July 1, 2013

Why Gettysburg's called a 'Maine battlefield'

For three days in July, 150 years ago, the course of this nation's history took a dramatic turn in a Pennsylvania town, and Mainers by the hundreds did their part to see the Union preserved.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In Maine’s long history, three days stand out above all others: July first, second and third of 1863.
The three days of the Battle of Gettysburg.

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“Bayonet - July 2, 1863,” a painting by American historical artist Don Troiani, depicts the 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pa. With his men running out of ammunition, Col. Joshua Chamberlain leads a bayonet charge during the three-day battle, generally considered the turning point in the American Civil War. This week marks the battle’s 150th anniversary.

Painting by Don Troiani

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FOR MORE about artist Don Troiani and his paintings of historic battle scenes, visit his website.

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, in the Civil War’s greatest battle – the outcome of which changed the course of the war – Maine regiments played a critical role in turning back the Confederate invasion of the North and preventing what would have been a catastrophic loss for the Union.

On every day of the battle, from the first cannon fire in the hills outside Gettysburg to the Confederate Army’s massive frontal attack on the third day, Mainers were in the middle. They were at all the bucolic landmarks made famous by bloodshed: the Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Little Round Top, the Copse of Trees, the Bloody Angle, Cemetery Hill.

The exploits of the 20th Maine Regiment, which defended Little Round Top under Bowdoin professor Joshua Chamberlain, have been celebrated in books and on film, but other Maine regiments played roles that were just as critical, said John Heiser, a historian at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

While more Union soldiers from New York and Pennsylvania fought and died at Gettysburg, Mainers sustained heavy casualties – one in four of the nearly 4,000 Maine soldiers engaged at Gettysburg was killed, wounded, missing or captured. And they fought at the battle’s key strategic points, Heiser said.

“This is really a Maine battlefield more than anything else.”

MAINERS RESPOND

Before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, most Mainers opposed the idea of entering into armed conflict with the South, said Tom Desjardin, a historian for the Maine Bureau of Parks & Lands and the author of several books on the Civil War. Many families along the Maine coast had invested in ships involved in trade with the South, and they knew that war  would be disastrous for Maine’s merchant fleet.

But when war came, so many Maine men enlisted that the state would contribute a larger number of soldiers in proportion to its population than any other state in the Union.
In all, about 70,000 Maine men were drafted or volunteered – 59 percent of eligible men ages 18 to 45.

“They didn’t want the war to happen, but when it started they went in great numbers,” Desjardin said.

By 1863, though, many Northerners had grown weary of the war. The Union army in the East had never won a clear victory. Its leaders were no match for the Confederacy’s generals, particularly its commander, Robert E. Lee.

In early June, Lee moved his army of 70,000 men northward to invade Pennsylvania, where he hoped that a decisive battle on Union soil would encourage Northerners who opposed the war to push for peace and convince France and Great Britain to recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation.

Under their new commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, the 90,000 men in the Army of the Potomac moved northward to check Lee’s advance. The two armies had only a vague idea of each other’s position. Meade tried to place his troops between Lee’s army and the cities of Baltimore and Washington, while Lee looked for the right ground for a winner-take-all battle that would end the war.

The two great armies bumped into each other near a Pennsylvania town, Gettysburg, population 2,400. Ten roads converged on the town from all directions, as did the two armies.

Over the next three days, 8,000 were left dead on the field, and  4,000 died shortly after from injuries suffered in the battle.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Capt. William Livermore, from Milo and a color guard with the 20th Maine, described this battle carnage in a letter to his brother.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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The fields and hills around Gettysburg are littered with dead soldiers and horses, a gruesome landscape described by Capt. William Livermore in a letter to his brother. The Milo man served on the Color Guard with the 20th Maine.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Livermore wrote: “There were as many as 30 or 40 lay dead there of that (regiment). They had laid there 3 days in hot July weather and I wish I never could see another such a sight. It is nothing to see men that have just been killed. But every man was swollen as large as two men and purple and black.”

Courtesy Tom Desjardin

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Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909) of Leeds sent a brigade to occupy Cemetery Hill on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It provided the Union Army with a superior defensive position during the conflict.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Nineteen-year-old John Chase of Augusta was piled upon a wagon of dead soldiers when he moaned and was found alive by the driver. Hit by 48 shell fragments, Chase lost an arm and an eye but survived.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a former Bowdoin College professor, commanded the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. Congress awarded the Maine man the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle at Gettysburg.

Courtesy Library of Congress

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A monument marks the burial place for 104 Mainers at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. Ninety-six more casualties from Maine are buried elsewhere at the site.

Photo courtesy Tom Desjardin

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