Flag Day

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This is the national flag that the 20th Maine had on Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. It’s on display in the Maine State Museum.

Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about museums. In general I think they are among the greatest things in the world. Sometimes, though—and I hate to admit this—they bore me. I don’t like to read a lot of explanatory placards when I visit a museum. I don’t go to read things. I go to see things and feel a connection with historical artifacts.

In that respect, my recent visit to the Maine State Museum did not disappoint.

When I was a kid living in Augusta, my dad would take us to the museum when it was still housed in the State Capitol. The museum moved to its more modern facility in 1971. I had been through the current museum before, but I couldn’t tell you when. The last time must have been when my own children, now in their 20s, were young, and we were in Maine for our summer vacation. When I visited Maine in January 2018, I enjoyed going through the museum again, and was pleasantly surprised by its size and scope. There were cars and trains and boats; recreations of Maine living rooms and kitchens and factories; and even a huge section of the square-rigged ship St. Mary. Launched in Phippsburg in 1890, the vessel sank on its maiden voyage, after colliding with another ship while trying to make it around the “Horn” at the tip of South America and eventually running aground in the Falklands.

I also enjoyed the wildlife dioramas, realistic slice of the Maine wilderness, populated by mounted specimens of the deer, moose, bear, birds, and fish you would expect to find in the great outdoors today. There were also some live trout in the streams. I remember being fascinated by the dioramas when I was a kid and I was still captivated as an adult.

All that stuff was great, but I came to see the Civil War material. The museum had a bigger Civil War display during the 150th anniversary commemorations, but that exhibit has been taken down. Fortunately, there was still an exhibit of Civil War flags. The state’s banners had been displayed for years in glass cases in the capitol building, where they deteriorated badly. After significant restoration, flags now rotate through the permanent exhibit, where they are displayed in low light to preserve the fragile silk.

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The regimental flag of the 16th Maine.

On the day of my visit, I was pleased to see the regimental flag of the 16th Maine on display. This was not the banner the regiment had at Gettysburg. The soldiers tore that one up and distributed the pieces among themselves before being overwhelmed by the Rebels on July 1. (I saw one of the pieces in the collections of Abner Small at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. The state museum had another fragment on display, too.) I was also pleasantly surprised to see a guidon from the 31st Maine, the regiment to which my great-grandfather, Daniel True Huntington, belonged.

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A guidon from the 31st Maine.

The exhibit’s star attraction was the U.S. flag of the 20th Maine, the same banner the regiment had when it defended Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. A photograph shows that same flag when veterans returned it to Round Top in 1882. Even then the flag was in bad shape, but at least it’s been cared for since. This was the banner that Andrew Tozier supported in the crook of his elbow as he fired at the approaching soldiers of the 15th Alabama. Chamberlain recalled seeing Tozier through the whirling clouds of smoke, “defending his sacred trust in the manner of the songs of chivalry.” (As I wrote in a previous post, Tozier is now buried in the same Litchfield cemetery where my grandparents and great-grandfather are.)

Nearby, in a glass case, is the Colt pistol that Joshua Chamberlain captured from Lt. Robert Wicker of the 15th Alabama after the Maine soldiers charged down the hill and ended the fighting.

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The pistol that Joshua Chamberlain captured on Little Round Top.

The soldiers who carried these relics are long gone, but at least these things of metal, wood and silk remain to remind us of what the soldiers did during that horrible, terrible, fascinating war.

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Adelbert Ames

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Adelbert Ames (Library of Congress)

Adelbert Ames, the first colonel of the 20th ME, was the man responsible for turning the regiment into an effective fighting force. Born in Rockland, Maine, on October 31, 1835, Ames grew up around the wharves and docks of Rockland harbor. In the fall he would go duck and goose hunting with his father and older brother. “He was immensely proud of his home State, with its cold trout streams, granite-based salmon rivers and forests full of virgin timber,” wrote his daughter, Blanche.

Ames graduated fifth in his West Point class of 1861 and was assigned to 5th United States battery, commanded by Captain Charles Griffin. At First Bull Run, Ames received a serious wound in his thigh. Unable to stand or ride a horse, he refused to leave his guns. He directed their fire while sitting on the ground, and had to be helped to his feet to sit on a caisson when his battery shifted position. His men placed Ames in an ammunition wagon for the Union retreat. Ames later received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bull Run 

In August 1862, Ames received orders to take a leave of absence, return to Maine, and take command of a new infantry regiment, the 20th ME. He earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian while he whipped his green regiment into shape. “Col. A. takes the men out to drill,” wrote Tom Chamberlain, “and he will d—n them up hill and down. I tell you, he is about as savage a man you ever saw . . . . I swear the men will shoot him the first battle they are in.” When the men of the 20th Maine finally understood the harsh realities of combat, though, they came to appreciate the lessons Ames had taught them. In May 1863, shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, Ames was promoted to command of a brigade in the XI Corps. His second in command, Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain—Tom’s older brother—received command of the regiment.

Ames was the great-grandfather of writer George Plimpton, who once wrote about a time when he visited the White House while John F. Kennedy was president. Kennedy asked him if he could do something about the letters Plimpton’s grandmother kept writing to him. The grandmother was Blanche Ames, and she had been incensed by a passage about her father in young Senator Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Kennedy had written that when Ames served as a Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, “His administration was sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets.” Blanche wanted Senator Kennedy to rewrite that passage for subsequent editions. Young Kennedy had written back that he doubted there would be any more editions. But there were, and Blanche Ames continued to write her letters, even after Kennedy became president. Kennedy wondered if Plimpton could do something to stop the correspondence—“it was cutting into the work of government,” the president said.

Plimpton could actually remember his great-grandfather, who had lived to be 97 and died in 1933. Plimpton said he remembered as a young boy of six looking into his great-grandfather’s eyes and even then realizing this man had witnessed Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.