Monday, January 07, 2013

`His Storm Hides Even Our Brother's Face'

The 16th Michigan Infantry Regiment marched into Gettysburg on the morning of July 2, 1863. By late afternoon, the unit had taken up positions on the western slope of Little Round Top, a rocky hill south of town, facing the Alabama Brigade of Hood's Division. In most accounts of the battle, the downhill bayonet charge by the 20th Maine, under the command of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, gets most of the attention, and rightly so. For his bravery, Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Despite the success of the Maine counterattack, the other Union regiments on Little Round Top remained in jeopardy. Col. Strong Vincent's 1,200-man brigade consisted of the 44th New York and 83rd Pennsylvania, in addition to the 20th and 16th. They had arrived only minutes before the first of 2,400 Confederate infantry. Vincent was wounded and died five days later. If Gettysburg is the hinge of the Civil War (and American history), Little Round Top is perhaps the hinge of the hinge. Vincent’s men prevented the main Union force from being outflanked, and the next day Pickett's charge failed. The war continued for another twenty-one months but the South never recovered. Faulkner writes in Intruder in the Dust (1948): 

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet…” 

History turns into Southern myth. Helen Pinkerton in “On a Painting by Todd Price of the 16th Michigan Infantry on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863” (Taken in Faith: 2002), shifts the focus to the Northern side: 

“Waves of assault break on this rocky spur—
Prow of our Ship, driven to this fierce place.
Whom the surge takes and who remains to cheer
God knows. His storm hides even our brother’s face.” 

Todd Price is a painter based in Montgomery, Ohio, and the painting Helen describes is “Bring up the Colors.” In it, no Confederates are visible. The arrangement of the Union soldiers in a left-facing “V” suggests the prow of a ship. Gun smoke obscures everything but the rocks, the flag and the soldiers in blue. This year, July 1-3, we observe the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg.

1 comment:

Finn MacCool said...

The 20th Maine does indeed get a lot of attention. Another Midwestern regiment that played a pivotal role at Gettysburg was the First Minnesota Volunteers. There is a fine book on them, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers, by Richard Moe.