"My Brave Young Brother: Tom Chamberlain"

Chapter Two:

"Go plug that hole over there" - Gettysburg

notes at end of chapter

Early on the morning of July 2, the Fifth Corps arrived in the vicinity of Gettysburg, where a terrible battle had been raging all the previous day. The Federal Army, under its new commander General George Gordon Meade, had been forced back and was ranged along high ground to the south of the town, facing the Confederates to the west and north. The right flank of the line was solidly anchored on Culp's Hill, from whence it curled around in the famous "fish-hook" formation, over Cemetery Hill and down Cemetery Ridge, but not quite reaching the rocky hill known as Little Round Top to the south. The Fifth Corps was held in reserve in various positions behind the lines until the late afternoon, when the fight finally resumed in earnest and the men were moved closer to the front and left, in support of the endangered Third Corps which had been placed too far forward.

Still Little Round Top remained unoccupied except for a signal station. Then Meade's chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren, arrived on the hill, quickly realised its strategic significance and saw that the Union Army was in grave danger of being flanked. His aides hurried off in various directions to ask for troops to be sent, and soon Colonel Strong Vincent, on his own initiative, was racing the 20th Maine and the other three regiments in his First Division, Third Brigade - the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan - up the back of the hill to its southern and lower western slopes (shortly afterwards, Warren himself found the 140th New York and sent it into position, followed by the rest of Stephen Weed's Brigade of the Second Division, to Vincent's right). Their arrival was timely, for Alabamians from Evander M. Law's Brigade, in John Bell Hood's Division of Longstreet's Confederate Corps, were at the same moment making their way through the valley between Little Round Top and the adjoining Big Round Top. Before long the men of the 20th Maine, on the extreme left of Vincent's Brigade, were exchanging fire with sections of the 4th and 47th Alabama, who were then joined by the 15th Alabama.

In the film Gettysburg, the Little Round Top segment begins as Strong Vincent, Lawrence and Tom Chamberlain climb the hill, with artillery shot landing nearby. Telling Tom that "Another one a bit closer could be a hard day for Mother", Lawrence sends him back to watch for stragglers. This scene seems not to be too far divorced from reality, except in that there were three brothers, not two. Lawrence later described it thus:

"As we mounted [Little Round Top's] lower gradient, Longstreet's batteries across Plum Run had us in full view, and turned their whole force upon our path... At that fiery moment three brothers of us were riding abreast, and a solid shot driving close past our faces disturbed me. 'Boys,' I said, 'I don't like this. Another such shot might make it hard for mother. Tom, go to the rear of the regiment, and see that it is well closed up! John, pass up ahead and look out a place for our wounded.'"(1)

Lawrence was writing some fifty years after the event, but there is partial confirmation of his story in John's diary, updated a few days after the battle, where he says that at this time he "galloped up to the front as they [the Fifth Corps] were still advancing. Shook hands with Col. and Tom and said goodbye - and fell back to the rear amid the whizzing and bursting of shells."(2)

Some minutes further on in Gettysburg, with the regiment in position and fighting desperately, Lawrence sends Tom to "go plug that hole over there", which he does by running in, pistol blazing. He is nearly killed seconds later when the gun misfires and a rebel aims his musket at him. Quick firing by two 2nd Maine men saves him. Here, the film ventures rather further from reality, although there is still a core of truth. Tom was, indeed, sent to fill a gap, but not with his own body. In Lawrence's words:

"In the very deepest of the struggle...I saw through a sudden rift in the thick smoke our colors standing alone... The cross-fire had cut keenly; the center had been almost shot away; only two of the color guard had been left, and they fighting to fill the whole space... I then called my young brother, Tom, the adjutant, and sent him forward to close that gap somehow; if no men could be drawn from neighboring companies, to draw back the salient angle and contract our center. The fire down there at this moment was so hot I thought it impossible for him to get there alive; and I dispatched immediately after him Sergeant Thomas whom I had made a special orderly, with the same instructions. It needed them both; and both came back with personal proofs of the perilous undertaking."(3)

That is Lawrence's 1913 version. His Official Report does not mention the incident at all, and the earliest published reference to it seems to be from 1889, when he speaks similarly of sending "the adjutant to the commanding officer of the color company, to ask him to hold on if he possibly could, till I could reinforce him from some other regiment. So little expectation had I that the adjutant could live to reach the spot, I pressed into my service a trusted sergeant and despatched him with the same message."(4) Despite the absence of contemporary verification, however, and allowing for Lawrence's natural tendency to hyperbole, there seems little reason to doubt that it really happened. After the War, the surviving 20th Mainers were quick to correct each other's errors in print concerning the events on Little Round Top, and facets of Lawrence's account drew criticism, but no one ever questioned the veracity of this particular detail.

In the adrenaline-rush of battle, Lawrence would have had no time to consider the implications of sending his own kin into a situation when the likelihood was that they would be killed. He was lucky, for Tom came back with nothing more than "several scratches".(5) William Oates, the Colonel of the 15th Alabama, was less fortunate. His beloved younger brother, John Oates (coincidentally, like Tom, the First Lieutenant in his regiment's Company G), was "pierced through by a number of bullets" and died three weeks later in a Federal field hospital.(6) John had been sick with a fever and was lying on the ground in rear of his company when William found him just before the attack. He tried to persuade him to stay behind, but John, "his black eyes flashing fire", had replied: "No, brother, were I to do that it would be said that I avoided the battle and acted the coward. No, sir; I will go in with my company though I know it may cost me my life!"(7) These were the last words the brothers exchanged. William Oates, as a youth, had led a colourful life and had been on the run from the law on more than one occasion. Unlike other members of his family, John had remained close to him throughout - closer, probably, than the two Chamberlains would ever be. William later said that "no brothers loved each other better", and attempted without success to have a regimental monument erected on the hill to "the memory of Lt. John A. Oates and his gallant Comrades who fell here".(8)

After about two hours of fighting on Little Round Top, the 20th Maine was at crisis point. Lawrence had already refused his left-hand companies to prevent their being flanked by Oates's troops (the line was bent back so far that fire from the Confederates on the 20th's front was becoming a danger to the rear of the rest of the Brigade), and now much of the regiment was nearly out of ammunition. Having been told by Colonel Vincent to "hold that ground at all hazards",(9) he could see no alternative but to order a bayonet charge. The men did not wait beyond the initial command of "Bayonet!", immediately surging forward in what became, for most of them, a "right wheel" because of the lie of the land (although no such manoeuvre was actually ordered). For the Alabamians, this was the final straw. They had entered the fight exhausted from a forced march, and had not even had time to fill their canteens. Colonel Oates was on the point of ordering a withdrawal over Big Round Top when matters were taken out of his hands. In the ensuing retreat, he fainted from the heat and exertion and had to be carried the rest of the way up over the hill.(10) Little Round Top had been held for the Union.

Tom was with Lawrence for the bayonet charge, and later that night when the 20th Maine was directed up Big Round Top to hold it against skirmishers and threatened attacks. On day three of the battle, the Third Brigade was relieved by other elements of the Fifth Corps and massed in reserve, south of the main action, so missed any involvement in the repelling of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge.

John Chamberlain, meanwhile, was having a worrying time. He had been working at the Fifth Corps Hospital since leaving his brothers, and "scrutinised every new ambulance and every palled stretcher expecting the next would be the Col. or the Adjt. But God had ordained it otherwise." On July 5, he was finally able to go in search of the 20th's headquarters: "I found all quiet, save now and then an exchange from the pickets. If I ever shook hands heartily," he wrote, "I did so then, as I looked on Lawrence and Thomas alive."(11)

In his Official Report of the events at Gettysburg, Lawrence chose to praise all his men, not singling out anyone in particular: "In such an engagement there were many incidents of heroism and noble character which should have place even in an official report; but, under present circumstances, I am unable to do justice to them. ...they may safely trust to history to record their merits." His letters to his wife on July 4 and 17 also spoke generally of the 20th's "magnificent conduct" and the fact that it had "immortalized itself".(12) It was left to Colonel James C. Rice of the 44th New York, who had taken over the Third Brigade on the mortal wounding of Strong Vincent, to name names in his Report: "The colonel commanding would commend to the favorable notice of the general commanding...for their gallant conduct in battle on the 2d instant: Colonel Chamberlain and Adjutant Chamberlain, of the Twentieth Maine."(13)

The rest of 1863 was a relatively quiet time for the brothers, who spent much of it back home in Maine. Lawrence was periodically ill with malarial fever, while Tom was on detached duty, recruiting to fill the depleted ranks of the regiment. There was, however, good news for both of them. The Colonel obtained his first brigade command, and, in late July, Tom received a captaincy, although he was not officially commissioned until September 16, and could not be mustered in until he returned to the front. Frustratingly, his first application to rejoin his regiment was refused, so he made enquiries on October 5 to see whether he could be mustered in Maine. This, too, was denied, but Tom was finally relieved in November. Only then was he able to take up his duties as Captain of Company G, filling the shoes of Ellis Spear who had received his long-awaited promotion to Major.(14) A photograph of Tom, proudly standing in front of Company G, was taken at about this time and can be seen behind the credits at the start of the Gettysburg film.(15) As Spear put it, young Thomas had shaped up nicely and blossomed into "an excellent officer".(16)

back to top


1. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg" in Hearst's Magazine, June 1913; reprinted in Chamberlain, Bayonet! Forward, where the quote is on p.22.
2. Chamberlain, "A Delegate's Diary", p.91.
3. Chamberlain, "Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg", p.29.
4. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "Dedication of the Twentieth Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3, 1889"; reprinted in Chamberlain, Bayonet! Forward, where the quote is on p.186. Theodore Gerrish's Army Life: A Private's Reminiscences of the Civil War (1882, Stan Clark Military Books/Butternut and Blue reprint, 1995), a history of the 20th Maine by a private in the regiment, says nothing of the incident, but Gerrish was not personally at Gettysburg. Holman Melcher, who was a lieutenant in the color company during the battle, does not include it in his account, published in the Lincoln County News, March 13, 1885, and reprinted in Styple, With A Flash Of His Sword, pp.132-135. The text, however, seems to owe more to Gerrish's narrative than to Melcher's memories. This, and the July 2 diary entry of William Livermore in the color guard (Ibid, pp.77-79), are also too short to recount much in the way of detail, so the omission there is not significant.
5. Maine Gettysburg Commissioners, Maine at Gettysburg, p.261.
6. William C. Oates, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and its Lost Opportunities (1905, Morningside Press reprint 1985), pp.218, 226. In an earlier article, "Gettysburg - The Battle On the Right" (Southern Historical Society Papers Vol.6, October 1878, pp.172-182), Oates said that his brother suffered eight bullet wounds. He was then left on the field over night, his friends being unable to reach him, so it is remarkable that he survived as long as he did.
Oates, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy, p.674.
Ibid. Mark Perry, Conceived in Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates and the American Civil War (Viking, 1997), p.418.
Official Report of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, July 6, 1863 (U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [OR], Washington D.C., 1880-1901, series 1, vol.27, pt.1, p.623).
Official Report of Colonel William C. Oates, August 8, 1863 (OR, series 1, vol.27, pt.2, p.393). Oates, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy, p.222.
11. Chamberlain, "A Delegate's Diary", pp.92,93. John left his brothers some days after the battle, and endured a number of hardships, chiefly at the hands of officious authority, before arriving back in Maine. When he reached home he found that Tom had got there before him (Ibid, p.103).
12. Chamberlain's Official Report (OR, series 1, vol.27, pt.1, p.626). Lawrence's three different reports to his superiors, all apparently dating from July 6, are given in Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire, pp.80-94. Smith, Fanny and Joshua, pp.142,140 (Lawrence to Fanny Chamberlain, July 17, 1863; July 4, 1863). The letter of July 17 is famous as the one in which Lawrence expresses disapproval and surprise at Fanny's being in New York when she should have been at home. On May 26, sister Sae had written to Tom Chamberlain giving him the news of Fanny's continued absence and adding: "Did you ever hear of such a thing?" Previous authors have maintained that Tom must have deliberately withheld this information from Lawrence until after Gettysburg (e.g. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.120: "Tom...must have thought that it was the better part of valor not to mention the subject to his brother"; Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.146: "Thanks to a letter from their sister, his brother Tom had known for two weeks that Fannie was in New York but had neglected, perhaps intentionally, to tell him"; Longacre, Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man, p.120: "Tom did not relay the information to his colonel - perhaps believing that bad news should not be delivered on the eve of his brother's first battle in regimental command").
In fact, as Diane Smith has now shown (Smith, Fanny and Joshua, pp.135-143), Fanny was not off on a jaunt, but had gone to New York from Washington, where, in April (and with his knowledge), she had been seeking a pass to visit Lawrence. When the pass was not forthcoming as a result of the 20th's smallpox outbreak, she had travelled back only as far as New York, in the hope that she might be able to return to visit her husband. Unfortunately, letters which she sent to various family members to keep them informed of her whereabouts were delayed or failed to arrive, and in the ensuing weeks she looked in vain for a message from Lawrence telling her what to do. He, meanwhile, assumed that she had made her way back to Maine. But even as late as mid-June, he was aware that Fanny was not yet home - he just did not know where she was at that point, since by then he had no reason to think she was still in New York. Tom probably couldn't have told his brother anything he did not already know.
13. Official Report of Colonel James C. Rice, July 31, 1863 (OR, series 1, vol.27, pt.1, pp.618-620).
14. Tom to Major Gardiner, October 5, 1863 (Tom Chamberlain's Military Records, National Archives). Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire, p.105 (Lawrence to Governor Abner Coburn, August 25, 1863). Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.53.
15. From Pullen, The Twentieth Maine, betw. pp.148 & 149, plate 6. The original photograph is owned by the family of James C. Rundlett.
16. Spear, The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear, p.191 (Spear's Recollections, c.1904-1918).

back to top

back to Tom Chamberlain Home Page
back to Chapter One
on to Chapter Three

Copyright (c) 1998, 2003 Rosemary Pardoe