Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Most folks know about the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge that repulsed the Rebels at Little Round Top because they watched the movie, “Gettysburg.”
Capt. Gary and First Sgt. Goldy post ourselves a hundred yards or so away from where it happened in real life. Tourists frequently ask us how to find it.
In the movie, the 20th Maine’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (wonderfully portrayed by Jeff Daniels), draws his saber, calls “Bayonets!” and leads the charge himself.
The reality may have been different in several respects:
For one thing, we don’t know if Chamberlain’s mustache really twitched as much as Daniels’ did.
Also, the movie (which was NOT filmed on location) shows the charge taking place on a slope that’s much longer and steeper than that of the actual site.
A Confederate bullet dents Daniels’ scabbard so badly that he can’t draw his saber from it — yet he does draw it in a later scene to lead the bayonet charge. You can’t have it both ways
Also in dispute is the idea that the 20th Maine kept the battle from being lost by preventing the Confederates from turning the Yankees’ left flank, thus saving the Union.
No disrespect to them. Chamberlain and his men were brave soldiers who performed above and beyond the call of any duty.
However, thousands of other Yankees and their artillery were close at hand and would have proven a difficult obstacle for the Rebels to contend with.
There also is the contention that Chamberlain neither ordered nor led the charge.
Some say it was another officer. Others hold that Chamberlain’s men fixed bayonets and charged spontaneously because they were almost out of ammunition and wanted to serve the Rebels a helping of their own vittles.
Recently, I came across the idea that the 20th Maine’s charge actually was led by ... get ready ... wait for it ... I am not making this up ... here it comes ... none other than ... .
Yes, that George Washington.
I know. Several thoughts come to mind. But here are some points for you to consider.
The captain and I tell people we weren’t there. We rely on the accounts of people who were there and the writings of competent professional historians who did the research.
In 1913, Oliver Wilcox Norton authored a book about the attack and defense of Little Round Top (which wasn’t even called that at the time).
He included excerpts from the writings of soldiers who fought in the battle and stated, “A comparison of the accounts in these books shows that no two of them agree in their description of what took place on Little Round Top. With such differences, they cannot all be right.”
I have found the George Washington story in several places. Some say Washington first appeared to Chamberlain’s men on their way to Gettysburg — and that Chamberlain himself reported seeing such a man, but didn’t say who he thought it was.
Washington was described by those who saw him as wearing a Continental Army uniform and tricorn hat, brandishing a saber and riding a pale white horse.
The story gained such notoriety that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent Col. John Pittenger to investigate. What Pittenger found out, we don’t know. He never filed a report, nor was the incident officially mentioned anywhere else.
Why not? If you’re an officer in either the Union Army or the Confederate Army, are you going to file a report saying that you saw George Washington lead a bayonet charge?
Hell, no, and for the same reasons no modern-day American military or airline pilot is going to report having been chased by a UFO the size of an aircraft carrier (which some will say off the record that they have).
Such a thing has Section 8 — a mentally unfit for service discharge — written all over it.
Among others, Pittenger talked to Union Gen. Henry Hunt. A soldier who witnessed the interview recorded in his diary that Hunt told Pittenger he saw Washington come galloping onto the field, close enough to recognize his face, and that hundreds of other soldiers saw him.
A number of Confederates said they fired at Washington, but the bullets seemed to pass through him.
Wouldn’t have been the first time this happened. During a single battle in the French and Indian War, Washington had at least two horses shot out from under him and harvested four bullet holes in his jacket.
An Indian chief who was there said he personally shot 17 times at Washington but couldn’t hit him. This convinced him that Washington was under the care of the Great Spirit, so he told his men to stop firing at him.
During the Revolutionary War battle of Princeton, the Continentals were being routed. Washington rode out to the front and rallied them, riding back and forth between them and the British, who were firing volleys at him from 30 yards away. At 6’2” and 220 pounds, he was a big target — but they never hit him.
A friend asked me why George Washington would come back to lead a Civil War bayonet charge.
Washington was the father of our country, I said, and he knew it needed to be rescued. Can you can think of a better answer? Or a better place than Gettysburg for him to do it?
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill relished telling people what happened to him in the White House while he was visiting President Roosevelt during World War II (a time when both America and England needed rescuing.)
Churchill said he returned to his room one night after taking a bath, naked except for a cigar and an empty Scotch glass, to find Abraham Lincoln standing by the fireplace.
Never one to be at a loss for words or anything else, Churchill said, “Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
He said Lincoln smiled softly and disappeared.
If the father of our country continues to watch over it, so might be the man who inherited it and preserved it.
Do I believe George Washington led a bayonet charge down Little Round Top?
After what I’ve experienced in Gettysburg and at other times and places — often in the company of witnesses — I’m not inclined to write anything off as impossible, regardless of how improbable it may be.
What I do believe is that when we go back to Little Round Top, the captain and I are going to have one hell of a story to tell the tourists.