Gettysburg’s Citizen-Soldiers

Cannon at Gettysburg National Military Park (Photo: Ronald Callaghan/Dreamstime)
The battle that turned the Civil War was won by volunteers as well as professional soldiers.

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, Colonel Harrison Jeffords of the 4th Michigan Volunteer Infantry and his regiment found themselves in the Wheatfield, embroiled in hand-to-hand combat with the men of Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade. Through the chaos, Jeffords spotted his regiment’s flag, which he had sworn to defend with his life, seized by the enemy. He rushed toward the flag and was shot through the thigh and took a bayonet thrust to his abdomen. His men recovered their colonel and wrestled their flag from the enemy’s grip. Jeffords, however, would not recover, becoming the highest-ranking officer to die of a bayonet wound in the Civil War.

This week marks the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought on July 1–3, 1863. On this venerable occasion, it is important to recognize that selflessness and devotion to the preservation of the Union was displayed not only by professional soldiers but by volunteers such as Colonel Jeffords — a lawyer who left his practice to join the cause — and his men. But for their willingness to heed Lincoln’s call, we would not be the nation we are today. July 1 had been a brutal day for the Union Army of the Potomac. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had once again licked their Yankee counterparts. The Army of the Potomac had yet to achieve an outright victory against the Confederates, but the tide turned on Gettysburg’s bloodiest day, July 2, thanks to the heroics of Colonel Jeffords and other citizen-soldiers like him.

Colonel William Colvill of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, a lawyer and newspaperman before the Civil War, was the first man in his county to answer Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Before Gettysburg, Colvill’s regiment held the dubious distinction of suffering the most casualties of any Union regiment at the battle of Bull Run, as well as suffering grievously at Antietam. Those battles would pale in comparison to the sacrifice they made at Gettysburg.

Outnumbered nearly five-to-one, Colvill was ordered to undertake a near-suicidal charge to stall the Confederate advance and the collapse of the Union left wing. Without hesitation, Colvill and the 1st Minnesota smashed into Confederates from Alabama. In a matter of minutes, 215 of the 1st Minnesota’s 262 men fell, including Colvill, who was hit three times. The 82 percent casualty rate stands as the highest ever suffered by an American unit in a single day’s battle. President Calvin Coolidge later remarked at a memorial dedication, “Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the 1st Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.”

In the time the 1st Minnesota bought, another volunteer, Colonel Strong Vincent, and his brigade arrived to reinforce the extreme left of the Union line. A Harvard graduate and lawyer before the war, Vincent joined the Pennsylvania Militia as a lieutenant in 1861, rising to command his brigade just prior to Gettysburg. Vincent realized the strategic importance of a hill, Little Round Top, on the Union left, and took the initiative to lead his brigade to defend it. His men secured it and braced for the Confederate assault. In the ensuing fury, Vincent mounted a rock while waving his riding crop to inspire and rally his faltering line. He implored his men, “Don’t give an inch.” He was mortally wounded, but his line held. For his valor, Vincent was recommended for promotion to brigadier general. It was an honor that he likely never knew of, as he had drifted from consciousness. He died on July 7.

Under Vincent’s command, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain served, and his regiment, the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Before joining the Union Army, Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College. When he expressed his desire to enlist, the college refused to release him. He then requested, and was granted, a sabbatical to study in Europe. Unwilling to forgo service to the country, however, Chamberlain joined the army instead.

On July 2, Chamberlain’s 20th Maine began with 386 men, anchoring the extreme left of the Union line. He was instructed by Vincent to hold the position at “all costs,” as any retreat would expose the entire left flank of the Union Army. In the ensuing combat, he suffered two minor wounds. With his soldiers facing relentless attacks from two Alabama regiments, his regiment’s ammunition dwindling, and casualties mounting — the 20th Maine would lose 125 men in the battle — Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge. On his command, his men moved forward and swept the Alabamians down Little Round Top. The charge saved the Union line. For Chamberlain’s “daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position,” a grateful nation awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

These are just a small sampling of the heroic deeds of citizen-soldiers at Gettysburg. They cannot be forgotten, and our nation owes a debt of gratitude to the men who performed them. Following the valor of Jeffords, Colvill, Vincent, Chamberlain, and their men, the battle raged for a third and final day, when they demonstrated further courage. Defending the center of the Union line, they faced a 260-gun cannonade and repulsed an attack of 12,000 Confederates in what became known as Pickett’s Charge, sealing the Union victory. Gettysburg marked the first clear triumph for the Army of the Potomac over the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. It was the turning point of the war, which would continue for two more years, but Gettysburg sealed the fate of the Confederacy. The Army of Northern Virginia would never again invade the North or fight any more battles on the offensive. During the three days at Gettysburg, 23,000 men fell in defense of the Union, including nearly 10,000 on July 2. The bravery and patriotism of these men should be remembered and honored by all Americans. Their great deeds unite us as a people. Without their sacrifices, America as know it would not exist today, and the government of the people, by the people, and for the people would have perished from this earth.


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