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The 20th Maine Regiment, Hardest Fighters Ever

The 20th Maine, one of the most storied regiments of the Civil War, reunited at Gettysburg in October 1889 and posed for the picture below.

20th Maine Regiment reunion, 1889

20th Maine Regiment reunion, 1889

They gathered for the dedication of the regiment’s monuments on Little and Big Round Tops.

Little Round Top was the scene of the 20th Maine’s fabled bayonet charge, one of the most famous actions in the history of warfare. The regiment is credited with turning the tide of battle and saving the Army of the Potomac.

Stand firm!

Their bravery inspired the Rev. Theodore Gerrish, in a reminiscence of the battle, to pen the words:

Stand firm ye boys from Maine, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibility for freedom and justice, for God and humanity as are now placed upon you.

The 20th Maine had about 350 men commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, who left his job as a Bowdoin College professor to join the Union Army.

Joshua Chamberlaiin

During the desperate fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Army Col. Strong Vincent responded to the urgent news that Little Round Top was undefended. That gave the Confederate Army a chance to break through and overrun the Army of the Potomac.  Strong then moved his brigade into position 15 minutes before the rebels tried to take the hill. Defending the hill were the 20th Maine, the 83rd Pennsylvania, the 44th New York and the 16th Michigan. Strong told Chamberlain to ‘hold this ground at all costs.’

At 4 pm on July 2, 1863, the 20th Maine began to hold off three fierce charges by the 15th Alabama and other Confederate regiments with about 650 men.  Among galling fire, the 20th Maine moved forward and back like a wave during the attacks and counterattacks. Sometimes their own dead and dying lay within the enemy lines.

The Crisis

At one point the line began to break, but 25-year-old Color Sgt. Andrew J. Tozier stood and held the regiment’s flag as bullets flew past his head. The line behind him then held.  His Medal of Honor citation reads,

At the crisis of the engagement this soldier, a color bearer, stood alone in an advanced position, the regiment having been borne back, and defended his colors with musket and ammunition picked up at his feet.

View of Devil’s en from Little Round Top.

By 7 pm, the Maine 20th was running low on ammunition. So Joshua Chamberlain had two choices: Hold the hill, which meant certain destruction of the Maine 20th, or retreat, which meant the Confederates would overrun and destroy the Army of the Potomac.

Exactly what happened has been lost in the smoke and fog of war. What is clear is that a third course was chosen. On the brink of extinction, the men fixed their bayonets and charged down the hill. Lt. Holman Melcher sprang ahead brandishing his sword, shouting ‘come on.’

The shocked rebels broke and ran. The 20th Maine captured about 100 of them.

The 20th Maine

Confederate Col. William C. Oates, who commanded the 15th Alabama, paid tribute to the brave soldiers of the 20th Maine. “There was no better regiment in the Confederate Army than the 15th Alabama, and if it failed to carry any point against which it was thrown, no other single regiment need try it,” he wrote.

William Oates

“It fought hard and persistently. The other regiments of the brigade did their duty at Gettysburg, but the 15th struck the hardest knot. There never were harder fighters than the 20th Maine and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistence and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top, and the Army of the Potomac, from defeat. Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.”

Thanks to Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign  This story was updated in 2020. Image of Little Roundtop By Alana Iesu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21393781.

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