What is the significance of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's command in The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara?

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914) had only been promoted to colonel and commander of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment about one month prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. When the brigade of Colonel Strong Vincent was sent to defend a strategic position on a hill later to be known as Little Round Top on the second day of battle, Chamberlain found his regiment holding the extreme left flank of the entire Union army. Both sides recognized the importance of the hill: If the Confederates could capture Little Round Top, they would have an excellent position to rain artillery fire upon the Union forces below and a place to mount an attack on the Union flank. Sent to capture the hill were elements of Major General John Bell Hood's division--perhaps the finest in the Army of Northern Virginia. Hood, who was severely wounded during the day's action, gave way General Evander Law, who sent his crack Alabama brigade to take the hill. Vincent's small force was attacked repeatedly, and Vincent suffered a mortal wound; Chamberlain assumed command of Union forces on the hill. The Alabama and Texas troops continued their attacks, with Colonel William Oates' 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment sent to seek the Union left flank. Chamberlain's force consisted of about 350 men, but they soon found themselves out of ammunition. Rather than give up the hill, Chamberlain ordered a desperate downhill bayonet charge.

     On the final charge, knowing that his men were out of ammunition, that his numbers were being depleted, and further knowing that another charge could not be repulsed, Chamberlain ordered a maneuver that was considered unusual for the day: He ordered his left flank, which had been pulled back, to advance with bayonets in a "right-wheel forward" maneuver. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the regiment charged, akin to a door swinging shut. This simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver halted and captured a good portion of the 15th Alabama.

Chamberlain's men swept the weary Confederates from the hill, protecting their crucial flank position. Chamberlain was wounded twice, and he was promoted to brigadier general after the battle. His gallantry saved the day for the Union and won him the Congressional Medal of Honor.


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