Account of the part played by the 20th Maine in the Battle of Gettysburg
This account gives another look at two controversies. The first was whether it was Spear or Nichols who first came to Chamberlain with news
of the flanking movement. Capt. Howard Prince recalled in his address at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument,
"Now it is well known that our gallant Lieut. Nichols
always maintained that he first made known to Col. Chamberlain, and the Colonel in his official report
says that his attention was called to it by an officer from the centre, which was about Nichols's
position, and that then mounting upon a rock he was able to discern it for himself, and took the action
already described, Major Spear is equally sure that he called Col. Chamberlain's attention to it before
the regiment was fairly under fire, and that the new disposition was then made. "
Chamberlain would state in his Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg
"Lieutenant Nichols, a bright officer near our center, ran up to tell me something queer was going on in his front, behind those engaging us.
I sprang forward, mounted a great rock in the midst of his company line, and was soon able to resolve the "queer" impression into positive knowlege."
In this account Coan describes Chamberlain already on the rock when an officer from the left [Spear] comes up.
This suggests that Nichols had already alerted Chamberlain to the movement as he was already seen on the rock as Spear came up.
"Col. Chamberlain was standing upon a rock about 15 ft. in rear of the colors. I noticed that some of the bullets came from our
front and soon some officers came from our left lengthwise of the regt line. I said to my comrade on my right they are getting on our flank.
Just then an officer from the left our our line came up to Col. Chamberlain and reported that the enemy was flanking us and getting in our rear.
Col. C met this new movement by ordering a left backward wheel of the left wing of the regt with the colors for a pivot."
In his speech at the 20th Maine Monument dedication
Chamberlain would give Spear credit for alerting him of another flanking movement.
"I take note also of the surprise of several officers to hear that it was some other than a single one
of them who came to me in the course of the fight with information of the enemy's extended
movements to envelop our left. Now, as might well be believed of such gentlemen and soldiers, they
are all right; no one of them is wrong.
It was quite early in the action, and while as yet only our right wing was hotly engaged, that an
officer from that centre reported to me that a large body of the enemy could be seen in his front,
moving along the bottom of the valley below us, deliberately toward our extreme left and rear. I
sprang upon a rock in our line, which allowed me to see over the heads of those with whom we were
then engaged, and the movement and intent of the enemy was plain to be seen. It was this timely
knowledge that enabled me to plan the prompt movement which you so admirably executed - that
rapid change of front, doubling back upon ourselves, and the single rank formation, which proved so
effectual for our stubborn resistance.
Sometime after this, while we were hard pressed all upon sides, an officer from the extreme left
reported to me, with great anxiety, that the enemy were outflanking our left, thrown back as it was.
I found the situation critical, and immediately ordered the right company to repair to the extreme left
in support, and sent to the commanding officer of the 83rd Penn. regiment, asking him to extend his
left to cover the ground vacated on our right. But as a found this movement produced much
confusion, and this withdrawal was likely to be misconstrued into a retreat, I was obliged to
countermand the order, and let the left wing hold on as best it could, and as best it did."
The second controversy was whether Chamberlain ordered a charge and the men hesitated as described by Reverend Gerrish in his book
, or whether the men charged on their own without orders as described by Spear late in his life.
Rather than the regiment taking off without orders as Spear alleges, Coan describes
Melcher asking for permission to move forward to recover the wounded and Chamberlain hesitating to grant the request.
"Maj. and ex Mayor Melcher was then a Lieut in command of the Color Co. F. as Capt. Keen was assisging Col. Chamberlain in the capacity of Maj.
Melcher conceived the idea of advancing the colors so that our line would cover our wounded and dead so that they could be removed to the rear and he asked Col.
C for the privilege of advancing his Co for that pourpose. Col C hesitated for the step would be a hazardous one"
Chamberlain's account Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg
agrees with this account. Chamberlain recalling Melcher's request,
"This would be a most hazardous move in itself, and in the desperate moment, we could not break our line. But I admired him.
With a glance, he understood, I answreed, 'Yes, sir, in moment! I am about to order a charge.'"
As to the accusation of the men hesitating, Nichols would write to the Lincoln County News
in response to Reverend Gerrish's book
where the Reverend had suggested after the order to charge was given the regiment hesitated until Melcher sprang up "with a flash of his sword" to encourage them on.
"I say, and I know what I say to be true, that instead of any hesitation on the part of Co. K, and before the completion of
the order, it was anticipated by them, and when the command 'Charge' was given they were already on the move, and that with such a rush that
the officer who could get in front of them must have been exceedingly alert in his movements."
In 1889 Chamberlain would respond to this debate in the speech he gave at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument
"I am sorry to have heard it intimated that any hesitated when that order was given. That was not
so. No man hesitated. There might be the appearance of it to those who did not understand the whole
situation. The left wing bent back like an ox-bow, or sharp lunette, hand to take some little time to
come up into the line of our general front, so as to form the close, continuous edge which was to
strike like a sword-cut upon the enemy's ranks. By the time they had got up and straightened the line,
the centre and salient, you may be sure, was already in motion."
In this account Coan describes the men as hesitating, but only doing so until they heard the official order of forward.
"Immediately Melcher passed to the
front of his company and placing himself in front of the colors ordered his men forward other officers followed his example.
The men not knowing that the movement was sanctioned by the Col hesitated, realizing the hazardous risk and what the result would be if unsuccessful.
Then Col C gave the order "forward". This was heard by but few but it spread along our lines and the regt with a yell equal to a thousand
men sprang forward in a wild mad charge. "