GETTYSBURG, Penn. — On July 17, more than 140 national guard soldiers from Maine and Alabama met for a ceremony to remember the men of both states who died 150 years ago during the Battle of Gettysburg. The ceremony, held on Little Round Top, was the culminating event of a joint-state staff ride to the Gettysburg battlefield.
The tradition of staff rides teaches staff officers and commanders real-life lessons using a historic battlefield as a classroom. The staff ride covered the entire battle of Gettysburg, this year focusing on Little Round Top, where units from Maine and Alabama had the opportunity to meet as friends.
In the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, a unit of more than 350 soldiers, led by Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, was ordered to hold the Union Army’s left flank at Little Round Top. During the ninety minutes of fighting, soldiers from the 15th Alabama, led by Col. William C. Oates, made three attempts to take the hill. After the third wave of confederate troops pulled back, Chamberlain’s men were low on ammunition, and fearing another assault, the order was given for a bayonet charge. Trapped between Chamberlain’s advancing troops and soldiers from the 20th Maine’s B Company who had taken up a flanking position on the confederate assault, the Alabamans retreated to the adjoining Big Round Top, where they stayed until when General Robert E. Lee withdrew his forces from Gettysburg on July 3.
“You just don’t know how powerful an experience it is until you’ve been able to walk on the ground where soldiers died during one of the most pivotal battles in the civil war,” said Pvt. Nathaniel Dutile, a combat engineer from the Maine National Guard’s 251st Engineer Company. “It’s nice to get a very detailed explanation of the battle and to stand where they stood.”
The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank J. Grass, joined the adjutant general of Maine, Brig. Gen. James D. Campbell, and Alabama’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Perry G. Smith, to address the soldiers and civilian onlookers.
With military honors, Campbell, Grass and Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage honored the fallen soldiers of the 20th Maine by placing a fresh evergreen wreath brought from Maine. The wreath symbolizes the home they left behind and honors their sacrifice. Similar wreaths were placed on Maine monuments spread across the battlefield.
In a final ceremony held at the left flank marker of the 20th Maine’s battle line on Little Round Top, four flags, one from Maine and three from Alabama, representing units directly descended from the 20th Maine and 15th Alabama, were arrayed beside the flags of each state.
“Flags represent a lot of things in the military,” said Smith. “It’s impressive that the same unit that was the 20th Maine is represented here with their flag and that the Alabama National Guard has three flags of the three units that trace their lineage back to the battle of Gettysburg.
“This doesn’t happen much, really in the history of the world,” said Thomas Desjardins, historian for Maine’s Department of Conservation, “where you find a group of soldiers in units that descended from other units who once fought against each other over a piece of ground like this one. Generations later they come back together as a cohesive unit to commemorate, and remember the soldiers who fought on both sides.”
In a letter written by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who was unable to attend, he remarked, “I can think of no more fitting tribute to the brave men who struggled upon this very field, or to those who rest in this hallowed ground than to see the soldiers from Alabama and Maine meet again, but this time in a spirit of unity.”