ELLSWORTH — Mention the words “Maine” and “Civil War” in the same breath, and the name Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is likely to come to mind.
The Bowdoin-professor-turned-soldier-made-general has several statues in his likeness around Maine, was portrayed by Jeff Daniels in the 1993 Hollywood movie “Gettysburg” and is remembered in poetry and song such as “Ballad of the 20th Maine” by The Ghost of Paul Revere.
Shipyard Brewing even makes Chamberlain Pale Ale, which features the bewhiskered hero’s likeness.
But Maine also sent an estimated 80,000 other men to the Union ranks during the four years of the Civil War — the highest per capita contribution of any Northern state — meaning Chamberlain was only one among many Mainers who helped preserve the nation.
That point also is made in the subtitle of “Maine Roads to Gettysburg” (May 2018, Stackpole Books), a new book by Maine native Tom Huntington about the state’s role in that crucial 1863 fight in Pennsylvania. The book’s cover notes that it tells “How Joshua Chamberlain, Oliver Howard and 4,000 men from the Pine Tree State helped win the Civil War’s bloodiest battle.”
Huntington drew upon letters and other accounts of Maine soldiers from family collections, college libraries and government archives. The author noted that those men “came from all walks of life,” and had worked as everything from farmers to fishermen and lumberjacks to lawyers before donning uniforms. Different men had different reasons for serving, but serve they did, and many of the accounts they left behind after the war can still be read today.
Though the 20th Maine is the best known of the infantry regiments from the Pine Tree State that fought at Gettysburg, there were others there as well: the 3rd, 4th, 16th and 17th, among others, along with artillery batteries including the 2nd and 6th. Huntington tells their stories through the firsthand accounts of the men who led and fought with those units.
Their stories start before the battle, marching north through Virginia and Maryland into Pennsylvania. Members of the 17th Maine recalled “a most horrible march” in June, when the weather was so hot that the soldiers “soon felt as if we could boil or bake eggs in our caps.”
The Battle of Gettysburg itself spanned three days, from July 1 to July 3. Maine units found themselves in the thick of the fight from the start, such as the 16th Maine regiment led by Castine native Charles Tilden. That regiment was essentially sacrificed to cover a Union retreat on the first day of fighting, and many in the regiment were killed, wounded or captured (including Tilden, who was taken to a military prison in Richmond).
The accounts Huntington shares from the soldiers’ writing is visceral and gives, at times, a graphic sense of the nature of combat. This is especially true of men who fought in the artillery, blasting cannon fire into advancing enemy ranks. “You may judge when I tell you that many of our horses were not shot but bayoneted that it was a close and desperate struggle,” wrote James Hall of the 2nd Maine battery about his experience on July 1 (the emphasis was Hall’s).
Edwin Dow of the 6th Maine battery saw heavy action on the evening of July 2. In the span of about 90 minutes, Huntington writes, the six cannons in Dow’s unit fired 244 shots. Dow recalled how one Confederate officer urged his men forward to capture the cannons but failed. “We blew him into a thousand pieces,” Dow wrote. “He wasn’t 200 yards away when we killed him.” As an afterthought he added, “I got his sword, by the way.”
The story of the 20th Maine is recounted in Huntington’s book, along with all the other Maine units that fought at Gettysburg. Collectively, they were proud of the role they played and the contributions they made to securing a Union victory there.
“In proportion to the number of her troops in the action, no one of the eighteen states whose regiments flew the stars and stripes on this hard-fought field contributed more than Maine to the victory,” said veteran Selden Connor during a monument dedication at Gettysburg in 1889. “At whatever point the battle raged, the sons of the Pine Tree State were in the melee.”
Others were more tempered in their assesments, such as veteran Charles Hamlin (son of Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin), who said Mainers “do not claim a monopoly of glory won on this field.”
Huntington, a proud Maine native — in dedicating the book to his parents, he thanks them for “having the wisdom to make sure I was born and raised in the great state of Maine” — offers his own assessment of the Pine Tree State’s contribution: “While it may be an exaggeration to say that Maine saved the Union at Gettysburg, its soldiers certainly played vital roles in the victory.”