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Table of Contents
The 20th ME Infantry was mustered into service in August 1862, for three years or the duration of the war. The men were mustered in at Camp Mason on Cape Elizabeth near Portland, Maine. They were recruited from the entire state, F Company being primarily from the farms in the central part of the state near Bangor. It was under the command of Samuel Keene, who had been a lawyer in Rockland before the War.
The Regiment originally consisted of 993 men in ten companies. It was initially attached to the 1st Brigade (late the 3rd Brigade), 1st Division of the 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.
In September 1862, the Regiment traveled to Alexandria, Virginia and was involved in the Battle of Antietam. The Maine Regiment continued to see active service throughout the war years, and was involved in Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness Campaign, Laurel Hill, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, Bethesda Church, the Siege of Petersburg, Hatchers Run, the Appomattox Campaign and was at Appomattox Courthouse for the surrender of Lee.
The 20th ME Infantry participated in the Grand Review in Washington in May 1865, and was mustered out in Portland, Maine in June and July. The Regiment lost a total of 293 officers and men, about 50% of those due to disease. Total enlistments for the entire war were 1,425. Four men, including Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, were awarded the Medal of Honor for Bravery under fire.
Company F at the Battle of Little Round Top
It was a hot July afternoon when the boys of the 20th Reg’t. Maine Volunteer Infantry came to rest behind Power’s Hill just outside a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg. It had been a long march and the boys were ready for relief. As they rested, they could hear the sound of battle only a short distance away. Soon it would be their turn to join in.
The 20th was an ordinary regiment—one of several hundred serving in the Army of the Potomac in the summer of 1863. It had been raised in Maine as the last of the regiments to respond to President Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers. They came from all over Maine with those of Company F being mostly farmers from central Maine. They reported to Camp Mason just outside Portland, Maine where they were issued uniforms consisting of frock coats and dark blue trousers— later to be replaced with sky blue ones. Some were issued arms but most would have to wait for their 1861 Springfield and 1853 Enfield rifles. After being mustered into federal service on August 3, 1862, they gathered up their shelter tents and departed Maine for the seat of the war. Many would never return.
The 20th was assigned to the Fifth Corps and would remain with that corps until the end of the war. They did not see much service aside from Antietam and Fredericksburg. They missed most of Chancellorsville from being held in quarantine after being inoculated experimentally against smallpox. Battle and illness took their toll, however. Their original complement of 965 officers and men was reduced to 492 as of June, 1863—including those members of the old 2nd Maine.
Company F held the place of honor with the regiment. It was the color company. The 58 members of the company were proud of their regimental color—a Philadelphia Depot standard US flag with the stars arranged in concentric circles. Their regimental name did not appear on it as was common among other federal regiments. They carried it proudly nonetheless. their pride would soon be shown on a small hill called Little Round Top.
Just before 4 o’clock pm on July 2, 1863, Vincent’s Brigade was ordered to support Sickles’ line on the left of the Union. Sickles was heavily engaged in the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield and Devil’s Den. Before reaching Sickles’ line, Vincent was ordered to occupy the small hill known as Little Round Top, which General Warren saw to be vacant. The brigade splashed at the double-quick across Plum Run and scrambled up the exposed northern slope of the small hill. The 20th was leading the brigade, and as such were at the far left of the Union line. It ended with the 20th. By 5 o’clock p.m. they were in position. Company F was in the center of the 20th’s line with Company A on their left and Company D on their right. The 20th counted 358 men and 28 officers positioned over the rocks and boulders.
The attack soon came. Law’s Alabamians and Robertsons’ Texans were attacking from the front. Many were descending the Big Round Top toward the Mainers, and others were attempting to get behind the 20th’s line. Col. Chamberlain responded by extending his line to the left and bending the left wing backward to repulse the flank movement. The edge of the fight swayed backward and forward like a wave. Squads broke through each line at one place or another, but the 20th held at great cost. One third were down—killed or wounded. Cartridge boxes were searched, even those of the enemy, for additional rounds. Few were found.
Lt. Melcher, commanding Company F since Cpt. Keene, Company F commander had been wounded, asked for permission to move his front forward in order to protect his fallen men. Col. Chamberlain approved the request, but added, “I am about to order a Right Wheel Forward of the whole regiment.” As Company F began its movement, the Colonel’s cry of “Bayonet” rang out. The rest of the 20th, seeing the advance of Company F, sprang forward down the slope. The attacking Confederates were overwhelmed; fleeing or surrendering. Four hundred were captured, including two field and several line officers.
By 6:30 o’clock p.m. it was all over. Company F had brought 58 men to Little Round Top. 23 were killed or wounded, including all the corporals and one sergeant.
There would be other engagements for the 20th before the surrender at Appomattox, but none would be as important as the hour on Little Round Top that hot afternoon of July 2, 1863.
Company F in the Wilderness
Interpreted from The Twentieth Maine by John J. Pullen
On the Afternoon of May 5, 1864 the Third Brigade of which the 20th Maine was part was moving west on the Orange and Fredericksburg Turnpike. A strong Confederate counterattack halted the Union advance and the brigade was now retreating to avoid being captured. Most of the men got into the woods and made their way back to the Union breastworks, but a few who had been advancing through the thick woods on the left of the Turnpike did not learn that the brigade had been flanked.
Lieutenant Holman Melcher pushed on with his Company F and noticed that the firing had died away and that there were no Confederates in front of him. To his consternation he couldn’t find the rest of the 20th anywhere. One of his men approached him as he was contemplating this new wrinkle and told him to come and let him show him something. Coming to the Turnpike the man pointed toward the Union lines and said “See that!”
Looking down the road Melcher saw something that froze the blood in his veins. A strong column of Confederate infantry was moving across the road behind him, completely cutting off his line of retreat. Surmising that the rest of the brigade had withdrawn, Melcher had a brief talk with his first Sergeant Ammi M. Smith. There seemed to be only two choices: one was to be captured and the other was to cut their way back through the enemy lines. When Melcher counted he found that he had but eighteen men, including himself. Melcher and his sergeant decided that they had best try to cut their way back since in the din of the battle anything could happen and they might succeed. Melcher called the men together and explained the situation and said that he, for one, would rather die trying than to rot in a rebel prison. They all agreed this was the plan to follow.
Melcher order each man to load his musket, fix bayonets and follow him. He then attempted to lead his little band around the Confederates. This was impossible as the Confederates were now too far extended in their line. Their only chance was to drive through them. He formed his eighteen men into a line of battle with Smith on the left and himself on the right. As quietly as they could, the Maine men approached the Confederate infantry who were so intent on the Yankees in front of them, that they were not aware of the eighteen coming from behind.
The character of the Wilderness battle was in favor of Company F. With the smoke and the dense underbrush, there was no was to tell if an attack was being made by a battalion or a regiment or a small company of eighteen. When they got within fifteen paces of the line of Confederates, each man picked his target, fired and charged, yelling “Surrender!” This sort of thing happened quite a bit during the Battle of the Wilderness—groups of Confederates and Federals alike thinking they ere outflanked or surrendered and giving way to sudden panics.
The impact of the charging Maine men gave a few seconds of confusion and nightmarish incidents. A Confederate turned, pointed his rifle at on of Melcher’s men who was only a boy. He pulled the trigger when the muzzle was only a few inches from the youth’s face. There was a click but the gun did not go off. The look of imminent death in the lad’s face was replaced with rage and he lunged forward and pinned the gray infantryman to the ground with his bayonet, yelling “I’ll teach you, old Reb, how to snap your gun in my face!”
In another incident, Melcher saw a Confederate raising his musket to fire on one of Melcher’s men and realized he was the only one near enough to help. He sprang forward, swinging his sword in a downward stroke, but in his anxiety to strike before the man fired, he had not gotten quite near enough. The point of the blade nicked the Confederate’s scalp and split his coat all the way down his back. That was near enough for the Southerner. He dropped his gun without firing it and surrendered.
This portion of the Confederate line was now astonished and terrified by the unexpected attack and many were fleeing into the woods, but thirty-two surrendered. Melcher had lost two killed and several wounded, but the wounded were moving under their own power. Spreading his men out they surrounded the Confederates and began moving them toward the Union lines. A few of the prisoners, after seeing how small Melcher’s force was, hesitated, but Melcher drew his revolver, which he had totally forgotten to use in the attack, and with this he persuaded them to keep moving.
One of Melcher’s men suddenly took fright and dived behind a log where he huddled in abject fear. Melcher shouted to him to come along or he would be captured. George, his first name, cried to not let them know he was there. The group had to move on and Melcher later learned that George was captured and starved in Andersonville.
After some distance Melcher’s group struck the Union lines through which he passed and delivered his captives at division headquarters in the rear of the Union lines. The company then returned to the rest of the 20th which was behind the breastworks. Seeing Melcher approach Captain W. W. Morrell shouted, “Well, Lieutenant, how did things look down at Rappahannock Station?” The inference, of course, was that Company F had skedaddled all the way back to their old winter quarters. Melcher felt the remark as if he had been stung by a viper. There were hard feelings between these two officers after that and they never had a chance to mend the rift. Three days later Morrell was dead and Melcher was on a stretcher, headed for the hospital.