President Abraham Lincoln

Springfield Civil War event shows how soldiers faced down disaster

Half of the men of the 20th Maine were down and the other half bloodied on July 2, 1863, when the latter fixed bayonets on mostly unloaded weapons and, in a formation that advanced like a swinging door, swept Confederates off the slopes of Little Roundtop.

How could a unit that had been disgracefully undisciplined and woefully unprepared 10 months earlier rise to the occasion in one of the most decisive moments of one of the most decisive battles of the war?

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Jared Peatman provided an explanation last weekend in the second of three content-rich and artfully delivered presentations that made the eighth installment of the Springfield Civil War Symposium one of its most memorable.

Before hearing the winner of the 2012 Hay-Nicolay Dissertation Prize for the best work on President Abraham Lincoln, the crowd of more than 100 in the Heritage Center of Clark County’s Helmuth Rotating Gallery took in Frank Williams’ analysis of why Reconstruction failed to consolidate the spirit of equality Abraham Lincoln evoked at Gettysburg.

It was the second symposium appearance by Williams, who has served as chairman and president respectively of two of the most prestigious Civil War organizations: The Lincoln Forum and the Abraham Lincoln Association.

The final presenter was D. Scott Hartwig, who was Gettysburg’s supervisory historian for 20 years and spoke with authority about the role John Badger Bachelder played in securing the battle site for posterity and shaping the way millions of visitors who never heard of him experience the national military park.

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Peatman’s history of the 20th Maine unit begins in the summer of 1862, when Lincoln calls for 300,000 additional volunteers after the “disastrous Peninsula campaign,” which Union Gen. George McClellan had hoped would swiftly end the rebellion.

For the Maine volunteers who respond to their governor’s July 4, 1862, call to arms, the war “is really more about union than about abolition,” Peatman said. During his research, “I was expecting some reaction” to emancipation in the soldiers’ letters, but they largely “let it go without comment,” perhaps because of their state’s 600,000 people, only 1,500 were black.

Two thirds of the unit’s enlisted men were farmers, some of whom were expecting to receive more regular pay days than they did; three quarters of the enlistees were in their teens and 20s. The officers are, on average, five years older and more likely to be lawyers, school teachers and clerks.

Mustered on Aug. 29, 1862, many of the men managed to be released from the barracks for drilling but then slipped away to Portland, Maine, to thoroughly scout its taverns. Wrote diarist William T. Livermore, “Who would not be a soldier?”

“Then,” Peatman said, “the colonel arrived.”

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This colonel was Adelbert Ames, son of a ship’s captain, fifth in the West Point Class of 1861, and a badly wounded and highly regarded veteran of the Peninsula Campaign.

“He’s seen what war looks like,” Peatman said, and has much to offer, “but the men don’t like him,” particularly after a first march when he told them if they can’t do better “I’d advise you to desert and go home.”

The best colonel in the 20th Maine, Ames had the weakest officers to work with, many of whom he weeded out. Peatman said Ames is “starting from scratch” on training and drilling when Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia headed north through Maryland toward Antietam.

In its ill-prepared state, the 20th Maine, which follows, “is fortunate enough to be left out of the Battle of Antietam,” where it might have met the fate of the green 16th Connecticut, Peatman said. That equally inexperienced and green unit lost a quarter of its men to veteran rebels in A.P. Hill’s command and never recovered, as the subtitle of its history, “broken regiment,” indicates.

On the march, the 20th began to endure attacks from disease; fouled water; a diet one soldier says consists of hard bread and pork and pork and hard bread; and is prescribed medicines that included mercury pills. Combined, these forces killed more Civil War soldiers than combat.

Although that thinned the 20th’s ranks from 972 to 550, Ames considered those who remain “the right sort” of toughened soldiers. Day in and day out, as he shaped them into a fighting unit, the men who shared the hardships of camp life and the joyful raids on beehives for honey and spirited snowball fights bonded into a group ready to fight for one another’s survival as much as for any cause.

At Fredericksburg, a disaster for the Union Army as a whole, the 20th was brought in from a reserve position and performed well enough that even Ames congratulated the ranks. “Where veteran regiments had faltered,” Peatman said, the 20th Maine succeeded.

But just as the unit’s blackened boots, shiny rifles and smart drills lead an inspector to say it “cannot be beat in the whole Army of the Potomac,” word arrived that the substandard officers whom Ames had cleared during training have spread word at home that the regiment is in chaos. In Maine, the 20th’s loss of numbers, casualties to disease and lack of significant achievement in battle painted a picture at odds with reality.

“Absolutely spoiling for a fight,” Peatman said, the unit’s chances are spoiled when it is inoculated with a bad batch of smallpox vaccine that kills four, leaves the whole unit quarantined during the Chancellorsville campaign and caused usually upbeat Col. Joshua Chamberlain to quip, “If we couldn’t do anything else (in the battle), we could at least infect the rebels.”

As morale began to fray, “the Confederates head north” toward Gettysburg, Peatman said, and Ames, the linchpin in their training, received a promotion and left the unit in the hands of Chamberlain.

To the task-master Ames had been, Chamberlain had been the 20th’s inspirational leader and one “who’s been next to them the whole time” of their service, said Peatman, who added that the change in command as the Union and Confederate armies met at Gettysburg arrived just in time.

In the heat of battle on July 2, with rebel gunfire ascending the slope and the 20th Maine exhausted, bloodied and running out of ammunition, “Would Ames have been able to get those men to charge down Little Round Top like Chamberlain did?” Peatman asked. “Maybe not.”

He’s more confident that for the once-undisciplined and ill-prepared unit, what happened that day was “the next evolution of the journey they were on.”

Note: The entire symposium was recorded by Merlin Productions. The Springfield News-Sun will publish a notice when it becomes available.

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