I had the chance several years ago to visit Mt. Rushmore with my family. If you ever have the chance to make the trip, do it. The 60′ busts carved by John Borglum into the granite face of the mountain are breathtaking. I have saved this picture for some time, waiting for the right moment to include it in one of my postings. It seems to me that we need to get back to the visionary leadership that these four presidents represent. More on that another time.
Today, I want to talk about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a great hero of the Civil War. On July 2, 1863, he was standing on Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg and made a decision that still affects us today. One person. One decision.
He was a thirty-four year old schoolteacher, but on the hot, humid day of July 2, 1863, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was in the fight of his life. It was a desperate moment. The troops of the 20th Maine had been ordered to defend the left flank of the Federal line at Gettysburg at all costs. Chamberlain’s superior had made it clear, “whatever you do, you can’t let them come through here.” If the Confederate Army overran them, the rebels would gain the high ground, and the Union Army would quickly be defeated
Earlier that same day, the men from Maine had successfully repulsed repeated attacks by courageous Confederates from the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments. On the fourth assault, Chamberlain was knocked down by a bullet that hit him dead center-in the belt buckle. Realizing that he wasn’t seriously injured, the Colonel scrambled to his feet, continuing to fight. Again, he and his men halted the enemy’s charge, and again, the rebels retreated down the hill.
Finally, exhausted and low on ammunition the valiant soldiers from Maine appeared near the breaking point. As they waited for the next charge, Chamberlain felt sorry for his men. He later recalled,
“Their leader had no real knowledge of warfare or tactics. I was only a stubborn man and that was my greatest advantage in this fight. I had, deep within me, the inability to do nothing. Chamberlain continued, “I knew I may die, but I also knew that I would not die with a bullet in my back. I would not die in retreat. I am, at least, like the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘This one thing I do. I press on toward the prize.'”
Chamberlain knew what was at stake. If his troops could not hold the line and the flank was turned, the Federal army might be destroyed, the battle lost – and the war with it. Yet only 80 of his men were left alive, and they were now out of ammunition.
The 15th and 47th Alabama with their pale, yellow-gray uniforms, and now reinforced by a Texas regiment, moved up the hill as their high-pitched shriek – the rebel yell- coursed up toward Chamberlain and his men.
Chamberlain stood there for a moment, deep in thought, quickly sorting out the situation. “We can’t retreat,” he thought. “We can’t stay here.” When I am faced with the choice of doing nothing or doing something, I will always choose to act. He turned his back on the advancing rebels, looked down at his men, and then did something totally unexpected.
Facing what appeared to be impending destruction, he ordered a bayonet charge. The battle-weary men in blue obediently fixed bayonets. Colonel Chamberlain began to run, roaring, “Charge! Charge! Charge!” His eighty men lifted their voices to match that of their leader. “Charge! Charge!” they cried into a history about which most people in our country have never heard.
The rebels were sure that these were not the same soldiers they had faced earlier. They must have been reinforced, they thought. A beaten regiment would not charge. In less than five minutes, Chamberlain had his sword on the collarbone of a Confederate captain. “You, sir, are my prisoner,” he stated. The man turned around a fully loaded Colt revolver and offered it to Chamberlain. “Yes sir,” he answered. “I am.”
Within the span of five more minutes, eighty worn-out soldiers, carrying rifles that had no bullets, captured over four hundred enemy soldiers. What a story. But there’s more…
Historians have determined that had Chamberlain not charged that day, the rebels would have won at Gettysburg. Further, historians tell us, had the Confederates won that day, the South would have won the war by the end of summer.
Most people assume that had the South won the war, today we would exist as two countries, the Union and the Confederacy. Historians, however, insist that it would be far more likely that we would now live in a territorially fragmented continent much like Europe. North America would be divided into nine to thirteen countries.
Which would have meant that when Hitler swept across Europe, had Chamberlain not charged that July afternoon some eighty years before, there would not have existed a United States of America to stand the breach.
When Japan systematically invaded the islands of the South Pacific, there would not have been a country big enough, strong enough, wealthy enough, and populous enough to fight and win two wars on two fronts at the same time.
It is not a far stretch to say that the United States of America exists as it does today thanks to a single man most people have never heard of. One man, Joshua Chamberlain, made a decision on the Gettysburg battlefield, and the impact of that decision continues to affect us today.
God Bless America