Myth: The 20th Maine’s Pivotal Role in the Gettysburg Battle

The celebrity of the 20ME was given a major boost in recent times by the excellent novel, The Killer Angels, and later movies based on the book. Besides Generals Lee and Buford, the book pitted two other protagonists against each other: Confederate General Longstreet versus Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a former school teacher. The book positions these two opponents almost as equals, with Chamberlain’s valiant stand against Longstreet’s men, saving Little Round Top and therefore, practically, winning the entire Battle of Gettysburg. From there the reader is free to extrapolate:

a. The 20ME’s stand was pivotal to the Union victory at Gettysburg.
b. Since Gettysburg victory was the turning point of the war, the 20ME’s 386 men were pivotal in winning the war.
c. Winning the war saved the Union and freed the slaves, and so the 20ME was pivotal in saving the Union and freeing the slaves.
d. Etc.

Joshua L. Chamberlain At some point, everyone needs to STOP! Take a deep breath. The book, The Killer Angels, was a novel – fiction, loosely based on historical fact. In the real world Longstreet and Chamberlain were not equals. Longstreet commanded a corps of 21,000 men, while Chamberlain commanded a regiment of 386 men, out of a Union army of 90,000.

Here are some 20th Maine – Little Round Top Myths:

• Little Round Top was critical to the entire Union line on Cemetery Ridge:

False: Culp’s Hill, at the north end of the Union line, was far more important to Meade than Little Round Top at the south end. Culp’s Hill commanded the roads used for the Union’s main supply lines. Little Round Top commanded nothing except a great view of the Confederate positions to the west.

Meade realized that Little Round Top was the key to his position.

False: In his after-battle reports, Meade never even mentioned Little Round Top. It was only months later, when he was hauled before a Congressional hearing critical of his actions at Gettysburg – a hearing instigated in part by Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles who disobeyed Meade’s orders by not manning Little Round Top – that Meade began stressing the importance of Little Round Top (and therefore Sickles’ failure to reinforce the position).

• Had the 20ME line broken, Little Round Top would have been lost:

False: Had the hill been taken by the few exhausted, decimated and low-on-ammo Confederate regiments attacking it, Meade could have easily counterattacked with the entire VI Corps of 13,600 men at his disposal, which had just arrived on the field. At the time the east side of Little Round Top – where the VI Corps was positioned – was wooded, making it easy for Federals to attack the hill from that side. On the other hand, the Confederates, as was the case throughout the battle, had few if any reserves in that immediate area to exploit or even defend the breech.

• 20ME’s Position on the left flank of the Union Line was exceptionally vital:

False: All the Union regiments on Little Round Top that day were manning sections just as important as was the 20ME’s – maybe more so – a breach in the center of a military line is even worse than a breach on the left flank.

• Little Round Top would have been pivotal for Confederate Artillery:

False: Little Round Top was a key platform for Union artillery because the western side, facing the Confederates, had been cleared of trees. But the rest of the hill, namely its northern side facing the Union position, was tree-covered forest, with almost no view of Cemetery Ridge. And in any case the hill’s massive boulders would have made for an artilleryman’s nightmare in trying to set up guns pointing north toward the Union position. And assuming the Confederates managed to drag up a few guns to the hilltop – no mean feat in itself – every artillery gun in the Union army could easily reach and pulverize the crest of Little Round Top.

About all the Confederate artillery would have gained in taking Little Round Top was to keep it out of Federal hands and otherwise enjoy a nice view of the western sunset.

• The 20ME suffered inordinate losses in its heroic stand.

False: The 20ME suffered a respectable 32% casualty rate, but that was not an exceptional casualty rate at Gettysburg. In fact, the other five Maine regiments in the battle all suffered higher casualties, ranging from 38% to 78%. (This excludes three Maine regiments in the VI Corps, which were barely engaged).

• The 20ME’s unique “Slamming the Door” tactic broke the Rebel attack

False: First of all, the Slamming the Door tactic – swinging the end of your line around like a door – wasn’t unique. A regiment on Culp’s Hill did the same thing on that same day. Secondly, according to Col. Oates, commander of the 15AL, which opposed the 20ME, his exhausted regiment was already retreating when Chamberlain launched his famous counterattack. The 20ME’s assault did not break the Confederate attack, although it did turn the Alabamians’ retreat into a rout.

• The 20ME men were extraordinarily brave:

False: The 20ME men were certainly brave, but not extraordinarily so. After all, they had the advantage of firing downhill from behind the protection of a stone wall. Their opponents in the 15AL were parched with thirst, having marched 28 miles that day just to reach the field, including a jaunt over the forested Big Round Top. Yet they attacked uphill, with no stone wall for protection, time and again.

If you had to choose, would you rather be with the guys firing downhill from behind a stone wal, or with the group charging uphill with no wall?

The men of the 20th Maine were very brave and they certainly earned their pay on July 2nd, 1863. But showering too much attention on one group of men in the battle is an injustice to the thousands of others, on both sides, who probably did as much or more during those three days.

Casualty Rates of Maine Regiments during the Gettysburg Battle

Chart of Maine Casualties during the battle of Gettysburg

For more on this subject, you might want to read Garry E. Adelman’s book, The Myth of Little Round Top.

 

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