Mustered with over 1,600 troops on July 2, 1862, after Lincoln’s second call for volunteers, the 20th Maine was reduced to under 300 by the time they arrived at Gettysburg. They were commanded by Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, a former modern languages professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College.
In late May 1863, the 20th Maine was joined by the remainder of the 2nd Maine Regiment, three-year enlistees who were more experienced combat veterans. These soldiers were in a state of mutiny, however, because much of the regiment had been two-year enlistees who had been discharged and the regiment disbanded. The remaining men had been recruited from the same area where Chamberlain had grown up; he was able to inspire them to fight, distributing them among his less-experienced soldiers. He also sent a letter to the governor of Maine to ask him to personally write to the men about the confusion between the two- and three-year contracts.
On July 2, 1863, the 20th Maine was positioned by Col. John Vincent at the far left of the Union line on Little Round Top with the rest of Vincent’s brigade: the 44th New York, 16th Michigan, and 83rd Pennsylvania. As the enemy began their attack, Capt. James H. Nichols, the commander of the 20th Maine’s Company K, alerted Chamberlain that the enemy seemed to be pushing toward the regiment’s left. Chamberlain ordered a right-angle formation, extending his line farther to the east.
Elements the 15th and 47th Alabama, led by Colonel William C. Oates, had been ordered to find the Union left, turn it and capture Little Round Top. The 20th Maine’s Company B, deployed along the regiment’s left front flank, was subsequently cut off by this flanking movement.
After an hour and a half under heavy attack and running low on ammunition, Chamberlain saw the rebels forming for another push and ordered a charge down the hill with fixed bayonets, which caught the enemy by surprise. During the charge, a second Confederate line tried to make a stand near a stone wall. The isolated Company B, now in a position from which to provide the rest of the regiment with support, fired into the Confederate’s rear, giving the impression that the 20th Maine had been joined by another regiment. This, coupled with the surprise of Chamberlain’s bold attack, caused panic among the Southerners’ ranks.
The Confederates scattered, ending the attack on the hill. If the 20th Maine had retreated instead, the entire line would have been flanked and the Union likely would have lost Gettysburg. Holding the hill helped the Union win Gettysburg and turn the tide of the war.