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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