Chamberlain’s Address for the 20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg

October 3, 1889
20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park. Michael Epstein

Dedication Speech by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:

A quarter of a century ago on this rugged crest you were doing what you deemed your duty. To-day you come with modest main, with care more for truth than for praise, to retrace and record the simple facts - the outward form - of your movements and action. But far more than this entered into your thought and motive, and far greater was the result of the action taken than any statistical description of it could import.

You were making history. The world has recorded for you more than you have written. The centuries to come will share and recognize the victory won here, with growing gratitude. The country has acknowledged your service. Your State is proud of it. The well-earned and unsought fame has moved you already to acknowledge your deserts. Your own loyal and loving zeal for justice has indeed anticipated the State's recognition. At your own cost you set your monument here to mark the ground where faithful service and devotion wrought a result to momentous.

Today your historians have recalled the facts. On that line which has been so patiently and candidly investigated and as far as possible freed from doubt and unclearness, your admirable record leaves little to be desired. But as this is a suitable, if not final, opportunity for accurate and complete statement of these facts, I may be indulged in a remark or two germane to this matter, which recent visits and this occasion itself suggests.

I am certain that the position of this monument is quite to the left of the center of our regimental line when the final charge was ordered. Our original left did not extend quite to the great rock which now supports this memorial of honor. When we changed front with our left wing and extended it by the flank and rear, the color was brought to mark the new centre, which was to become the salient of our formation; and it was placed, I was sorry to do it, on the smooth and open slope, and in a position completely exposed. Beyond this the left was refused and extended in single rank. When the charge was made I was beside the color-bearer, and I know well that we struck the enemy where their line was open to view, and the ground comparatively unobstructed. The color advanced in the direction of the proper front of the right wing, and passed the rock altogether to our left. I am not at all criticizing the judgement of our comrades who selected the great boulder for the base of the monument. It was entirely fitting to mark it with that honor, as it became so conspicuous an object during the terrible struggle - the centre and pivot of the whirlpool that raged around.

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 eh 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.

One more matter. In the third fierce onset of the enemy, through a rift in the rolling smoke I saw with consternation that our centre was nearly shot away, and the color guarded by only a little group, who seemed to be checking the enemy by their heroic bearing and not by numbers, and I sent the adjutant to the commanding officer of the color company, to ask him to hold on if he possibly could, till I could reinforce him from some other regiment. So little expectation had I that the adjutant could live to reach the spot, I pressed into my service a trusted sergeant and dispatched him with the same message. Meantime the crash had come, and out of the flame and smoke emerged that center, bearing the color still aloft, forced back, pressed in upon itself, but solid and firm, and impregnable front, face to the foe. The enemy on their part had also recoiled, and were gathering in the low shrubbery for a new assault. Our ammunition was gone. It was manifest that we could not stand before the wave that was ready to roll upon us. Knowing all this I resolved upon the desperate chances of counter-charge with the bayonet. I at once sent to the left wing to give them notice and time for the required change of front. Just then the brave and thoughtful Lieutenant, commanding the color company, came up to me and said, "I think I could press forward with my company, if you will permit me, and cover the ground where our dead and wounded are." "You shall have the chance," was my answer, "I am about to order a charge. We are to make a great right wheel." What he did, you who know him know. What you did, the world knows.

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 no 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. Nobody hesitated to obey the order. In fact, to tell the truth, the order was never given, or but imperfectly. The enemy were already pressing up the slope. There was only time or need for the words, "Bayonet! Forward to the right!" The quick-witted and tense-nerved men caught the words out of my lips, and almost the action out of my hands.

So much elucidation of facts. You see there may be stories, apparently not consistent with each other, yet all of them true in their time and place, and so far as each actor is concerned.

And while every one here, officer and soldier, did more than his duty, and acted with utmost intelligence and spirit, you must permit me to add the remark that I commanded my regiment that day.

Words elsewhere spoken by me to-day in our State's behalf strive to express the motive and purpose of this great struggle, and the character and consequence of the victory vouchsafed us. It is there I speak of country; here it needs only that I speak of you, and of ground made glorious by you and yours.

The lesson impressed on me as I stand here and my heart and mind traverse your faces, and the years that are gone, is that in a great, momentous struggle like this commemorated here, it is character that tells. I do not mean simply or chiefly bravery. Many a man has that, who may become surprised or disconcerted at a sudden change in the posture of affairs. What I mean by character is a firm and seasoned substance of soul. I mean such qualities or acquirements as intelligence, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, right-mindedness, patience, fortitude, long-suffering and unconquerable resolve.

I could see all this on your faces when you were coming into position here for the desperate encounter; man by man, file by file, on the right into line. I knew that you all knew that was staked on your endurance and heroism. Some of you heard Vincent say to me, with such earnest and prophetic eyes, pointing to the right of our position and the front of the oncoming attack, "You understand, Colonel, this ground must be held at all costs!" I did understand; with a heavy weight on my mind and spirit. You understood; and it was done. Held, and at what cost! Held, and for what effect!

There is no need that I should recount to the friends who stand around us here, what would have happened had this little line - this thin, keen edge of Damascus stell - been broken down from its guard. All can see what would have become of our Brigade swallowed up; of Weed's, struck in the rea; of Hazlitt's guns, taken in the flank and turned to launch their thunder-bolts upon our troops, already sore pressed in the gorge at our feet, and the fields upon the great front and right. Round Top lost - the day lost - Gettysburg lost - who can tell or dream what for loss thence would follow!

I do not know whether any friends who now stand here on this calm and sunny day, comprehend how the weight of such a responsibility presses upon the spirit. We were young then. We do not count ourselves old yet; and these things were done more than twenty-six years ago/. We believe we could do them now; but we wonder how we could have done them then. Doubtless the spring and elasticity of youth helped us to bear the burden and recover from the shock. But something more than youthful ardor and dash was demanded for such a test. And that was yours. In thought, in habit, in experience, in discipline, you were veterans. It was a matter, as I have said, of character. It was the soul of youth suddenly springing into the flush and flower of manhood. It was the force of the characters you had formed in the silent and peaceful years by the mother's knee and by the father's side, which stood you in such stead in the day of trial. And so it is. We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action. This predestination God has given us in charge. No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought. We carry our accustomed manners with us. And it was the boyhood you brought from your homes which made you men; which braced your hearts, which shone upon your foreheads, which held you steadfast in mind and body, and lifted these heights of Gettysburg of immortal glory.

This Round Top spur, as it is easy to see to-day, was a commanding position in that battle, and confessedly the key of the field for that day's fight. It is deliberately so pronounced in official papers by the leaders of both sides. I stood on that summit not long ago with Longstreet and officers of our own army, not so much disposed as he by the events of that day's fighting, to praise the Fifth Corps, and they one and all acknowledged that this was by nature and in fact the supreme position. One of the ablest of the southern historians, describing in his impassioned style the fight which circled and flamed around this crest, says, "That was the glittering coronet we longed to clutch." The glittering coronet was won, but not by them. All honor to those who seeing it, seized it in thought; who gained it, who held it, who glorified it. All honor to Warren, first and last, and now forever, of the Fifth Corps; to Vincent, to Rice, to Hazlitt, to Weed, to Ayres, - chief commanders here. Peace be to their spirits where they have gone. Honor and sacred remembrance to those who fell here, and buried part of our hearts with them. Honor to the memory of those who fought here with us and for us, and who fell elsewhere, or have died since, heart-broken at the harshness or injustice of a political government. Honor to you, who have wrought and endured so much and so well. And so, farewell.

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20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park. Michael Epstein