The Myth of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain


There are few figures in military history that are as utterly hyped as PBS’ general: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the faux “Hero” of Little Round Top. By his own admission, Chamberlain had no idea what he was doing on the day of July 2nd, 1863, and the facts and the evidence show that as well.

The first point that must be discussed when it comes to the myth of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is exactly how many men the 20th Maine actually squared off against on that July day. As all students of the Civil War know, the main opponent of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top was Colonel John C. Oates, the formal commander of the 15th Alabama. Oates commanded in the 15th Alabama roughly 100 or so more men than the 20th Maine had, but that is getting ahead of the story. On July 2nd, 1863, Oates had at his disposal his own 15th Alabama, 4th Alabama, 47th Alabama, 48th Alabama and 4th Texas, all of these differing infantry regiments were to attack the Little Round Top, and hold it. It was seen by General Longstreet that this many men, numbering more than 2,500, was needed to keep the Little Round Top secure. Oates would not have this many men when trying to capture the Little Round Top, and Colonel Chamberlain had nothing to do with that.   

Union Surveyor General Governeur Warren had recognized the crisis that surrounded the Little Round Top early in the morning of July 2nd, and had recruited Colonel Strong Vincent to remove the 16th Michigan, 34th New York and the 20th Maine from their ordered path, dictated by Third Corp Commander George Sickles, and to instead fortify the Little Round Top. Warren and Vincent both were made casualties of the war in defending the Little Round Tops, a hill top neither was expected or required to defend.

Due to the presence of Strong Vincent’s several regiments at the Little Round Top, Colonel Oates faced a crisis he had not expected. By the time of the famous charge on Little Round Top, Colonel Oates had lost the 4th and 47th Alabama, as well as the 4th Texas. The 48th Alabama was all but useless as their veteran commander had been killed, and they would not march under the orders of anyone else. This forced Oates to have to use only his own 15th Alabama in the attack on Little Round Top. Seeing how he had just a little fewer than 100 men more than the 20th Maine and also considering that they had the advantage of Warren’s strategically placed artillery and rebuffing an uphill charge against a much smaller than expected rebel force, it is no wonder the Union won the day. This also has nothing to do with Colonel Chamberlain.

The second thing that must be examined when looking at the myth of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is whether the linguist turned solider really, as he has been canonized for, “saved the Union at Gettysburg.” The answer to this is a strong and firm no. As has been established, Colonel Oates had at his disposal only his scarcely numbered 15th Alabama, which, had it taken Little Round Top, would have been even smaller, by as much as 200 or more men. Due to the ongoing genius of General George Gordon Meade, the overall Union Commander, the 140th New York, under the command of Patrick “Paddy” O’Rorke, had arrived to aide the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. In fact, Colonel O’Rorke took control of Little Round Top during the final struggle, replacing the great “hero” of the hill Chamberlain. O’Rorke’s forces would have been enough to chase a hastily fortified Confederate force from the Little Round Top. Furthermore, Union Commander Charles Hazlett’s battery H as well as the bulk of General Stephen Weed’s Fifth Corp was already marching towards Little Round Top, as a Union victory, or at least upper hand after a stalemate, at the Wheatfield and Rose’s Woods had given them a clear path to the hill. Thus, had Colonel Oates captured the Little Round Top, he would have been thrown from it within half an-hour. Oates was isolated from the rest of the Confederate Army and surrounded by a sea of Yankees. While Oates had bragged that morning of July 2nd that if he could capture the Little Round Top it could be made into, “a Gibraltar”, that was before he lost all his command except the 15th Alabama, his own small regiment. After the battle, Oates came clean on the Battle of Little Round Top. “Had I succeeded in capturing Little Round Top,” Oates wrote in his battle report, “Isolated as I was, I could not have held it for ten minutes.” That is completely true, and thus Chamberlain did not save the Union Army from disaster, or the Union itself. Chamberlain, even if he had failed to keep the hill, would not have contributed to a Union defeat, because 140th New York and Weed were both at the Little Round Top, ready to take it back if it fell.

Finally, let us look at the real heroes of the Little Round Top. The first, and foremost in my opinion, was Governeur Warren. He, and his lieutenant, Washington Robling, was the one who rode that morning of July 2nd, 1863, to fund Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade to help fortify the Little Round Top. That hill was seen as worthless by General Sickles, who was always opposed to fortification, but Warren saw it as crucial. It was his foresight, and the fortifications he made at the hill, that stopped all six of Oates’ regiments from storming the Little Round Top. The second hero is Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, who inflicted much damage on the Confederates, especially the 4th Texas. The fighting Irishman’s soldiers were able to take control of the crisis at the Little Round Top, even though Colonel O’Rorke died rallying his forces. The Third Hero is General Meade, who found a way to reinforce the Little Round Top with Weed’s Third Corp, ensuring that Oates, even if he did take the hill, could never hold it. Finally, the Fourth Hero of the Battle of the Little Round Top is Colonel Strong Vincent, who also gave his life fighting for the hill. His 16th Michigan gave the rebels hell in Devil’s Den, slowing their advance on the Little Round Top. The 20th Maine itself was under his command, as it was apart of Strong’s division. Colonel Chamberlain himself gave credit to Colonel Strong Vincent in his own battle report, “It is not too much to say that Colonel Vincent was the backbone of the victory.”

While PBS and Hollywood love to play up General Chamberlain as “The Hero of Little Round Top” and the “Man who saved the Union Army, if not the Union itself,” the facts paint a much different picture. If anything, Chamberlain was simply a soldier who was controlled by others. After all, he was moved from the Third Corp by Warren, to Little Round Top by Vincent and off the Hill by the 140th New York. Events controlled Chamberlain, and not the other way around. While Chamberlain deserved his Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery shown at the first attack on Petersburg in May 1864, he should not be known as “The Hero of Little Round Top.” And now you know…the rest of the story.       

12th Doctor:
I think that calling Chamberlain a "faux hero" is way too harsh, but you are correct that many more things happened on Little Round Top to decisively affect the course of the battle, other than what Chamberlain did, though he gets all the attention.  Go to Erie and the hero of Little Round Top is obviously Strong Vincent.

Chamberlain was a hero.  But goodness knows, so was every other man on that bloody hill that day.  I suspect the love affair with Chamberlain on the part of academia and more intelligent segments of the media stems from the man's poetic erudition.  His writings are a thing to behold.  His letters, sonnets.  Historically, he has been called the man with the soul of a lion and the heart of a woman.  Or was it the other way 'round? 

As to why more common folk and the mainstream entertainment media fell for Chamberlain, it could have something to do with Jeff Daniels.  His understated performance was perfect.  Even if the historicity of it is in question.

He was a decent Governor of Maine.


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