Colonel Joshua Chamberlain
20th Maine Regiment, U.S. Army
Medal of Honor
July 2, 1863
Following is a firsthand account of the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a prewar university professor from Maine who thwarted disaster for the Union Army by repelling repeated Confederate assaults on the high ground at Little Round Top.
On reaching the field at about 4 p.m., July 2, Colonel [Strong] Vincent, placing me on the extreme left of our line of battle, instructed me the enemy was expected to attempt to turn our left flank and that the position assigned to me must be held at every hazard. I established my line on the crest of a rocky and wooded hill and sent out a company of skirmishers on my left to guard against surprise on that unprotected flank.
These dispositions were scarcely made when the attack commenced. Almost at the same moment, I perceived a heavy force in rear of their principal line, moving rapidly toward our left, with the intention of gaining our rear unperceived. I had the right wing move to cover the whole front and at the same time moved the left wing to the left and rear. This hazardous maneuver was so admirably executed by my men that our fire was not materially slackened in front, while the left wing had formed a solid line to meet the expected assault.
We were not a moment too soon, for the enemy rushed forward with an impetuosity that showed their sanguine expectations. Their astonishment was evident, when they met a firm and ready front. A strong fire opened at once from both sides, the enemy advancing until they came within 10 paces of our line, where our steady and telling volleys brought them to a stand. From that moment began a struggle fierce and bloody beyond any I have witnessed and that lasted, in all its fury, a full hour.
At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men. Three times our line was forced back, only to rally and repulse the enemy. As often as the enemy’s line was broken and routed, a new line was unmasked, which advanced with fresh vigor. We seized the opportunity of a momentary lull to gather ammunition and arms from the dead and dying. With these we met the enemy’s last and fiercest assault.
In the midst of this struggle, our ammunition utterly failed. The enemy was close upon us with a fresh line, pouring on us a terrible fire. Half the left wing already lay on the field. Although I had brought two companies from the right to its support, it was now scarcely more than a skirmish line. It was evident we could maintain the defensive no longer.
As a last resort, I ordered a charge. The men dashed forward with a shout. The words “fix bayonets” flew from man to man. The click of the steel seemed to give new zeal to all. The enemy’s first line stood amazed, threw down their arms and surrendered in whole companies. Those in their rear had more time and gave us more trouble. My skirmishing company threw itself upon the enemy’s flank behind a stone wall, and their effective fire added to the enemy’s confusion. In this charge we captured 368 prisoners, many of them officers.
At this time Colonel [James Clay] Rice brought up a strong support from General [Samuel] Crawford’s command and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. The wounded and the prisoners were now sent to the rear. Colonel Rice desired me to take the high, steep hill called “Wolf Hill” or “Round Top,” half a mile to our left and front—a position that commanded ours in case the assault should be renewed.
It was then dusk. The men were worn out, heated and thirsty. But at the command, they cheerfully formed their line once more and went up the hill, scarcely expecting to return. In order not to disclose our numbers and avoid bringing on an engagement in which I was sure to be overpowered, I forbid my men to fire and trusted to the bayonet alone. Throwing out small detachments on each flank, we pushed straight up the hill. The darkness favored us, concealing our force and preventing the enemy from getting range, while they deemed it prudent to retire before us. At the crest we found more serious difficulty and were obliged to fall back for a short time. We advanced again with new energy and carried the desired point. We took 25 prisoners in this movement, among them some of the staff of General [Evander] Law.
As for the conduct of my officers and men, I will let the result speak for them. Our roll of honor is the 380 officers and men who fought at Gettysburg.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.