On The March to Gettysburg with the 20th Maine

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s description of the 20th Maine Regiment’s march to Gettysburg in the night of July 1, 1863, reads like colorful, creative writing. Here’s the excerpt:

Suddenly the startling bugle-call from, unseen headquarters! “The General!” it rang! “To the march! No moment of delay!”

Word was coming, too. Staff officers dashed from corps, to division, to brigade, to regiment, to battery – and the order flew like the hawk, and not the owl. “To Gettysburg!” it said, a forced march of sixteen miles. But what forced it? And what opposed? Not supper, nor sleep nor feet and aching limbs.

In a moment, the whole corps was in marching order; rest, rations, earth itself forgotten; one thought, – to be first on that Gettysburg road. The iron-faced veterans were transforming to boys. They insisted on starting out with colors flying, so that even the night might know what manner of men were coming to redeem the day.

All things, even the most common, were magnified and made mysterious by the strange spell of night. At a turn of the road a staff officer, with an air of authority, told each colonel as he came up, that McClellan was in command again, and riding ahead of us on the road. Then wild cheers rolled from the crowding column into the brooding sky, and the earth shook under the quickening tread. Now from a dark angle of the roadside came a whisper, whether from earthly or unearthly voice one cannot feel quite sure, that the august form of Washington had been seen that afternoon at sunset riding over the Gettysburg hills. Let no one smile at me! I half believed it myself, – so did the powers of the other world draw nigh!

But there were wayside greetings such as we had never met before. We were in a free state, and among friendly people. All along the road, citizens came out to contemplate this martial array with a certain awe, and greet us with hearty welcome. But, most of all, our dark way was illumined by groups of girls in sweet attire gathered on the embowered lawns of modest homes, with lights and banners and flowers, and stirring songs whose import and effect were quite other than impersonal. Those who were not sisters of the muse of song waved their welcome in the ripple of white handkerchiefs – which token the gallant young gentlemen of the staff were prompted to take as summons of parley, and boldly rode up to meet with soft, half-tone scenes under the summer night; those meetings looked much like proposals for exchange of prisoners, or unconditional surrender. And others still, not daring quite so much, but unable to repress the gracious impulse of giving, offered their silent benediction in a cup of water. And we remembered then with what sanction it was that water had been turned to wine in Cana of Galilee!

Snatching an hour’s sleep by the roadside just before dawn, we reached at about seven o’clock in the morning the heights east of Gettysburg, confronting the ground over which the lost battle of ghr first day had ebbed. After a little, we were moved to the left, across Rock Creek and up the Baltimore Pike to an open field more nearly overlooking the town…. Told to rest awhile, we first resumed the homely repast so sharply interrupted the evening before. Next we stretched ourselves on the ground to make up lost sleep, and rest our feet after a twenty-four hours’ scarcely broken march, and get our heads level for the coming test.


Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg: My experiences with the 20th Maine on Little Round Top by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

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