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George Washington and the 20th Maine at the battle of Gettysburg

PART ONE: The 20th Maine regiment heads to the Gettysburg battlefield

By Jeffrey Calta

The American Civil War has produced its share of ghost stories. Hundreds of accounts of ghost-like apparitions have been reported both during and after the war at the many battlefields. One of the more interesting ghost stories reported from the conflict itself was the appearance (twice) of George Washington at the Gettysburg battle for Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.



Colonel Joshua Chamberlain

 

What makes the George Washington story so fascinating is that it was observed and reported by many soldiers from both Union and Confederate ranks. Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine regiment, was present at this event and wrote about the incident in his book Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg. The “rumors” of George Washington’s appearance at Little Round Top were so numerous among the Union soldiers that Lincoln’s Secretary of War initiated a formal investigation after the battle.

On the evening of July 1, 1863 Union forces of the 20th and 2nd Maine regiment were in a concerted rush to the Gettysburg battlefield. Some soldiers of the 2nd Maine were demoralized and had refused to fight while many others thought their enlistment time was over. General Meade gave Colonel Chamberlain the ultimatum of “making them fight or shoot them down the moment they refuse”. Chamberlain used a soft approach and helped the soldiers get food (they had not eaten in three days) and clean clothes. The soldiers of the 2nd Maine rejoined the fight and were added to the 20th Maine regiment as they marched double quick northward on the Taneytown Road. Night had fallen as the 20th Maine approached the battlefield and they came upon a fork in the road. The 20th Maine appeared lost. No one knew which fork to take when a large white stallion appeared out of nowhere with a rider wearing “old fashioned clothes and a tri-cornered hat”. Many remarked later that the horse and rider seemed to emanate “an eerie glow with an almost ethereal appearance”. Those soldiers who witnessed the scene swore that it looked like George Washington. The rider raised his sword and signaled the regiment to follow him which brought them to Little Round Top. The horse and rider were briefly forgotten as the troops organized themselves for the upcoming fight.

For some unexplained reason Union General Sickles had left Little Round Top earlier and moved his forces to the Peach Orchard leaving Little Round Top un-occupied. Union Major General Sykes realized that Little Round Top had been vacated leaving the Union line unprotected. He ordered Colonel Strong Vincent to move forces into this gap. The 20th Maine was inserted on the left flank of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The 20th Maine had just taken up defensive positions when Confederate forces of the 15th Alabama and 47th Alabama began their assault against the 20th Maine on July 2, 1863. Chamberlain later recalled that the initial fighting on July 2 was brutal with the line between forces advancing and retreating. The Confederate infantry came in waves and the 20th Maine repulsed each wave but had lost almost half of the regiment and was low on ammunition. Scouts had spotted another Confederate force assembling at the base of Little Round top preparing for another charge on the 20th Maine. Chamberlain prepared his remaining soldiers for a do or die situation. With very little ammunition, he ordered the 20th Maine to fix bayonets and be prepared to attack.

Upcoming in Part two : George Washington appears again to rally the Union forces.




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