Maine at Gettysburg
Report of Maine Commissioners 1898
While there are historians who love and cherish the story of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg,
there are others who seem confused by their popularity and have written long articles on why they are of little importance.
To understand their popularity we have to understand how our own society interprets history.
History is not as static and unchanging as we might expect it to be.
Each generation focuses on moments that touch them or teach them. Some look for stories that are inspirational,
that teach or motivate or give us hope.
Why do we still know the story of Seabiscuit, the little horse that could, it is only for these reasons.
A mild mannered college professor fresh from his books and a gruff band of woodsmen from Maine had every right to fail on the second day
of July in 1863 when they ran out of ammunition on Little Round Top, but they did not.
From the day after to years after this story has been retold as an inspiration that the impossible may be possible.
Of course everyone and every generation is different. We all find different things to inspire us, for some character is paramount, for others the best statistics,
we sometimes love the winners and sometimes we are even touched by the losers.
Did the 20th Maine really save the day at Gettysburg?
For those who believe that the telling of the story overemphasized the importance of the hill I submit the following quote by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Spaulding of the 19th Maine,
Lest it may give the impression that I think or claim that my regiment did all the work, and fired all the guns, and crushed out the Rebellion, I want to relate an incident that occurred in the fall of 1865. I listened to the thrilling story of the Twentieth Maine at Gettysburg told by our beloved Companion who has so lately gone from us, General Chamberlain. The following day I met him in the presence of a number of mutual friends when I said to him, with, perhaps some little feeling, "I see General you claim that the Twentieth Maine saved the day at Gettysburg." "Of course I do," he quickly responded. "Hitherto," I said, "I have believed that the Nineteenth Maine saved the day at Gettysburg." "You have a right to entertain the belief, for it is true," he said, then added, "don't you understand, sir, that every picket that sticks to the fence may claim the credit of keeping the pigs out of the garden."
From a letter written from Chamberlain to Spear on November 27, 1896 it would appear that the history seen here on page 252
was written by Spear.
Spear's account was written years after the monument dedication for publication in this book.
The history read on the day of the dedication was by Howard Prince. Prince was historian for
the 20th Maine even though he did not actively participate in the Battle of Gettysburg.
In his 1889 address Prince made no mention of a right wheel or Spear's great responsibility.2
In other accounts Spear would claim to have had no advance warning of the charge,
here however it is stated,
At this crisis, with the quick and resolute instinct to strike before he was
struck, Chamberlain staked all upon a desperate counter-charge. He repaired to the left centre to advise
Capt. Ellis Spear who, acting as field officer, was in charge there,
of his new purpose. Great responsibility was to fall upon this officer, as his flank was to start the movement, and moreover to become the
wheeling flank, as the movement must swing on the right as a pivot; otherwise the regiment would be cut in two by the enemy,
massing on the centre, as they naturally would do.
Spear's varying accounts of this battle and their credibility are still up for debate today. To compare them see Spear vs. Spear.