We gather today to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's historic address in part because his words were eloquent: simple, heartfelt, appropriate to the time, and yet timeless. But an even more important reason we are here is because of what Lincoln's words were about: the brave men, living and dead, who here fought so valiantly to save our nation.
There are many stories that we might tell here today to continue the tradition that our sixteenth President began of honoring those who struggled on this great battlefield. I'd like to take up just one of those stories, one that makes a point so important to remember; and that is the power of the brave and determined individual to shape the destiny of this nation.
Joshua Chamberlain, the man I want to talk about today, was actually a pretty unlikely warrior. When the Civil War broke out he was a college professor teaching rhetoric, oratory, and modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine.
As those of you here know well, the Civil War did not start auspiciously for the Union. People in the North had expected there would be a quick victory, but the First Battle of Bull Run put an end to that thinking. The Northern Army fled the battlefield at Manassas, departing in such a panic that a litter of canteens, muskets, and cartridge boxes were left behind. Desperate and mud-covered, Northern troops fell back on Washington, and for months Union generals seemed to be in shock, unable to find the resolve to march against the enemy again.
By the spring of 1862, things were somewhat better. There were victories in the West and the Army of the Potomac moved once more into Confederate territory, but so timid was its commander, General George B. McClellan that he ordered the forces under his command to retreat even after they had been victorious.
In July 1862, Lincoln put out a call to the states for 300,000 men to serve in the Federal Army, and one of those answering was Joshua Chamberlain. He sent a letter to Maine's governor, "I fear this war, so costly of blood and treasure," he wrote, "will not cease until the men of the north are willing to leave good positions and sacrifice the dearest personal interests to rescue our country from desolation." He was quite willing to admit that he was not deeply knowledgeable about military matters, but, he wrote the governor, "What I do not know in that line, I know how to learn."
Neither his wife nor his college was enthusiastic about his going to war, but Chamberlain secured a commission, and on August 8, 1862, became a lieutenant colonel in Maine's Twentieth Infantry Regiment. Moving by train and steamer, Chamberlain and the other men of the Twentieth arrived in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., at an inauspicious time: Union forces had suffered a second defeat at Bull Run and the city was reeling. Robert E. Lee began moving north, and Union troops, including the Twentieth Maine, followed in pursuit. The armies met at Antietam, where the Union halted Lee's advance and inflicted terrible losses on his army but did not destroy it. Three months later, in fact, the rebels defeated Union forces at Fredericksburg. "I am sick and tired of disaster," a Union soldier wrote to his mother. And then came another one, the defeat of the Union at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
The stage was now set for a battle that could decide the outcome of the war. Lee invaded the North for the second time, this time moving into Pennsylvania. The Federal army followed, its leaders no doubt concerned that another victory for the Confederacy, particularly in the North, might cause the Union war effort to collapse. Lee certainly had that hope, even that expectation. He said to one of his men, "If God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence."
Joshua Chamberlain was now in command of the Twentieth Maine, and although he could not have foreseen what July 2, 1863 held in store, he had prepared both himself and those he commanded for momentous events. He himself had become a student of the art of war, reading basic manuals as well as classical works. "I study, I tell you," he wrote to his wife Fannie, ". . . I am bound to understand every thing." Particularly after Antietam, he and Adelbert Ames, who preceded him as colonel of the Twentieth Maine, required daily drills of their citizen soldiers--men who had recently been fishermen and farmers and shopkeepers. "Hour by weary hour," writes one Chamberlain biographer, "four hours a day and more, the commands rang out in the Twentieth's camp." After Fredericksburg, Chamberlain called upon West Pointers in the Fifth Corps to conduct a series of seminars so that he and other officers could better understand the strategy and tactics of war.
The Twentieth Maine marched toward Gettysburg; twenty miles one day, twenty the next, eighteen the next. And they were exhausted, but disciplined, and they had the utmost trust in and affection for their colonel. Chamberlain had the calm and dignified bearing of a leader and he conveyed to his men what, in fact, he was--a man of honor and integrity who cared about them. One private said, "[He] is almost idolized by the whole regiment."
And so the Twentieth marched on, twenty-three miles, then an unbelievable twenty-six miles, and then they were at Gettysburg, where the great armies were arrayed, their lines stretching for miles, sixty-five thousand men under Lee's command, 85,000 on the Union side.
General Daniel Sickles had been assigned to hold the Union left, but, thinking he knew better than those commanding him, he had shifted his troops so that the left flank and a hill called Little Round Top that overlooked the Union line were unattended. Four regiments were sent to fill in where Sickles should have been, including the Twentieth Maine, which was positioned on Little Round Top at the very end of the Union line and commanded to hold the ground at all costs.
The 4th Alabama regiment charged the hill, soon joined by parts of the Alabama 47th. Chamberlain quickly realized that these Confederates were not his only problem. Behind the 4th and the 47th was a flanking column, hooking around to his left. Were these troops to succeed in their effort to get around the Union left flank, they could fire on Union troops already under frontal assault. Writes one of Chamberlain's biographers, "Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy were never so close to victory."
Chamberlain ordered his men simultaneously to lengthen their line and to bend the end of it back at a right angle to meet the flanking Confederates. It was a brilliant move, one reflecting the study and thought that Chamberlain had given to maneuvering men on the field of battle. And the move was executed brilliantly by the men of the Twentieth, who were all the while under fire. It required "coolness as well as heat," Chamberlain later wrote. And it required training and discipline as well.
The Confederates charged the Twentieth again and again. In the withering fire, Chamberlain lost a third of his regiment. And then the men of the Twentieth ran out of ammunition. But they could not retreat. They had been told to hold their position at all costs. And so Chamberlain decided that the regiment would, without ammunition, charge the Confederate forces. Bent back as they were, they couldn't execute an ordinary charge. It would have to begin with the men on the left and gradually include the rest of the line in a great wheeling movement. Chamberlain explained the maneuver to his men, ordered them to fix bayonets, and down the slope they plunged.
The stunned Confederates fell back. Their ranks broke, and they ran for their lives. Little Round Top held and the Union prevailed at Gettysburg.
Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day, and when Lee's army finally surrendered in 1865, Ulysses S. Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the Confederate battle flags at Appomattox.
I tell you this story today because it offers a lesson that history often teaches us. Things didn't have to turn out as they did. They might have gone otherwise. What if Chamberlain's wife or his college had persuaded him to stay in Maine? What if he had not understood that war was a subject to be studied and battle an event to be prepared for? Would another man have been able to inspire his troops to charge forward armed only with bayonets?
Brave men and women remind us of the element of contingency in history. They remind us that it was not certain, to use Lincoln's words, that a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" would long endure. And this realization is crucial because it underlies understanding of how precious our freedom is and how well worth defending. Were we to lose it, liberty might not come our way again.
A quarter century after the battle of Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain visited this battlefield and drew another lesson. Speaking not of himself but of the countless acts of bravery that occurred here in early July 1863, he said, "In great deeds, something abides." I take his words to mean that stories of heroism and high achievement linger and can lift our hearts long after they have happened. They offer inspiration for the journey we are all on, telling us that although we are transitory creatures, we are capable of transcendent acts, deeds that will echo down through history and make life better for those who come after us.
The brave men of Gettysburg remind us of the importance of spending the hours we have on this earth working in great causes, and particularly in the American cause, which is, as Abraham Lincoln so well defined it in his address one hundred thirty-nine years ago: "that this nation, under God . . . , shall not perish from the earth."
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.