One of the most famous fights that regiment participated in was the attack of the left flank of the Union line on July 2, 1863, during the battle of Gettysburg. Now the stuff of legends, novels, and a movie, the between the William C. Oates’s Alabamians and the 20th Maine Regiment was a gritty combat that is still confusing to fully decipher the individual details from primary source, especially due to the survivors’ “memory wars.” Among the things that stands out in Oates’s writing is his description of seeing friends and acquaintances fall in combat and also the attempt to rescue the wounded. Interestingly Joshua L. Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, had a similar memory of trying to retrieve their wounded.
Within the experience of Civil War combat, a significant possibility loomed a soldier might see a family member, close friend, or long-time neighbor wounded or killed beside him. Many companies formed in local communities, keeping these men in close proximity to each other. Sometimes this could be a steadying effect since the volunteer soldiers did not want to have a cowardly reputation among their family or friends who would witness their behavior. However, this could also “make it a hard day for Mother” and entire communities could be devastated by battlefield loss. The closeness of the soldier ranks is evidenced in the combat care of the wounded, with first aid or rescue from battlefield danger often coming first from the hands of comrades and later from the medical men.
On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, Oates and the Alabamians advanced to attack. After going over a portion of Big Round Top and crossing the saddle-land, they readied to drive Union line off the southern side of Little Round Top. Vincent’s brigade of Union soldiers, anchored by the 20th Maine on the far left repelled the attacks. Repeatedly, Oates and his men rushed up the slope and pressed Chamberlain and the Mainers. Casualties were heavy. Oates remembered:
“My men obeyed and advanced about half way to the enemy’s position, but the fire was so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk against a strong wind, and then slowly, doggedly, gave back a little; then with no one upon the left or right of me, my regiment exposed, while the enemy was still under cover, to stand there and die was sheer folly; either to retreat or advance became a necessity. The Lieutenant-Colonel, I.B. Feagin, had lost his leg at Plum Run; the heroic Captain Ellison had fallen; while Captain Brainard, one of the bravest and best officers in the regiment, in leading his company forward, fell, exclaiming, “O God! That I could see my mother,” and instantly expired. Lieutenant John A. Oates, my dear brother, succeeded to the command of the company, but was pierced through by a number of bullets, and fell mortally wounded. Lieutenant Cody fell mortally wounded, Captain Bethune and several other officers were seriously wounded, while the carnage in the ranks was appalling.[i]
The fight ebbed and flowed as the Confederates continued waves of attack, fall back, reform, and attack again. The Union troops held, but were sometimes forced back and then regained their main line again. Chamberlain remembered:
“It had seemed to us were all the while holding our own, and had never left it. But now that the smoke dissolved, we saw our dead and wounded all out in front of us, mingled with more of the enemy….
“Shall they die there, under the enemy’s feet, and under your eyes?” Words like those brokenly uttered from heart to heart, struck the stalwart groups holding together for a santd, and roused them to the front quicker than any vice or bugle of command. These true-hearted men but a little before buffeted back and forth by superior force, and now bracing for a dubious test, dashed dwon the death-strewn slope into the face of the rallied and recovering foe, and hurled them, tore them from our above our fallen as the tiger avenges its young. Nor did they stop till they had cleared the farthest verge of the fiel, redeemed by the loving for the lost—the brave for the brave.
Now came a longer lull. But this meant, not rest, but thought and action. First, it was to gather our wounded, and bear them…for saving life, or peace in dying….”[ii]
The fighting surged again, as the Alabamians continued their attacks. Finally, out of ammunition, Chamberlain contemplated a bayonet charge. As he prepared to give the orders “brave, warm-hearted Lieutenant Melcher, of the Color Company, whose Captain and nearly half of his men were down, came up [to me] and asked if he might take his company and go forward and pick up one or two of his men left wounded on the field, and bring them in before the enemy got too near.” Chamberlain admired the lieutenant’s courage, replying, “Yes, sir, in a moment! I am about to order a charge.”[iii]
Down the slope the Alabamians had lost heavily, and Oates claimed he prepared to retreat, describing the scene:
“With a withering and deadly fire pouring in upon us from every direction, it seemed that the regiment was doomed to destruction. While one man was shot in the face, his right-hand or left-hand comrade was shot in the side or back…. My dead and wounded were then nearly as great in number as those still on duty. They literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle.”[iv]
Across that slippery slope of battle, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine made their famous charge, pushing the Confederates into retreat and taking many prisoners. Colonel Oates escaped capture, but the regiment that answered his roll call later that afternoon was about half-strength. “When the battle commenced, four hours previously, mine was the strongest and finest regiment in Hood’s division. Its effectives numbered about five hundred officers and men. Now two hundred and twenty-three enlisted men answered at roll-call, and more than one-half of the officers had been left on the field – only nineteen answered to their names.” A few men and officers would reappear after escapes later that evening or recovery from heat related illness.
Just as soldiers from the 20th Maine rescued their comrades, a few men from the 5th Alabama “voluntarily went back across the mountain, and in the darkness penetrated the Federal lines, for the purpose of removing some of our wounded. They reached the scene and started out with some of our wounded. They reached the scene and started out, but were discovered and shot at by the Federal pickets, and had in consequence to leave the wounded, but succeeded in getting back to the regiment….”[v] The attempt failed, but reflected that soldierly desire to know the fate of comrades, bring their injured to medical aid, or be with a dying friend.
It is interesting to note that both Alabama soldiers and troops from Maine attempted to the do the same thing: rescue their wounded. Perhaps it can be seen as a desire and action that went beyond military necessity and reached a glimpse of humanity into the relentless combat. It certainly illustrates the consciousness of soldiers to their wounded comrades’ situations and the strong desire to provide aid to their messmates, friends, or family who had fallen in combat. The fight to protect the wounded and the midnight adventure to try to bring aid and rescue is an underlying story in the left flank fight for Little Round Top and offers a chance to remember that these soldiers cared deeply both about the outcome of their fight and about their fallen friends.
[i] William C. Oates, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905), page 218.
[ii] Joshua L. Chamberlain, Through Blood & Fire at Gettysburg: My Experiences with the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top, (Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994).
[iv] William C. Oates, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905), page 220
[v] William C. Oates, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905), page 225-226.