Last full measure

On this day in 1863 the tide of the Civil War turned decisively in favor of the Union, with victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. While the victory at Vicksburg was a long time coming, the victory at Gettysburg was set on Day 2 of the battle, July 2, 1863. Among the heroes who saved the Union on July 2 were the 282 men of the First Minnesota Volunteers. Their story cannot be told often enough, and Mackubin Thomas Owens made it the centerpiece of his terrific 2003 “Reflections on Memorial Day.”

As John has previously observed here:

The pivot of American history turns on the second day at Gettysburg, and, while thousands of men fought gallantly on both sides that day, there were two points where the fate of the world, really, hung in the balance. The first was at Little Round Top, where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine held off Confederate attacks throughout the day. The second came late in the afternoon, when the Confederates attacked the center of the Union line, which had been stripped almost bare as Union generals sent more and more troops to defend the southern part of the line. It was in the center that the First Minnesota made its famous suicide charge, attacking onrushing Confederates who outnumbered the Minnesotans fifteen to one in a desperate effort to gain time to reinforce the Union line. The regiment suffered a casualty rate exceeding 80 percent, but succeeded beyond General Hancock’s expectations, as they not only purchased with their lives the critical minutes needed to reinforce the Union line, but stopped the Confederate advance in its tracks. No unit of the United States Army has ever exceeded the First Minnesota for gallantry and courage.

As John noted, Chamberlain’s moment also came at Gettysburg on July 2. John summarized Chamberlain’s heroics and those of the Maine volunteers under his command:

An excellent scholar, Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin when the war broke out. Considered a little old for military service, he took a “sabbatical” from Bowdoin and enlisted. His most famous moment came, of course, at Gettysburg, where he and his Maine volunteers held Little Round Top against heavy odds. At the height of the battle, with Chamberlain wounded and his men running out of ammunition, Chamberlain–who had been ordered to hold the position, which anchored the Union line, at all costs–responded not by withdrawing but by ordering a bayonet charge that broke the Confederate attack. By the end of the war he was a Major General (brevet). Chamberlain was widely regarded as the toughest man in the Union Army. He was wounded six times, and left for dead on the battlefield at least once. Grant chose him to lead the Army of the Potomac in the Grand Review of the Union Armies in Washington at the close of the war. After the war, Chamberlain was elected Governor of Maine four times. His Civil War wounds finally killed him, but not until 1914.

As word reached Washington that Vicksburg as well as Gettysburg had ended with a Union victory, many sensed that the Union efforts had reached a turning point. Lincoln spoke to the crowd that gathered outside the White House on the evening of July 7. (See the text of Lincoln’s July 7 remarks here; see Professor Donald Miller’s comments here). He warmed to a theme he would not develop fully until the following November. “How long ago is it?” he asked. “Eighty odd years, since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'”

The war, he noted, was a “gigantic rebellion…precisely at the bottom of which [was] an effort to subvert that principle.” Now the rebels had suffered two staggering defeats on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “Gentlemen,” he added, “this is a glorious theme, and a glorious occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the theme and worthy of the occasion.” Lincoln concluded:

Recent events bring up certain names, gallantly prominent, but I do not want to particularly name them at the expense of others, who are as justly entitled to our gratitude as they. I therefore do not upon this occasion name a single man. And now I have said about as much as I ought to say in this impromptu manner, and if you please, I’ll take the music.


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