A Day of Laurels: The 20th Maine at Gettysburg
The story of the 20th Maine and the fight for Little Round Top at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 is a familiar one for most Civil War buffs and historians, the details of that fight being a major part of the 1993 film Gettysburg. I can remember my own fascination with the Civil War growing as a result of seeing that film many years ago, and my appreciation for the movie grew as I learned more of its broad cultural impact. Whether you love the movie or its the movie you love to hate, no one can deny that the story of the battle as presented in the movie has done much to shape the popular memory of the real battle of Gettysburg.
Today's blog post features a letter from a soldier of the 20th Maine written just three days after Pickett's Charge while the 20th Maine was still camped on the field. The story of the 20th Maine as presented by this soldier may lack much of the Hollywood glamor, but it is a story of remarkable heroism honestly told. In describing the famous bayonet charge of the regiment, the author states "soon it came our turn to charge and with a Yankee yell we started. Now was the time for the 20th. One hundred Rebels jumped up from behind the rocks and were taken in charge. The rest of us went on. I do not delight in slaughter, but there was a satisfaction in peppering the skedaddling chivalry. One after another would give himself up to our men. Quite a number of them scattered out into an open field with about a half dozen of us following them. When they found they could not get undercover, they turned, some of them throwing down their arms, some bringing them in delivering them up. One gave his gun and equipment to me, and another, having thrown away his arms, had only himself to give. These two, who I took alone, I marched back and delivered to the adjutant."
I wish I could state with certainty who the author is, but unfortunately cannot; I suspect that it was written by Corporal Elisha S. Coan of Co. D, a 20-year-old from Garland, Maine who served in the color guard of the regiment and later wrote a memoir of the battle. But it is also possible that it was written by Private Ellis S. Collins of Co. F, a 20 year-old from Harmony, Maine. The letter is merely signed as "E.S.C." and was published on the first page of the July 24, 1863 edition of the Ellsworth American published in Ellsworth, Maine by N.K. Sawyer.
Bivouac near the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
July 6, 1863
I believe my last was written from Aldie, Virginia; since then, we have marched about 200 miles and have been in three different states: Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. We marched to Leesburg thence to Edward’s Ferry and then across into Maryland to Frederick where we spent the Sabbath. Monday, we marched to a town called Liberty thence to Uniontown then to Union Mills. From there we marched to Hanover, Pennsylvania and from there to what is now a battlefield near Gettysburg.
The battle commenced Wednesday, but our corps (the 5th) did not enter it until about 3 o’clock on Thursday which was soon enough for our regiment to lose about 140 in killed and wounded, 33 of whom were killed, and severely all the rest were wounded severely as we had it hand to hand. Our line of battle was formed about 3 p.m. and skirmishers were sent out immediately, but scarcely were they out of sight when the enemy charged our left flank, the force of which fell mostly upon our regiment.
|I visited Gettysburg for the first time ever in 2020. Visiting Little Round Top and the monument to the famous 20th Maine was certainly a highlight of the trip.|
Here I will briefly describe our position in line of battle- we were stationed on the brow of a hill covered with oak trees. It was a craggy broken place. We were on the side of the hill towards the Rebels. There was considerable small growth among the larger trees so that we could not see the Rebel line as soon as they could us. This was quite an advantage to them. This position we were to hold at all hazards. We were barely formed in line before we heard the Rebels yell for a charge. Soon the skirmishers, who were about ten rods from us at the foot of the hill, began firing. Still the enemy’s line advanced and bullets began whizzing over our heads. The skirmishers soon fell back, and we commenced firing.
Our regiment was the extreme left of our line which was about two miles long. The Rebels, intending to flank us, threw a whole brigade against our one regiment. Our left wing had to fall back to a more secure position, the Rebel line advancing to the lower edge of the rocks. From where we made our stand, we poured in upon them a deadly fire. Many of our brave boys fell amid the rocks and oaks to rise to more. One of the color guard was shot dead and another wounded.
|Corporal James F. Safford|
Co. K, 20th Maine
Every time a Rebel showed his head above the rocks, he was almost sure to fall. Still, for all that, they had the advantage of us. They could see us distinctly when we could not see them, and they had a brigade against our regiment, so our prisoners told us. Soon it came our turn to charge and with a Yankee yell we started. Now was the time for the 20th. One hundred Rebels jumped up from behind the rocks and were taken in charge. The rest of us went on. I do not delight in slaughter, but there was a satisfaction in peppering the skedaddling chivalry. One after another would give himself up to our men. Quite a number of them scattered out into an open field with about a half dozen of us following them. When they found they could not get undercover, they turned, some of them throwing down their arms, some bringing them in delivering them up. One gave his gun and equipment to me, and another, having thrown away his arms, had only himself to give. These two, who I took alone, I marched back and delivered to the adjutant.
Night soon came on. There was a hill in front of the one on which we were, on it which was Rebs. We were afraid they would leave and so came the order to charge the hill. We threw out skirmishers and advanced cautiously, taking in this way, some 30 or 40 prisoners who said they were pickets sent to support the 15th Alabama, the regiment we captured. Not a gun was fired. Our men listened and found out what regiment they belonged to; and when they hailed us to know the regiment, they were told to come in, we were waiting for them. So, they came in, and great was their surprise when they found it was a Yankee trick.
We took 230 prisoners. The brigade which fought against us was Stonewall’s old brigade, the first command that he had as a general at First Bull Run and who were never beaten before! A windrow of dead Rebels lay under the brink of the hill killed by bullets of the 20th Maine. It was a day of laurels for us, for which we paid with 30 dead and 111 wounded heroes.
The Rebs are on a grand skedaddle. They burned a large wagon train the other night and left many disabled guns. We have not had a mail for over three weeks. Another time I have been under a terrific fire, yet thank God, am safe. Other battles must come, but come weal or woe, here is brave good courage till the end.
Letter from E.S.C., 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry, Ellsworth American (Maine), July 24, 1863, pg. 1
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