July 1, 2013

Gettysburg: 'A most unexpected battle'

Mainers are among the visitors at the site of the 20th Maine's heroic charge at Little Round Top.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – The morning mist had given way to midday haze and humidity Sunday as a throng of more than 50 people gathered on a rocky hillside where, 150 years ago this Tuesday, about 350 Maine men changed history.

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A Maine flag is planted near the base of the monument to the 20th Maine Regiment, located on the slopes of Little Round Top where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought.

Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief

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Re-enactors pose for a tintype photograph Sunday following a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, the last major event of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief

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"This is a most unexpected battle," Bill Hewitt, a ranger with the National Park Service, told the group gathered atop Little Round Top. "We have two forces moving as quickly as they can knowing whoever gets here first is going to control the battle."

The 20th Maine Regiment's exploits on that hot day in July 1863 are well known. It drove back repeated assaults from a larger Alabama force attempting an end run around the Union Army's far-left flank -- a maneuver that, if successful, might have changed the outcome of the pivotal Civil War battle.

But as the size of Hewitt's tour group suggested, it's a story that clearly still resonates.

Ken and Shelly Quinn made the trip from Lisbon Falls, Maine, with their three children -- Eryn, Adrian and Sean -- to help the family connect with history. Gettysburg is the focal point of a weeklong drive through history that will also take them to Philadelphia's Independence Hall and to the monuments of Washington, D.C.

Ken Quinn said he became interested in Gettysburg fairly recently after reading about Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain -- the commander of the 20th Maine -- and his daring bayonet charge that, as Hewitt put it, effectively "breaks the back of the Confederates" that day.

"I realized what a hero he was," Quinn said of Chamberlain while standing near the site of the charge on Little Round Top.

Tens of thousands of tourists, historians and re-enactors will descend on Gettysburg this week to remember 150 years later. The Union victory in what was a little-known farming community marked the turning point in the Civil War but came at a huge cost for both armies, with an estimated 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing.

Today, hundreds of stone monuments stand in silent tribute to the men and units that fought at locations throughout Gettysburg, most of which are maintained -- or not -- to allow today's visitors to see what soldiers would have seen a century and a half ago, minus the smoke and carnage.

Some of those visiting Gettysburg on Sunday chose to relive Pickett's Charge -- the final frontal assault that left 5,000 Confederates dead or wounded in less than a hour -- by marching across the mile-long stretch of open farm fields to where the Union guns were positioned.

Others chose to experience Gettysburg by rewaging the battle themselves.

About 45 minutes after Hewitt's tour wrapped up, the thud of distant cannons could be heard from atop Big Round Top, another hill taken by Chamberlain and the 20th Maine.

Because re-enactments are not allowed on the battlefields themselves, thousands of re-enactors shouldering muskets and dressed in blue and gray woolen outfits gathered at a farm about four miles from downtown Gettysburg. It was one of two, large-scale re-enactments scheduled for this week by different, competing organizations.

Units from throughout New England -- including several from Maine -- participated in the massive skirmish as thousands more watched. Among them were about 20 members of the 3rd Vermont Volunteers, most of whom were camping out Civil War-style for the entire week.

"I wanted to experience what the 19th century soldier experienced on the field, and I got it in spades," said Ed Miller, a Vermonter taking a break from the near 90-degree heat and humidity while sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Soldiers’ National Cemetery holds the remains of 104 Maine soldiers who died during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. In the background, Ken Quinn and his sons, Adrian and Sean, of Lisbon Falls pause to read placards placed at the graves of some of the Maine soldiers.

Kevin Miller / Washington Bureau Chief

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A tour guide Sunday discusses the 20th Maine Regiment’s bayonet charge on Little Round Top, which thwarted Confederate attempts to flank the Union lines at Gettysburg. Col. Joshua Chamberlain ordered the charge against the attacking forces because his troops were nearly out of ammunition and he was told to hold the far-left flank of the Union lines “at all hazard.”

Photos by Kevin Miller/Washington Bureau Chief

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Sgt. Charles W. Steel of the 20th Maine Regiment is one of 104 Maine men buried at Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park.

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