Meadville Tribune

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July 7, 2013

SUNDAY ISSUE: What makes a 'hero'?

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MEADVILLE — Altering the order

Finally, the Maine men had reached the end. Their numbers were thinned and cartridges spent, and they could remain no longer. But the order still stood— to hold to the last. Chamberlain could not retreat but could not stay; his only option was to attack.

His order was one word: “Bayonet!”

Without hesitation, the Maine men fixed bayonets and leveled their muskets for what would be their last desperate action.

At that moment, from somewhere within his studies, Chamberlain altered his order. Instead of charging straight down the hill, he had his left wing move first at a right wheel, in a sweeping motion like a large gate upon a hinge. Once that was moving, the rest of the regiment bounded over the rocks and down the slope and met the Confederates with a screaming “Huzzah!”

The rebels, thinking that reinforcements had arrived, were caught completely by surprise. Half of them dropped their weapons in surrender; the other half turned and ran for their lives.

The remnant of the 20th Maine pursued the retreating Confederates halfway down the face of hillside and captured nearly 400 of them, twice the size of their own force, all at the point of empty muskets.

Little Round Top was saved.

‘Bayonet, Forward’

Heroism is not confined to a battlefield, and neither was Chamberlain’s. At war’s end, he was present at Appomattox Court House, Va., to receive the Confederate’s surrendered arms. His men stood at attention while the defeated rebels slowly filed toward them. Then, he had his soldiers salute.

“(Gen. John B.) Gordon was riding in advance of his troops, his chin dropped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description,” Chamberlain said years ago. “At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, Gen. Gordon started, caught in a moment of its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion; the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow and Gen. Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.”

It was a heroic gesture of respect and healing.

Chamberlain would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top. He later served as governor of Maine and president of his alma mater Bowdoin College. His wartime experiences were written in “Bayonet, Forward.” He would return to Gettysburg in 1913 for the Grand Reunion of veterans.

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