I got a chance to stand in history’s footsteps last weekend, thanks to Randy Drais.
Randy lives in York, Pennsylvania. His great-great grandfather was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, and Randy has worked to commemorate the battle through his Battle of Gettysburg Buff website and Facebook page. I’ve taken a number of the battlefield tours that Randy has organized and have learned much from them.
So when I heard that Randy was organizing a recreation of a famous photo of veterans from the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, I wanted to get involved.
The original photo was taken on October 3, 1889. That was the day when Maine veterans from the state’s regiments that had fought at Gettysburg gathered on the battlefield to dedicate their monuments. The veterans of the 20th Maine—including Joshua Chamberlain, who had commanded the regiment on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863—and their family members met on the rocky spur where the regiment had fought more than a quarter-century earlier. “It is an occasion of great interest to us all, that after these twenty-six years so many of the survivors of the Twentieth Regiment, Maine Volunteer Infantry, are permitted to meet and stand on this historic ground, made sacred by the blood of our comrades who fell here in the defense of this vital position of the great battlefield of the war of the rebellion,” said Holman Melcher, president of the regimental association. Melcher, a farm boy from Topsham, had been a 21-yer-old teacher when he joined the 20th Maine in 1862. Melcher had led Color Co. F during the fighting and some credited him with starting the regiment’s final bayonet charge down the southern spur of Little Round Top, when he moved his company forward to provide cover for wounded who lay in front of him.
Regimental historian Howard Prince spoke next. Prince admitted that he had missed the battle, having been on detached duty gathering supplies. “The most intimate connection he had with the battle, was to conduct a train-load of shoes for the gallant but footsore survivors thereof, over the stony roads of South Mountain at midnight,” Prince said of himself before entertaining the gathered veterans with a history of their fight on Little Round Top.
Finally it was Chamberlain’s turn to speak. “You were making history,” he told his former comrades in arms. “The world has recorded for you more than you have written. The centuries to come will share and recognize the victory won here, with growing gratitude.” Following Chamberlain’s remarks, bugler Joseph Tyler played taps and then the party moved on the dedicate a marker designating where Walter Morrill’s Company B had fought, and then ascended Big Round Top to dedicate the 20th Maine’s monument there.
The veterans had enjoyed a beautiful October day when they were here. We were not so fortunate 129 years later, as the morning was dank and misty. Fortunately, though, it was not actively raining as photo participants began trickling in before 8:00 that morning. Randy had obtained a permit from the National Park Service, and we had 45 minutes to finish our shoot. Photographer Tom Miller was behind the camera. Some of the participants, men and women, were wearing period clothing. Others, like me, were wearing anything they thought would look okay in the photograph. I had purchased my Italian-made wool sport coat that week at a Goodwill store for $7.95. I hoped it would pass muster. Someone had provided a collection of appropriate headgear, each one protected inside a plastic bag and ready to be distributed to the people who needed them. Randy had arranged for the production of reunion ribbons to match the ones that some of the veterans had been wearing. A banner with the V Corps’ Maltese Cross had been hung on a tree behind the spot where our group would assemble.
One thing we noticed is that the terrain had changed. There was now a small stone wall and a drop off on what would have been the left side of the original image. I was supposed to be one of the veterans sitting at the front to the group’s left, next to the man leaning against his cane. But if I had sat in my proper place, all you would have seen of me in the photo would have been the top of my head sticking up from behind the wall. So I moved to the back and to the right a bit.
Randy did an admirable job of getting us organized and in our places. Tom took a few pictures and, after examining them, Randy pronounced himself satisfied. Then our Chamberlain, Bob Mcfarlane, read an excerpt of a speech that Chamberlain made later during the reunion on October 3, 1889, words that are remembered and recited today.
“In great deeds something abides,” he said. “On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
I’m sure all of us on Little Round Top that misty October morning found time to ponder, and some of us might even have dreamed. It was certainly a memorable occasion and I’m very pleased that I could take part.