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Matthew Sanders: Gettysburg teaches the importance of taking and holding high ground

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 3:22 a.m. MDT

Little Round Top, western slope, photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1863. (Wiki Commons) Little Round Top, western slope, photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1863. (Wiki Commons)

"In great deeds, something abides." -- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

On the 25th anniversary the Battle of Gettysburg, then Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain spoke at the dedication of the monument to the 20th Maine regiment he commanded in the defense of Little Round Top.

"On great fields, something stays." -- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Hoping to break the spirits of the North after repeated defeats, Gen. Robert E. Lee marched his troops through the Shenandoah Valley and into Pennsylvania. On July 1st, 1863, Lee's advance troops collided with Brig. Gen. John Buford's cavalry in the village of Gettysburg, some 82 miles almost due north of Washington, D.C.

For three blistering days the Confederate army rammed against the center of the Union lines, which had secured higher ground on Cemetery Ridge.

The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment monument on Little Round Top is the most popular Gettysburg National Military Park monument that visitors request to see. (Wiki Commons) The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment monument on Little Round Top is the most popular Gettysburg National Military Park monument that visitors request to see. (Wiki Commons)

On the far left flank of the Union lines an inexperienced former-professor-cum-colonel named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain took action that changed the course of the entire war. Both Union and Confederate generals understood the strategic key of Little Round Top in the colossal clash of warring Americans.

Chamberlain was ordered to not yield the position, no matter the cost.

Lee sent trusted Gen. James Longstreet and some of his fiercest warriors, the Alabamans, to collapse the left flank of the Union lines. Time after time the southerners whooped their “rebel yell” and charged up the slope, only to be turned back by Chamberlain and his tiny 20th Maine regiment of 358 men.

"Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls." -- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03163 (Wiki Commons) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03163 (Wiki Commons)

As the Alabamans were preparing another assault, word came to Col. Chamberlain that most of his men were out of ammunition. Instead of retreating, Chamberlain courageously and unpredictably changed the nature of the battle and helped turn the tide of the war. He ordered his men to fix bayonets. As the Alabamans began their ascent between trees, rocks and bodies, the “Mainiacs” charged down the hill and killed, captured or swept the Alabamans off the hill and won the day.

Chamberlain went on to additional wartime heroism, leading remarkable attacks, even while wounded throughout the Petersburg campaign, eventually becoming a brigadier general. At Appomattox, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had him receive the Confederate surrender of arms and flags. He eventually served as Governor of Maine and President of Bowdoin College, and received the Medal of Honor for his leadership at Gettysburg.

Illustration of the last Confederate gun at Gettysburg in 1863. Gettysburg was the most violent battle of the American Civil War and marked the end of the Confederate northward invasions. (AP Photo) (, AP) Illustration of the last Confederate gun at Gettysburg in 1863. Gettysburg was the most violent battle of the American Civil War and marked the end of the Confederate northward invasions. (AP Photo) (, AP)

The Battle of Gettysburg, with its almost 50,000 casualties among northern and southern soldiers, is a testament to the importance of high ground and the unyielding commitment to hold a line.

What lessons can be learned from these heroes past? What ground must we hold or retake?

One hundred fifty years ago today the guns of Gettysburg finally fell silent. Today we are faced with new assaults that threaten our great republic and society. They are brazen and severe. We are in a great battle for our children.

Flanked on every side by addictions to substances and technology, hyper-sexual and violent media, and economic dependence and stagnation, today's youth face unprecedented moral challenges. These are not some imaginary threats that need review by committees or need approval by consensus. They are grinding, rolling battles brought on by individual choice and the dissolution of the nuclear family.

This was the scene at the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, July 1863.  (AP Photo) (, ASSOCIATED PRESS) This was the scene at the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, July 1863. (AP Photo) (, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Chamberlain's bold but simple action turned the war. Our tactic is equally unpredictable. It doesn't involve commanding heights, consensus opinion or debates in great halls. No, the battle will turn as we each figuratively "fix bayonets" and commit to lives of greater self-governance. Such choices cannot be forced or mandated, as they are acts of a single soul to live life for the sake of another and for the most noble within us.

"This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of the Christ,--to give life's best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal." -- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt

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