Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hold the High Ground

150 years ago yesterday, near a small town in southeast Pennsylvania, Confederate skirmishers and four Union soldiers ran into each other.  Few men were expecting a fight.  No one would have chosen what happened next.

The rebels, it is said, were on the march to try to find shoes, a clothing item that enough of their men had to do without because provisions, and funds, were inadequate.  They hoped to find shoes in that small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  What they found was a fight. As the day progressed, more and more soldiers joined the fight and the day ended with the Confederates in possession of Gettysburg and some 16,000 casualties dead, injured or captured.

Day two dawned with the promise of another hot southeastern Pennsylvania day. The cause of the Confederate States of America lay in the balance, as both sides realized by now.  There would be so many stories to tell after that day was over.  Today I concentrate on a couple of men on the Union side of the battle. 
And the Confederates?  Their turn comes tomorrow (weather permitting, as our county is under a flood warning.)

Flag of 137th NYVI

One of the heroes of the day was a man "unsung", a man who died in 1864 from dysentery and was unable to promote his cause after the war.  Little is known about his early life, and most people have never even heard of him.

Colonel David Ireland and his 137th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment played a key role in maintaining control of Culp's Hill, suffering many casualties.  If this hill had been captured by the Confederates, the battle may well have been lost. The high ground had to be held at all cost.

A month after the battle, he married the daughter of a prominent man in Binghamton, New York and then went off to war.  He never saw his bride again, and had no children.

His tomb is not a tourist attraction. He is buried in a cemetery which can be seen from the eastbound lane of U.S. 17 as you go through Binghamton, New York. 

Much more is known about another colonel, a man from Maine, a man who had made a living as a college professor and ended up winning the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Roundtop that day.  Thomas Desjardin, an expert on this man, Joshua Chamberlain, gave a talk at the Gettysburg Battlefield on Sunday and painted a picture of - well, an unpromising child.


Chamberlain stuttered -he couldn't get past the letters P B and L. He became quiet and reserved, afraid of social interaction. (As an adult, he would utter sentences such as "The time has come when we are to determine whether we are a nation or a - or a - or a basket of chips")

He had to learn German to be admitted to Bowdoin College. He locked himself into the attic of his home and practiced until he learned German.  He subsequently learned six other foreign languages and spoke them all fluently.

In 1852, as a senior in Bowdoin College, he witnessed a private reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. He never forgot it.

This stutterer had to make a commencement speech and almost panicked when he saw famous alumni in the audience - novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and politician/future President Franklin Pierce.  But he held it together.  He ended up becoming a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College.

He changed from a mild mannered professor to an ardent soldier after the Civil War broke out, remembering that private reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and believing in the cause of abolition.
Federal reenactors fire volley at Owego, New York

Chamberlain had never commanded a regiment in battle before Gettysburg. He had never been in a real "stand up battle" (one where the two sides line up staring at each other and fire at each other).  And he was charged to hold a hill, Little Round Top, "at all hazard" - meaning, unto death.  The high ground had to be held by the Union.  The Confederates knew that to win the battle, they would have to take Little Round Top.

Chamberlain was suffering from an attack of malaria on July 2, 1863.  Many of his men were suffering from dysentery.  Chamberlain was shot twice during the battle, once in each leg.  His men didn't have enough ammunition - and then, after wave after wave of Confederates were rebuffed - they ran out of bullets.

And, dreaming up a maneuver that is still taught today in military colleges, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and commanded his Union troops to move in a particular way and against overwhelming odds his men held the hill.

Later in the war, in another battle, he suffered grievous wounds that he survived, but caused him tremendous pain for the last fifty years of his life.  He went on to a distinguished career as Governor of Maine and President of Bowdoin College.  Chamberlain, like David Ireland, has no direct descendents - he (in a colloquial term used in those days) "daughtered out".


His tombstone reads simply:

Joshua L. Chamberlain
1828 ----- 1914

There were other Union heroes that day  - such as cavalry officer John Buford.

My plans for the 150th anniversary of day 3 will be telling a story or two of the Confederates at Gettysburg.  Or perhaps, it will be the turn of our local weather to dominate the news again.  Let's hope not.

19 comments:

  1. Excellent, excellent post. Nice to see a post on history! I look forward to the next one.

    History Sleuth's Writing UWC

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    1. Cindy, I have a historical post today and one tomorrow (July 4). I blog about the Civil War every Sunday. Other than that, I tend to concentrate on flower photography, farmers markets, and whatever else interests me. Thank you for following me on Twitter and on my blog.

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  2. The bloodiest group of battles that our country has experienced. Thanks for one of the tales.

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    1. Thank you, Roy. The 4th of July will be my last Civil War post - until Sunday, that is. Don't know how many of my regular readers have enjoyed a week without flowers!

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  3. Oh, Alana, thank you so much for highlighting these unsung soldiers. I'm still hurting over their needing shoes and ending up in battle in Gettysburg.

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    1. One of the historians who lectured at Gettysburg National Military Park on Sunday (I watched on CSPAN 3) talked about how poorly provisioned the Confederates were, especially as the war dragged on into 1864. Can you imagine people marching for tens of miles without shoes, dressed in heavy wool uniforms in the summer heat and on nearly empty stomachs? I find it amazing how many survived the experience.

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  4. That was a cool piece of history, thanks for sharing I know my teenager would be very interested in this.

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    1. Erica, I hope so. I try to make history interesting. We depend on young people to carry our traditions. History is the story of the human race, after all, and we forget our story at our peril.

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  5. How fun! My nephew is named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain after this very person. I knew that he was a Civil War hero, now I know a lot more.

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    1. I think Thomas Desjardin's talk on Joshua Chamberlain is available online for viewing on the CSPAN 3 website. It was fascinating. I'm fortunate in having been able to tour Chamberlain's house in Brunswick, ME in September of 2011 and even visited Bowdoin College. It was well worth the 10 hour plus drive.

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  6. What an interesting historical post, Really well done - Bek from UBC

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    1. Thank you. One more historical post on the 4th of July - and then back to my "regular programming".

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  7. I think that it's great that you took us back 150 years. It's important to remember our history yet it's so easily forgotten.

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    1. As I like to say, I try to make history interesting. History is the story of the human race, after all, and we forget our story at our peril. I think too many people are turned off to history for one reason or another and I'd like to "turn them back on".

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  8. No shoes, shot in both legs, suffering--how I feel for these men. Chanberlain must have been a strong man to overcome his stuttering and learn other languages. It's good to have people to look up to.

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    1. Francene, Joshua Chamberlain was an amazing man, and I understand he was an excellent Governor of Maine after the war. It's also interesting to note that three men who fought in the Civil War ended up becoming Presidents of the United States.

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  9. 4 of my friends are going there to do the reenactment this week. I think they are just about there.

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    1. I wish I could have been there. I've seen pictures of the Blue and Grey Alliance reenactments in Gettysburg this past weekend - hope the weather holds out for this weekend's activities. I'm there in spirit with your friends. I wouldn't mind having a guest blog post from a reenactor one of these days.

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