On one of the historical turning points for which I’m most thankful, and the man who made it happen.
If I’m wary about identifying distinct literary transitions and turning points—as I’ve argued in this space, just before identifying one of course—then I’m even more wary about doing so with historical events. Of course it’s easy, and not inaccurate, to highlight singular and significantly influential events like presidential elections (or, on the bleaker side, like the Wilmington coup and massacre with which I began this blog); but to attribute sweeping historical changes or shifts to those, or any other individual events, seems to me to elide the subtleties and nuances and gradualism and multipart nature of historical movement and change. All of this might be especially true when it comes to wars, since they’re so overt and striking and can seem to hinge so much on singular moments and battles and choices. And yet—and you knew this was coming—I think it is possible to boil down the whole trajectory of the Civil War to a single moment and incredibly bold and risky choice, made by perhaps the most unlikely military leader in our nation’s history.
This moment, and everything surrounding it, is a central focus of both Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning historical novel The Killer Angels (1974) and the Hollywood film Gettysburg (1993), so it may be a bit better known than many of my focal points in this space. But then again, every time I’ve told it to someone—and I have done so not infrequently, as it’s one of my favorite American stories—it has been new to them; both of those things (the newness and the favorite-ness) make me feel that it’s okay to include it here. For the contexts, it’s worth noting first, as Shaara does at length, how much the future of the Civil War, and thus America as a whole, hinged on the outcome of Gettysburg—not just militarily but also and more importantly diplomatically, since Confederate General Robert E. Lee was carrying a letter given him by CSA President Jefferson Davis in which, to be brief, the English government basically promised to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy if its army could win a decisive victory on Northern territory. If the war and the American future thus hinged on this battle, the battle itself largely hinged on what happened on the hill called Little Round Top—it was at the extreme Southern end of the Union lines and was the high ground, and if the Confederate army managed to take it, it was likely that the Union army would have to retreat, thus quite possibly giving the battle to Lee. And by the most random but crucial quirk of fate, the Union officer whose regiment was charged with holding Little Round Top was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.
Whole books, including much of Shaara’s, have been written about Chamberlain, so here I’ll just highlight a couple of things: he was a college professor of rhetoric and modern languages who had volunteered for the Union army out of a sense of duty; and prior to Gettysburg his principal battlefield experience had been a horrific night (chronicled in his diary) spent huddled amongst corpses during the brutal Union defeat at Fredericksburg (an event that, among others, had led Chamberlain in that same diary to admit to some significant uncertainty about whether he was capable of adequately leading men in battle; and it’s worth adding that many of his men had come to share those doubts, and had nearly staged a mutiny against his leadership not long before Gettysburg). Throughout the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg (July 2nd, 1863), Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were assaulted again and again by Confederate troops trying to take Little Round Top; they managed to hold off those attackers by the late afternoon were virtually out of ammunition (many men were entirely out) and likely could not withstand another charge. No historian or strategist could fault Chamberlain if he had retreated under those circumstances, but instead he called for the ultimate bluff: he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the Southern regiment that was preparing for another charge at them. Taken by surprise, and of course unaware of how little ammo their attackers possessed, the Confederate troops surrendered to Chamberlain; Little Big Top did not fall, the Union army took the advantage into the third and final day of fighting, Lee in desperation ordered the infamous Pickett’s Charge, and the rest, of the battle and in many ways the war, was history.
It’s impossible, to reiterate where I started this post, to know for sure what would have happened, in any historical moment or situation, had things gone differently. But it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that had Chamberlain made a different choice, the battle and war could have gone to the Confederacy, and from then on American history would have looked so different as to be unrecognizable. Chamberlain, who won the Medal of Honor for this moment, would go on to a very diverse and distinguished career, including four one-year terms as governor of Maine, a decade as president of Bowdoin College, and many other posts and accomplishments. But it doesn’t get any more meaningful than that July 2nd bluff—and we should all be thankful for it. Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Moments or figures you’re thankful for?11/19 Memory Day nominee: Allen Tate, whose perspective on America and race was as complex as for the rest of his fellow Agrarians, but whose poems and novel engage with great power with key regional and national questions of history and identity.
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