Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

On this Independence Day, I hope we remember the sacrifices so many have made to preserve our country and the freedoms we hold dear. We owe so much to so comparatively few.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Few events in our history are more important than this desperate struggle in the hills of southern Pennsylvania. While tens of thousands of men fought and died during the three days of the battle, the courageous decision of one man — Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain — saved the Union Army from annihilation.

Supremely confident after his army's recent triumphs at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac and invaded the Northern states. Lee was determined to find the Federal Army of the Potomac and destroy it once and for all. On July 1, 1863, the two great armies stumbled into each other outside of the small town of Gettysburg. Recognizing his opportunity, Lee massed his forces and attacked, driving the outnumbered Union soldiers to the ridges outside of town. The Union troops desperately held on as reinforcements poured into the area throughout the night and the next morning.

On the afternoon of July 2, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment were ordered to hold the extreme left flank of the Union lines on a small hill known as Little Round Top. Chamberlain, a peaceful man and a former professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, knew little of warfare. But he understood the full significance of his assignment. If the Confederate Army could overrun their position, they could encircle and destroy the Union army. Chamberlain told his regiment that they must hold to the last man. Retreat was not an option.

Around 4 p.m. on July 2, the Confederate Army attacked Chamberlain's position. The 20th Maine repelled the first assault — then a second — then a third. Wave after wave of Confederate infantry charged up the hill. The fighting became so desperate and deadly that the 20th Maine regiment closed ranks and formed once again further up the hill. Finally, when all of their ammunition was expended, Chamberlain made a fateful decision — a decision upon which the fate of the Union Army and the United States of America hung in the balance. Chamberlain ordered his remaining troops to fix their bayonets and charge! The 20th Maine regiment wheeled down the hill, and with empty rifles swept the Confederate troops before them. The Confederates retreated from Little Round Top, and abandoned their attempts to flank the Union army.

The following day, July 3, Lee made the fateful decision to send Gen. George Pickett and the bulk of his army to charge the center of the Union lines. The Union Army threw Confederates back, slaughtering thousands. Pickett's charge was the "high water mark" of the rebellion.

One hundred fifty years ago this morning, the Battle of Gettysburg was over. News of the Union victory began to spread, as Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began their long retreat. That retreat ended at Appomattox Courthouse nearly two years later, where the Confederate army surrendered its arms to then Brig. Gen. Chamberlain.

In this age, when patriotism seems to be out of fashion, I am grateful for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the many other patriots who have defended our ideals and way of life. While not all battles today are as closely fought as the one at Little Round Top, it is my hope that — on the issues that really matter — we will choose to charge rather than retreat.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.