He was a 34-year-old school teacher, but on the hot, humid day of July 2, 1863, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was in the fight of his life. Now a Colonel in the Union Army. Chamberlain stood at the far left edge of a group of 80,000 men strung out in a line across fields and hills, stretching all the way to a little town called Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Earlier that day, a Colonel Vincent had placed Chamberlain and his men of the 20th Maine at the end of that line, saying, “Whatever you do, you can’t let them come through here.”
Chamberlain couldn’t withdraw and he knew it. If the Confederate Army overran them, the rebels would gain the high ground, and the Union army would be quickly defeated. In essence, 80,000 men would be caught from behind on a downhill charge with no protection. To win, the grey clad Confederates would have to come through Chamberlain.
At 2:30 p.m., the first charge came from the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments. They attacked uphill, running as fast as they could and firing at Chamberlain’s men who were stationed behind a rock wall they had thrown up that very morning. The 20th Maine stopped the rebel charge and pushed them back down the slope . . .
Only to face a second and then a third charge.
On the fourth assault, Chamberlain was knocked down by a bullet that hit him dead center – in the belt buckle. Realizing that he wasn’t seriously hurt, the Colonel scrambled to his feet, continuing to fight. Again, they halted the enemy’s charge and again, the rebels retreated down the hill.
At that time in history, battles were fought with artillery and small arms ammunition. The struggles were close, face-to-face affairs. With their fourth charge, the Confederates almost made it to the wall – a thigh high stack of flat rocks that ran almost 110 yards in length.
As they waited for the next charge, Chamberlain felt sorry for his men. He later recalled, “Their leader had no real knowledge of warfare or tactics. I was only a stubborn man and that was my greatest advantage in this fight. I had, deep within me, the inability to do nothing.”
Chamberlain continued, “I knew I may die, but I also knew that I would not die with a bullet in my back. I would not die in retreat. I am, at least, like the apostle Paul who wrote, ‘This one thing I do, I press toward the mark.'”
The attack came again. On this, the fifth charge, the 15th and 47th Alabama broke open the wall and fighting raged on both sides. Without time to reload, the men were swinging their rifles at each other and brawling with fists and knives.
Somehow, the 20th Maine pushed the rebels downhill another time. And at that fifth broken charge, Chamberlain’s younger brother, Tom, appeared with Sergeant Tozier, an old, hard-nosed soldier. Tozier had a thick wad of torn shirt stuck into a hole in his shoulder where he had been wounded.
“No help from the 83rd,” the Sergeant said. “They’re shot to ribbons and all they can do is extend the line a bit. We’re getting murdered on our flank.”
“Can we extend?” Chamberlain asked. “There’s nothing to extend,” Tom answered. “More than half our men are down.”
It was true. Chamberlain’s command had started in Bangor, Maine, six months earlier, with a thousand men. They’d started that morning with 300. Now they were down to 80.
“How are we for ammunition?” the Colonel asked. “We’ve been shooting a lot,” was his brother’s answer. “I know we’ve been shooting a lot,” Chamberlain snapped. “I want to know how we’re holding out. How much ammunition do we have left?” As Tom ran to check, a 12-year-old lookout had climbed a tree. He yelled, “They’re forming up again, Colonel!”
Chamberlain looked up to see the boy pointing down the hill. “They’re forming up right now. And they’ve been reinforced. Sir, there’s a lot more of them this time.”
At that moment, a messenger stumbled into their midst. Out of breath, he said, “Sir! Colonel Chamberlain, sir! Colonel Vincent is dead.”
“Are you sure, soldier?”
“Yes, sir,” he gasped. “He was shot right at the first of the fight. They were firmed up by Weeds Brigade, but now Weeds is dead. They mowed Hazlett’s Battery up top. Hazlett’s dead, too.”
Chamberlain’s brother came running back. “Joshua,” he said, “We’re out! One . . . two rounds per man at the most. Some of the men don’t have anything at all!” Chamberlain turned to a thin man standing on his right. It was First Sergeant Ellis Spear. “Spear,” he ordered, “tell the boys to take the ammunition from the wounded and the dead.”
“We did that last time, sir,” Spear replied. “Maybe we should think about pulling out.”
Chamberlain responded grimly, “We will not be pulling out, Sergeant. Carry out my orders please.”
“Colonel!” Sergeant Tozier spoke up. “We won’t hold them again, sir. you know we won’t!”
“Joshua!” It was his brother. “Here they come! Here they come!”
Chamberlain stepped to the top of the wall in full view, crossing his arms and staring down at the advancing enemy. The 15th and 47th Alabama with their pale, yellow-gray uniforms, now reinforced by a Texas regiment, moved up the hill as their high pitched shriek – the rebel yell – coursed up toward Chamberlain and his men. Sergeant Spear was standing at the Colonel’s feet. Sergeant Tozier, Chamberlain’s brother Tom, and Lieutenant Melcher, the flag beaerer, were huddled below. “Joshua!” his brother said, “Do something!”
“Give an order!”
Chamberlain stood ther for a moment, deep in thought, quickly sorting the situation. “We can’t retreat,” he thought. “We can’t stay here. When I am faced with the choice of doing nothing or doing something, I will always choose to act.” He turned his back on the advancing rebels, looked down at his men, and said, “Fix bayonets!”
At first no one moved. They just stared at him with their mouths open.
“Fix your bayonets now!” he commanded again. “Execute a great right wheel of the entire regiment. Swing the left first. Do it now!”
Lieutenant Melcher spoke first, confused. “Sir,” he asked, “What is a great right wheel?” But the Colonel had already jumped from the wall and was moving to the next group of men. Serteant Tozier answered the question. “He means to charge, son. A great right wheel is an all-out charge.”
Then, turning, the Colonel pointed his sword directly downhill. Facing overwhelming odds, Chamberlain slashed his blade through the air and with a power born of courage and fear, the school teacher from Maine roared, “Charge! Charge! CHARGE!” to his men.
The remaining 80 fighting men lifted their voices to match that of their leader. “Charge! Charge!” they cried while tumbling over the wall into a history about which most people in our country have never heard.
But when the Confederate troops saw Chamberlain, the leader of the opposition, mount the wall, they immediately stopped, unsure as to what was happening. And when the Colonel pointed his sword toward them and commanded his men to charge, they turned and ran. Many threw down their loaded weapons.
The rebels were certain that these were not the same soldiers they had been facing. Surely these men have been reinforced, they thought. A beaten regiment would not charge. In less than five minutes, Chamberlain had his sword on the collarbone of a Confederate captain.
“You, sir, are my prisoner,” he stated. The man turned over a fully loaded Navy Colt revolver and offered it to Chamberlain. “Yes, sir,” he answered, “I am.”
Within five more minutes, that ragged group of 80 men under Chamberlain’s command – without any ammunition – captured over 400 soldiers of the enemy.
It is an amazing story, isn’t it? And absolutely true. But here’s what most people never consider . . .
Historians have determined that had Chamberlain not charged that day, the rebels would have won at Gettysburg. Further, historians tell us, had the rebels won at Gettysburg, the South would have won the war . . . and the war itself would have been over by the end of the summer.
One man saved the Union. His name was Joshua Chamberlain.
About the Author
This is an excerpt from The Butterfly Effect, written by award-winning author Andy Andrews. His other books include The Traveler’s Gift, The Seven Decisions, and How to Kill 11 Million People.