Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Part 3: Life
in the army of the Potomac
Ambrose Everett Burnside succeeded George McClellan to the command of the Union Army of the Potomac late in the fall of 1862. Burnside inherited a well fought army- an army which had just recently pushed Robert E. Lee's advancing rebel Army of Northern Virginia back across the Potomac River, thus ending their stay on northern soil. Within the ranks of that veteran and luckless Army of the Potomac was the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment along with its Lieutenant Colonel, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Class of 1852, and up until joining the Union cause, a professor of language and religion.
Submitting a leave of absence, Chamberlain answered Lincoln's cry for more troops and left his home and college for the adventure of a lifetime. His first taste of war was one of blood, smoke and horror. Chamberlain saw for himself the great battle of Antietam. And although his regiment did not participate in any other way than to run away from Lee's tough rear guard, Chamberlain still found the war that he had sought. Now with a new commander and a new campaign underway, Chamberlain would live through one of the worst nights of his life on a field littered with dead bodies.
Ambrose Burnside, although not as popular as his predecessor, was accepted as the new commander of the army. He had already proven his military incompetence at Antietam where he sent his men into a slaughter at what is forever remembered as 'Burnside's bridge'. He was inept and surely no military genius, but Lincoln felt differently and gave him command anyway.
Burnside moved fast and pushed his men harder than George McClellan ever did. He impressed everyone when he out-raced Lee to the town of Falmouth, on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, just across from Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Burnside's plan was to move on Richmond, the Confederate capital, as fast as possible, and the route he chose led through Fredericksburg. Burnside's grand plans for a swift campaign, however, ran aground when he realized that the pontoon bridges, which he required for crossing the Rappahannock, had not arrived with the army.
Instead of crossing upstream where the river was fordable and occupying Fredericksburg, Burnside set camp and waited for his essential pontoons on the opposite side of the river. Burnside waited more than a month for his bridges. In the meantime, Lee arrived and fortified the heights around Fredericksburg., which Burnside had failed to seize.
During this time, Chamberlain continued to train with his men. Their colonel, Adelbert Ames, had taken it upon himself to turn the 20th Maine into the best regiment in the whole army. Through November and into early December, the Maine men drilled and drilled. Finally, after weeks of waiting, Burnside decided the time had come to attack the enemy to his front. His strategy was no doubt a product of weeks of deep thought and planning. His idea was simple: charge head on into an enemy which had fortifications on high ground.
On December 13, 1862, the men of the Army of the Potomac, their flags unfurled, their uniforms crisp, their weapons sparkling in the morning sun, set out as if to march in a grand review. They lined up neatly against the backdrop of the Fredericksburg heights and prepared to advance. As the signal came, the men marched forward into hell. Fire from cannon, muskets and canister tore apart divisions, brigades, regiments and companies. Men wounded, dying, cried in agony.
The Confederates had placed their artillery in key positions and lined up their defenses with precise and deadly effect on the Union men. It was a nightmare, but still Burnside sent in more and more men. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine advanced with their comrades in the Fifth Corps at around three in the afternoon. Their objective was to reach a stone wall held by Confederate sharpshooters at the base of a place called Marye's Heights. Showing perfect coordination and discipline, the Maine men advanced into the face of fire from all around.
Chamberlain later remembered that they advanced "over fences and through hedges, over bodies of dead men and living ones." The regiment took its punishment and came to a rest within sight of its objective. Those few hours before dusk were hell as the Confederate fire kept the Union men firmly hugging the ground.
Chamberlain found a comfortable spot to spend the night in between two lifeless bodies. He used another body to cushion his head. All around him there were men, living and dead. And although they were still alive, the living suffered immensely mroe than the dearly departed.
The night was freezing cold, and the Confederates never rested. Chamberlain, as he fell asleep between bodies, was roused by someone thinking him dead too. With a word from him, the would-be thief ran off into the night.
Chamberlain tried to sleep again, but the sound of bullets all around him and the haunting cries of suffering men kept him awake. Joshua Chamberlain had come to find war, and now amidst a field of death and destruction, the secrets of war had been unleashed into his mind forever.
The next day at sunset, Chamberlain's men were finally given the signal to withdraw. The Battle of Fredericksburg was over, and the Union had once again suffered a major defeat. Chamberlain was glad to see that his regiment was more or less still intact. The 20th Maine had proven itself in battle at last. They were now veterans. Battered and worn, the Army of the Potomac slipped across the Rappahannock and went back to its camps around the town of Falmouth.
There it stayed until Burnside, with another brainstorm, decided to cross the river upstream and come down on Lee from the rear. He set out on January 20 on what was to be yet another doomed experiment. This time, however, it was not the Confederates but fate that spoiled Burnside's grand design. Rain poured down in torrents, turning dirt roads into deep, impassable mud. Burnside gave up his expedition and returned his demoralized army to their camps four days after they had set out.
Thus began a period of waiting for the men of the 20th Maine. They saw no action in the Chancellorsville campaign in the May of 1863 due to quarantine, placed upon them because the regiment had been given defective smallpox, apparently triggering numerous cases among the men. Chamberlain was furious about not being able to fight with the rest of the army.
He rode up to the headquarters himself and reportedly said, "If we couldn't do anything else, we could give the enemy the smallpox." Finally given the duty of protecting some telegraph lines, Chamberlain was content. In the fight that occured, Burnside's successor, Joeseph Hooker, failed once again to annihilate Lee's forces, now reduced in number to almost one third the size of the Union Army.
After two massive defeats, morale in the Union Army was low. Outgeneraled and outfought wherever it went, the men nearly lost faith in their cause. What was needed was a decisive victory. Joshua Chamberlain came to the war to see what he could do to help.
At Fredericksburg he had seen the very face of battle, and that face was one of death. Now as he waited with his men for another commander to come along and lead them to another doomed offensive, Robert E. Lee slipped past the Union flank and again invaded the North.
His goal this time was to move deep into enemy country, and draw the Army of the Potomac to one last fight. His journey would lead him through Maryland and into Pennsylvania where he would collide with the boys in blue at a little-known town in Gettysburg.
Turlock, Alice Rains. In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.