If anyone in the 20th strove to point out the inaccuracies, it could be sour grapes just as much as it could be a yearning to get the truth out.

Gettysburg offers more chances for over-analysis and re-analysis and death-by-analysis because it’s the most famous battle of the war. Was Chamberlain really a liar? Probably a little bit. Was he the only Civil War commander to take credit for another’s deeds (maybe) or embellish his own (definitely)? Not by a long shot. If only those rocks could talk.
 

Belfoured

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I don't know, according to Spear and several others officers, he was only wounded once at Petersburg, and his other supposed five wounds, were either near misses that only tore his clothing, or never happened at all.

That alone points to a lying glory hunter. But hey I guess what they say is true, the pen is mightier than the sword.
That might be a little strong but i think Spear, Melcher, et al. would take issue with Chamberlain's account. it's been elevated to myth status by Shaara, Ken Burns, and the movie. Chamberlain also "conspired" with another post-war fiction writer, John B. Gordon (another Burns "fave"), to create a nice story about the April 12, 1865 surrender ceremony which Marvel has pretty much debunked.
 
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Here is what General Sherman said about memoirs and such.

In this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witness who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested. I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs, and we all know that no three honest witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on all the details. How much more likely will be the difference in a great battle covering a vast space of broken ground, when each division, brigade, regiment, and even company, naturally and honestly believes that it was the focus of the whole affair! Each of them won the battle. None ever lost. That was the fate of the old man who unhappily commanded.

General Chamberlain wrote what he wrote and others wrote what they wrote. They are all equal now.
 

Belfoured

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Here is what General Sherman said about memoirs and such.

In this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witness who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested. I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs, and we all know that no three honest witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on all the details. How much more likely will be the difference in a great battle covering a vast space of broken ground, when each division, brigade, regiment, and even company, naturally and honestly believes that it was the focus of the whole affair! Each of them won the battle. None ever lost. That was the fate of the old man who unhappily commanded.

General Chamberlain wrote what he wrote and others wrote what they wrote. They are all equal now.
Sure, but I don't think that means that we shouldn't figure out what actually happened - if we can. That's what a good historian does. And we know the OR, memoirs, and reminiscences are full of errors - some innocent enough and some more calculated. Somebody once described the writing of memoirs as a process of "fading memory and improving vision".
 

Belfoured

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I like that. Great description of why memoirs can be so cavalier with the details.
It's always interesting to see statistics on desertion, courts-martial, etc and then compare those to accounts in memoirs and reminiscences. Not even close - plus there were very, very few instances of cowardice in battle if you believe the post-war writing. Natural enough but also a good reason to read those with a large dose of salt. And some writers were more "creative" than others. Reading the entries in "Battles and Leaders" makes you wonder if some guys were at the same battle.
 

JKT

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Yes Chamberlain was the real deal and ..”to the victor remains the spoils”. I’ve always felt sympathy for the 15th Alabama’s commander Col. Wm C. Oates, who lost his younger brother John that day & was in mournful regret thereafter. Like Longstreet, he moved on serving the country in the Spanish American war & the nationally in getting the reinterment of those left at Gettysburg. He was dismissed by the Gettysburg National Park when he tried to get a monument to the 15th on the slope of Little Round Top. It was rumored that despite all the turn of the century veterans reconciliation, Joshua, wouldn’t go for that...but then I’m originally from Alabama.
 
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