It took me a year to write and record this song. While getting it together, I discovered a lost friend, learned another’s secret and saw dawn gleaming over Maine’s most famous Civil War battlefield. I also finally grasped the essence of what fascinates me about history: How you can shake the dry pages of a book, scrub moss from a tombstone, run your finger across a map and find fully alive, human stories.
This tale starts twelve months ago, when I published a “This Week in Portland History” story about the 1914 death of Joshua Chamberlain. He was the last man to die from his Civil War wounds. At his passing, Chamberlain was, and remains, Maine’s most famous soldier, from any war.
His contemporary fame was reignited in 1993 with the release of the popular film “Gettysburg.” It was based on the 1974 historical novel “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara. In both works, Col. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment are central characters. As in real life, they save the Union line at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.
The volunteer unit was made up of mostly woodsmen and farm boys, with a few sailors and store clerks. Chamberlain, originally from Brewer, was a college professor at Bowdoin. Placed at the far end of the Union line, they kept the 15th Alabama from running around them and attacking the Yankees from behind.
It’s a famous tale, often told. When their ammunition ran low, Chamberlain ordered his men to mount their bayonets. Then, they charged down the hill, catching the Alabamians by surprise.
I saw “Gettysburg” when it came out and I read Shaara’s book years ago. They didn’t really stick with me, though. I’m not interested in wars and battlefields. Military movement maps, with swooping arrows, leave me cold. I worked in Brunswick for 12 years but never toured Chamberlain’s house, now a museum.
But now, somehow, I’ve written a song recounting the 20th Maine’s deeds at Little Round Top. I’m still not interested in historic warfare but I am definitely fascinated by friendship.
When I wrote the story about Chamberlain’s death a year ago, I sent it to my old friend, Dean Clegg. He’s a drummer, businessman and historian. I played in a rock band with him when I was 17. We were in the same graduating class at Bonny Eagle High School in 1989 but I’d rarely seen him over the years.
One exception was in 2014 when he appeared in the pages of the Bangor Daily News. Dean is a guide at Chamberlain’s house in Brunswick and was raising money to get a historical marker placed on the spot where the colonel was shot, and almost died, at the Battle of Petersburg.
It felt good to reconnect with him then and it only seemed natural to send him a link to my Chamberlain piece last year. A subsequent chat led to cigars and beer at a local lounge. Dean is a reserved kind of guy. He never raises his voice and always thinks before he speaks. But when he tells Chamberlain tales, his eyes sparkle and his tone turns to exalted reverence. To him, Chamberlain is more than a cold statue on the Bowdoin quad or a stern painting on the wall. He’s alive and fascinating.
As it turned out, my band — the Half Moon Jug Band — needed a drummer at the time of our cigar talk. To my great fortune, Dean agreed to join. Since then, he’s become more than a bandmate. We’ve grown closer this year than we ever were back in high school.
The other member of the band is bassist, and nurse practitioner, Steve Brewer. We’ve been friends and musical partners for almost 20 years. I thought I knew just about everything about him. I was wrong.
With Dean in the band, it became clear that Steve was also very interested in, and wholly knowledgeable about, Maine’s Civil War doings. I had no idea until they started talking on a long drive to a gig. Soon, the notion of the three of us taking a trip to Gettysburg together was born.
Dean had been to the site many times. Steve and I had never visited before. So, late last October, we piled into a car and drove to Gettysburg.
Getting ready for the trip, I looked for books to help me understand what happened there. I checked Thomas Desjardin’s 1995 book “Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine” out of the library. Desjardin’s was an advisor on the “Gettysburg” movie. The volume was a revelation.
With the general story of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top so well known already, he used his book to reveal the individual characters involved. He employed more than 70 first-hand accounts — from both sides — to tell the story of what happened on that hill. Letters home, diary entries, official documents and years-later recollections all reveal the real, live men who fought and died there. These authentic sources cut to the truth of the most mythologized battle, in the most romanticized war, the United States has ever seen.
The three of us spent a trio of crisp autumn days walking the Gettysburg battlefield. There are 1,328 monuments there and we must have seen most of them. Dean and Steve led the way. They knew all about every part of the battle. They spent a lot of time hunched over mapbooks, pointing and speaking in excited tones, figuring out who faced who and just where. Their enthusiasm was fun to watch and made me like both of them even more.
In the national cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address, we saw the graves where hundreds of Maine boys sleep forever. Some had names, some read “unknown.” It was moving, realizing some of the men I got to know in Desjardin’s book were right there, below my feet.
We saved Little Round Top for our third day. I wanted to see it at dawn, for some reason, and convinced Steve and Dean to get up early. We arrived in the dark. Birds chirped and sang all around. We had the place to ourselves as the other tourists were still in bed.
At the top, by the stone wall and monument where the 20th Maine made its stand, I spent a lot of time just sitting. My companions eventually wandered off to explore other parts of the hill. I was alone with the rising sun and chorus of birds. I tried to erase the “Gettysburg” movie scenes from my head and forget what I read in the novel. I had Desjardin’s book with me and re-read the first person accounts. I wanted to imagine the scene for myself.
It was difficult but I think I did it.
While in Gettysburg, I learned that the Union and Confederate armies met there by chance. The town had no strategic value. After the Union victory, both sides marched away, leaving behind thousands of wasted lives.
I came home with that melancholy truth ringing in my memory.
I still don’t like military maps and glorified tales of war but I have a clearer notion of what happened there. I also feel a closer bond of shared experience with my bandmates. I understand them better, now.
Of course, I also came back with this song. It’s told from the point of view of a regular, unnamed soldier. I lifted much of it, including the title, from Desjardin’s book but I couldn’t have written it without seeing Little Round Top for myself.
We recorded it for a new album last month. The new CD won’t come out until early summer but this week seems like a good time to release it to the world as the anniversary of Chamberlain’s death — and my reconnection with Dean — rolls around again.
The tune doesn’t add anything new to the tale that the world doesn’t already know. But it does set it to music with a chorus I hope is catchy. The whole truth about Little Round Top can never be known, except by those who were there.
Writing to his granddaughter in 1910, Capt. Ellis Spear of the 20th Maine said, “I fear you will never know all about it. Nobody does, or ever did, or ever will.”