Edit Blog Post
Published: April 17th 2020
SUNKEN ROAD BEHIND THE WALL ARTILLERY ON THE HILL ABOVEBAPTISM OF FIRE
Chamberlain and his men carried their assault about as close to the wall as I was standing when I took the picture.
Our sixth cousin, four generations removed, was a fellow named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from up in Maine. At the beginning of the Civil War Joshua was teaching the German language at Bowdoin College, conducting Sunday school lessons and leading a choir. After First Manassas he got struck with patriotic fervor and enlisted in the 20th
Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was appointed as lieutenant colonel and made second in command under Colonel Adelbert Ames. When those recalcitrant Maine men got trained up some they marched off to join Dan Butterfield’s Brigade in the Fifth Corps commanded by Joe Hooker. Butterfield is the guy who wrote Taps, he gave his men several other bugle calls distinctive enough to guide them through confusing times.
After his failed Peninsular Campaign General George McClellan was removed from command of the federal Army of the Potomac and replaced by Ambrose Burnside. He had an impressive array of facial hair from which derived the term “sideburns”. He was a likeable guy, but unfit for responsibility at that level. Uncle Abe picked him from the bottom of the barrel. Ambrose reluctantly accepted the command, after twice declining it, when he learned that the
CHAMBERLAIN PINNED DOWN BELOW THIS SWALE AND TO THE LEFT OF THE ALLEY
The battlefield is mostly overbuilt these days and overgrown with trees.
alternative selection would be Joe Hooker. It was his sternly held view that Joe was even more unfit to lead the army. A hundred years or so after the Civil War ended the Peters Principle came to light in which it was held that in a bureaucracy a person would be promoted to his level of incompetence, and then would move laterally. It would certainly hold true of the choice Uncle Abe made in 1862 to lead his army. Both Ambrose and Joe were highly incompetent for anything above the rank of colonel.
In the fall of 1862, after Second Manassas, Bobby Lee marched the Confederate Army into Maryland. The armies clashed at the Battle of Antietam. Burnside, of course, bungled it badly even though he had obtained a copy of the Confederate battle plan. The federal casualties were appalling. Chamberlain and his men survived the slaughter because they were held in reserve. They did not see combat, but they did see war, and it put steel in their backbones. The impact to them was that Chamberlain was promoted to command of the regiment when Colonel Ames was promoted to command of a brigade.
After licking his wounds and reorganizing his army after Antietam, Ambrose came up with a plan to attack Richmond down the Rappahannock River. To do so he must cross the river at Fredericksburg. Even though there were several places he could have forded the river he chose to cross it using pontoon bridges. Due to bureaucratic delays the bridges needed were not made promptly available. While Ambrose was waiting patiently for the bridges on the east side of the river, Bobbie Lee was waiting patiently atop Marye’s Heights on the west side of the river behind the town. Confederate artillery was placed along the ridgeline and every approach to it was sighted in. Just below the ridge there was a sunken road behind a five foot high rock wall. Confederate infantrymen five ranks deep could be protected behind that wall and the wall faced a broad open meadow with a clear field of fire. It was such a formidable position that no prudent commander would ever try to attack it. A prudent commander would have simply found another crossing. Ambrose was simple minded, but anything but a prudent man. The bridges arrived on December 10, 1862, but when the engineers attempted to place them across the river Confederate marksmen began to pick them off through second story window firing positions. In response federal artillery leveled the town. The crossing was made on December 11 and brigade after brigade assaulted the heights and were slaughtered. Late in the afternoon on December 12 Chamberlain and his men were ordered to try, but their orders said nothing about a withdrawal. It was their baptism of fire. They carried their attack across the meadow and to within a hundred yards of the wall before it stalled and they got pinned down below a low swale that was protected from direct fire from the wall. Dead and wounded men were piled up there hip deep. The 20th
Maine hunkered down among them for protection. Joshua Chamberlain used a corpse for a pillow. It was a bitterly cold night. Confederate soldiers came among them to kill the groaning wounded and loot the corpses of their wallets, ammo, and shoes. Throughout the next day Joshua and his men remained pinned down among the dead men and were finally withdrawn after nightfall on December 13. Those who survived hunkered down in the smoldering ruins of town to rest up and get some rations, but on December 15 they were ordered back to their previous position as pickets to cover the federal retreat back across the river. The entire battle was pointless, and once again the casualties were appalling.
Ambrose Burnside was replaced in command by Joe Hooker and shuffled off to the western army where he could do less damage. He was not heard much more from until the siege of Petersburg where he commanded the Battle of the Crater, which turned into another disaster for him. After the war Ambrose became Governor of Rhode Island. A larger state he probably could not have managed.
Joe Hooker bungled things until the summer of 1863 when he was replaced in command of the Army of the Potomac by General George Gordon Meade, who somehow managed a victory at Gettysburg and remained in command until the war ended. Hooker carried Lookout Mountain during the Battle at Missionary Ridge, but was mostly unopposed.
Joshua Chamberlain and his men performed magnificently at Gettysburg and he was given command of a brigade, but not promoted. During the siege of Petersburg he was shot through both hips but recovered. When he limped to back to service he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of a division. As it turned for him his division confronted Bobbie Lee’s tattered army at Appomattox and because of his position in line of battle was given command of the surrender festivities. After the war he became President of Bowdoin College and then Governor of Maine. He probably could have managed a much larger state.
Tot: 1.626s; Tpl: 0.016s; cc: 11; qc: 44; dbt: 0.0103s; 1; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.3mb