Last year, on the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the Civil War, I reviewed Jay Winik’s book April 1865. Winik recounts the events leading to the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, in April 1865. The book also includes the saga of the murder of the President and the aftermath of the war.
Twenty-six years ago film maker Ken Burns produced a television documentary in nine episodes about the war. The Civil War remains a master work of all time. I’m not going to review the video. I will just recount an event and a person upon whom the course of our history turned at a crucial moment. First, some background.
Burns was inspired by photos produced during the war by Mathew Brady. Produced prior to the advent of motion pictures, images such as these remain our only visual record of the conflict that tore the country apart. These images may be the first significant photographs of human warfare. Burns’ use of them in a video production is notable for bringing them to life.
Many others contributed to the making of The Civil War. We see and hear commentary from people like historian and novelist Shelby Foote. David McCullough narrates, and other voices are lent by Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, and George Plimpton.
The war progressed from the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina—which produced no fatalities—to the blood baths of Shiloh, Antietam, and Chickamauga. From the perspective of the South, by 1863 the war had devolved into one of attrition, which the North was bound to win. Robert E. Lee determined to break the stalemate and to blunt the North’s appetite for destruction. He took his army north, through Maryland and into southern Pennsylvania. There he met the Union army of George G. Meade at Gettysburg.
It was here Confederate forces encountered Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, whose actions would turn the tide of the battle and seal the fate of the Confederacy.
The failure of Confederate forces on the first day of the battle to seize a hill south of town known as Little Round Top proved fatal. Lee’s critical effort on the second day was to take Little Round Top, which was inadequately defended.
Confederate forces attacked, even as Union reinforcements rushed to the defense. In defiance of orders, Union Major General Daniel Sickles took his troops down from the high ground to engage the Confederates. This resulted in the annihilation whole units of his force and the opening of a gap in the Union defenses. Confederates were quick to take advantage of the opportunity.
Defending the hill was the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment under Chamberlain, about 300 men. Under sustained attack, Chamberlain soon lost one third of his force. Ammunition was running low, and Chamberlain’s only recourse was to attack. The battle plan shows the maneuver.
The blue line pointing down toward the Confederates had previously been pointing up, defending Chamberlain’s left. He swung it “like a gate on a post” against the right of the attacking Confederates, catching them completely off guard, quickly killing large numbers of them, and initiating a retreat in panic.
Lee’s battle plan the following day, the last day of the battle, has since become known as Picket’s Charge, and it was a catastrophe of the first order, handing Lee his first defeat of the war. He was never to win another battle.
Lee pulled his army out of northern territory, never to venture north again. Ulysses S. Grant was victorious at Vicksburg about the same time, and was given control of all Union forces, the largest army in the Western Hemisphere. From that point on the Union forces ground the Confederates down into their southern soil until Lee, out of supplies, out of troops, out of time, surrendered to Grant.
Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor, and went on to great things in later life. He died in 1914, a few months before the onset of The Great War.