Ellis Spear Vs. Ellis Spear
Spear would write of Chamberlain after Chamberlain's death that he, "was absolutely unable to tell the truth."
This is an interesting accusation considering Spear's own varying testimony over the years.
As we look at quotes from Ellis Spear we see his story start to change.
We will start with a comparison of Spear's statements of Chamberlain's Petersburg wound. For those unfamiliar with
Chamberlain's wound, the best place to start before looking at Spear's statements below would be the description of the wound by one of Chamberlain's doctors.
See 1883 Sickness and Operation
Ellis Spear Diary 1864
Moved towards the front in support Rested in field. Then in woods. Some shelling. Our troops pressing the Enemy gradually back. Moved into the woods.
Then forward to a ravine. In the Eve. went back to see Col Chamberlain. He is, I fear, mortally wounded.
Letter from Susie & one from Keene & others. 1st & 2nd Brigade assault the works of the Enemy but are repulsed, losing heavily.
- The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear. pg 250.
Spear's 1885 speech at the Dedication of Bowdoin’s Memorial Hall.
A terrible fire was opened upon them. Three times was General Chamberlain’s horse shot under him. Then he himself received a shot, going completely through both
hips. He was unhorsed, but he stood his ground, though unable to walk. He was bleeding copiously. His boots filled with blood and his pantaloons were saturated.
As he grew weaker, he thrust his sword into the ground and leaned upon it, still holding his position and encouraging his men. Becoming weaker still from loss of blood,
and unable to stand with that support, he sank upon his knees, but still kept the upright position and encouraged his men. Then he fell prostrate entirely, wholly unable
to keep erect. Soldiers came to his aid. “No,” he said, “I am too far gone.
You can do nothing for me. Help the others.” But they lifted him on a stretcher and carried him away.
Spear wrote several letters attempting to have Chamberlain's pension amount raised.1
Chamberlain had attempted to have his pension increased, but
the doctors examining him in 1893 determined that even though Chamberlain was suffering from a severe infection that confined him to bed at the time of their inspection,
total disability, they judged, occurred only 1/4 of the time and was not permanent. They therefore could not raise his pension beyond the 30 dollars a month he was already getting.2
Not succeeding in gaining Chamberlain a full retirement Spear would also recommend Chamberlain for the position of Collector of Customs at the Port of Portland.
1899 Spear to Amos Allen
I was with him when he was wounded, and I know how severely it was. The common belief was that he would not recover from it. His is the most
conspicuous and singular case in the State of distinguished service in the war, old and poor.
But something changed around the turn of the century, suddenly Spear's tone went from praise to disdain.
Though Spear's attacks on Chamberlain started before Chamberlain's death, Spear would find a willing listener after the General's death.
Oliver W. Norton had been the brigade's bugler, his fondness for Vincent caused perhaps some bitterness against Chamberlain who had been often introduced to audiences as the "Hero of Little Round Top."
1916 Spear to O. W. Norton
Of his wound at Petersburg I know, as I went back to the Hospital after dark and was with him. He was in charge of our regimental surgeon and was sitting up, but making some fuss. He was wounded in the penis.
Of course I made no examination but the surgeon explained the wound to me. It was a painful wound of course, as a catheter had to be introduced to carry urine past the wound.
That was the only time he was touched by iron or lead. He artfully made much out of that wound, by adroit and persistent lecturing and writing after the war.
His literary ability was of a high order and he always had a gracious manner, but was absolutely unable to tell the truth and was of inordinate vanity.
As far as he could, he robbed Vincent. Did I ever tell you the true story of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg?
- Styple, William. With a Flash of His Sword. pg 297 - 298
It is clear that in one of these accounts Spear found himself "unable to tell the truth." What is not clear is his reasons for changing his story.3
Spear's "True story of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg" also changed over the years. Yet strangely, and despite a common modern misconception, started undoubtedly
by William B. Styple, Spear did not emphasize Holman Melcher's
actions until after 1905, and even then the description is so vague he may not have been referring to Melcher at all.
In a wartime letter to the editor of a Portland paper that was saved in John Chamberlain's diary Spear would state,
The Twentieth Maine at Gettysburg (newspaper clipping in John Chamberlain's diary described in John's writing as "Capt. Spear's letter")
The Colonel perceiving that their object was to gain our rear, bent back the left wing until it was nearly
perpendicular to the first line and facing the enemy"
- Trulock, Alice Rains. In the Hands of Providence. pg 438
...in the hottest part of the fight, when it was perhaps uncertain whether we should hold the place assigned us, the Colonel ordered a charge!
- Diane Monroe Smith. Fanny and Joshua. pg 348
men encouraged by the order rushed down over the slope with yells.
Col. Chamberlain handled the regiment in a splendid manner. Though constantly exposed to the hottest of the fire, no officer could be cooler, or more
skilled and prompt to make use of favorable opportunities.
- Trulock, Alice Rains. In the Hands of Providence. pg 443
In 1895 and 96 Spear would be working on the regimental history that would appear in the book
Maine at Gettysburg
, he and Chamberlain shared several back and forth letters on the subject.
In one Spear would state,
Ellis Spear to JLC May 22, 1895
I received orders directly from you to bend back a little the two left companies, when I had reported to you that the enemy was
extending beyond our left. I did so, slightly bending back two companies to more directly face the enemy at that point.
I do not think that that Land was in command of company H, at that time for I distinctly remember that he was with me on the left
assisting in steadying the line and was with me when we charged. I got no orders during the fight excepting from you directly.
Capt. Keen was in command of company F, and was present at the battle. I do not remember to have seen him during the fight,
his company was the color company, he being at that time the third Capt. in the line.
I never before heard of Melcher suggesting an advance. For myself, as I said, the only orders I had were from you directly.
Spear's 1896 regimental history printed in Maine at Gettysburg
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 this 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.
Personal Memoranda of the War of the Rebellion
In 1896 Spear also started writing his personal memoirs, however the story presented in this unpublished account is very different when compared to his Maine at Gettysburg account.
The Maine at Gettysburg account leaves out altogether any mention of an officer reporting the flaking moment to Chamberlain, thus avoiding the controversy of whether it
was Spear or Nichols.
It also not only states that Chamberlain ordered a charge, but that the advance warning of the charge to Spear was a crucial part of its success.
Historian James Morgan wholeheartedly agrees with this scenario stating,
"Wheeling an infantry line requires considerable control and coordination even on the drill field. In the conditions then existing on Little Round Top,
the very fact that the maneuver happened strongly suggests that clear preparatory instructions were given and that enough time passed between those
instructions and their execution that the men knew exactly what was expected of them. Who but the regimental commander would have given either the
instructions or the order to advance?" 4
Spear however, would write a very different account in his unpublished memoirs.
Because Spear wrote it over the course of a number of years it is hard to determine when Spear wrote the section on Gettysburg; but it is clear that after
the section was complete Spear went back and added a passage marking with an X where he wanted it to be inserted into his work.
The inserted passage reads in part,
...In explanation of the charge I add here the story told by the men at the time, for it seemed strange that I did not get orders or
notice, seeing that I was in my duty as Acting Major in command of the left of the line & the extreme flank.
We had gone into position on the slope of the hill facing to left & rear. The line on the left bending back from the colors. On the first appearance of
the enemy, coming down the opposite hill, Big Round Top, & scattering themselves through the trees & bushes, I went to Col. Chamberlain & told him that they seemed to
overlap us, & asked him if I should not bend back the left a little more to meet this flanking movement He assented. As the sharp fire continued the ranks & turned & the men readjusted themselves
amongst the rocks, thus drawing back the line about the center, and the men wounded by the earlier fire, were lying in front, side exposed and calling to their comrades to take them back out of the fire.
Some men in Co. K. suggested that they "advance & cover them" & therefore started the shout to advance. The shout & corresponding movement
immediately spread to the left, (and I suppose to the right also.) But the cause & nature of the movement was not also transmitted with the shout, it was
understood to be an order to charge - I repeated the order, which came "in the air," though I had received none directly, as it seemed to be the only thing to be done -
Fortunately it resulted well.
- The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear pg 315
As he had decades earlier, here Spear again insists that it was he and not James Nichols who reported to Chamberlain with news of the flanking movement. In this version not only did Spear
report of the Confederate advance but he also told Chamberlain what actions to take.
In his 1889 address
attempted to settle the dispute claiming both men came to him at different times with news of different flanking movements.
Historians have observed that the memories of Elisha Coan would seem to suggest that
Nichols had indeed arrived first. 5
Spear, apparently refusing to share the credit with Nichols, decides in this account to give
Nichols' Company K credit for starting the charge. When rewriting his memoirs yet again sometime after 1905 Spear states "A brave fellow
in the company on the left of the colors, proposed to his fellows to advance and cover [the wounded]"
this statement no longer gives Nichols the credit. It is possible, though perhaps a stretch, that he is alluding to Melcher, who was in command of company F,
the color company, but he may very well be referring to someone in company A to their left.
In 1882 before Spear would write any of these versions of his memoirs Theodore Gerrish suggested in his book Army Life a Private's Reminiscences of the Civil War
Chamberlain gave the order to charge the line hesitated until Melcher jumped in front with a flash of his sword and lead the men on.
Continuing this theme in 1889 Howard Prince would state in his address at Gettysburg,
Lieut. Melcher, in command of Co. F., has suggested to Col. Chamberlain an advance of his company, in order to cover the line of wounded, exposed by
the retirement of the left wing, but such a movement if unsuccessful, might give the enemy
opportunity for a counter charge which would sweep us from the hill. Yet matters are now at such
a crisis that boldness, even that of desperation, may be the truest safety, and the Colonel has decided
to take the offensive with the whole regiment. The die is thrown, and the one word "bayonets" rings
from Chamberlain's lips like a bugle note, and down that worn and weary line the word and the action
go, like a flash of lightning through the powder-smoke. To the anxious, frenzied heart of every man
in that battle-torn array, it came as the chance of life to the drowning, and as his hand drew the
shining weapon his foot was advanced to carry it toward the bosom of his foe. The lines were in
motion before the words of command were completed, and Col. Chamberlain does not know whether
he ever finished that order. In an instant, less time than has been required to tell it, Melcher has
sprung ahead of the line, the colors are advancing, and with one wild rush the devoted regiment hurls
itself down the ledge into the midst of the gray lines, not thirty paces distant.
Spear certainly knew of the Melcher story by the time of both his first and
second versions of his memoirs so it woud be expected that if he meant Melcher he would say so.6
While neither of Spear's two memoirs were published during his lifetime, Spear did publish a similar account in 1913....
The Left at Gettysburg - National Tribune, June 12, 1913
[...]I returned immediately to my place on the left, and almost immediately thereafter I heard a shout of “Forward!” on the right and progressing to the left,
and, looking saw the center advancing. Wondering for an instant what this might mean (as I received no orders), the next impulse was that if any part of the regiment was
charging all must, we all shouted “Forward!” and plunged down the hill into the enemy. Some of them, nearer, crouching behind the boulders, threw down their guns and we ran over them.
The main body yielding easily, as it seemed, ran among the trees behind them.
Then we discovered Morrill and Co. B. They had been behind a stone wall in rear of the enemy, and had been paying their respects to him in true backwoods fashion. They were all sharpshooters,
Captain and all, and loved a gun. [...]
But how did we happen to charge? I give the story as told by the men at the time and on the spot. It appeared that on the left of the colors there were men wounded
by the earlier fire and left in front as the line readjusted itself among the rocks. They were calling upon their comrades to get them back out of the fire.
Comrades will understand that that involved cessation of fire on the part of the men attempting it, and danger and disturbance to the line at a critical moment.
But some enterprising and undaunted fellow said, “It’s a damned shame to leave the boys there; let’s advance and cover them.” And those in the immediate vicinity
joined the cry of “Forward!” Then the wounded would be in the rear and in reach of the stretch-bearers.
The shout was heard and the movement seen to right and left further than the explanation of the original purpose of the
movement, and every comrade also will understand that those were good men who made that proposition and carried it out.
In this published account Spear leaves the description of the person responsible for the charge very vague.
Instead of it being, "some men in Co. K," or "A brave fellow in the company on the left of the colors," it is now "some enterprising and undaunted fellow," with no mention
of where he was from, we only see that the wounded were left of the colors. Neither Melcher nor Nichols had stepped forward to
claim credit, nor any other person "left of the colors." Melcher, who unlike Spear was within earshot of Chamberlain, stated in his account
, "Colonel Chamberlain gave the order to "fix bayonets,"
and almost before he could say "charge!" the regiment leaped down the hill and closed in with the foe, whom we found behind every rock and tree."
Nichols would make a similar claim to the Lincoln County News in April 1882 in response to Reverend Gerrish's book Army Life
where the Reverend 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.
Clearly Nichols was angry that it was suggested he hesitated, but neither he nor Melcher showed any signs of anger over the idea that Chamberlain ordered "Bayonets" and then "Charge."
William Livermore who was a member of the color guard on that day wrote in his diary,
We stood until our center had lost half our men, and we knew we could not stand longer. We were ordered to charge
them when there were two to one. With fixed bayonets and a yell we rushed on them, which so frightened them, that not another shot was fired on us."
Undoubtedly Chamberlain read Spear's 1913 account. Chamberlain would die not too many months later asking
that his family not list any of his many accomplishments on his tombstone, only his name and the years of his birth and death.