A Ghost at Gettysburg: The 20th Maine’s Mysterious Encounter

The story of Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine, and their heroic stand on Little Round Top is one of the most famous from the battle of Gettysburg.  While entire books have been written on the subject, a basic summary is this.  On the burning hot day of July 2, 1863, the second day of fighting between Lee and Meade at Gettysburg, the slopes outside of town dubbed “the Round Tops” came to the attention of Union General Gouverneur Warren (pictured below).  At that time, he was the Chief Topographical Engineer for the Union Army.  He immediately realized the value of these tree-covered slopes in that they overlooked the entire battlefield.  Whoever possessed them would have the ultimate advantage.  Union troops were rushed to the slopes to keep them out of Confederate hands.

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General Warren Monument – “Wow what a view up here…”

One of these regiments was the 20th Maine.  Organized in 1862, they were one of many unfortunate regiments on the blood-soaked slopes of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg later that year.  They escaped Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1863, but only because of a small pox outbreak caused by a tainted vaccine.  Now, under the charge of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, they were placed at the far left of the entire Union line on the Round Tops at Gettysburg.  The flank was not a desirable place to be.  It meant that if they fell back, the entire army would suffer a route and quite likely lose the battle.  As if that wasn’t enough pressure, they also had minimal time to prepare for the pending fight.  In fact, they arrived just minutes before the echo of rebel yells sounded across the slopes.  Although they were low on both men and ammunition, the 20th Maine did the Union proud and beat back multiple full-blown assaults by gray-clad rebels of General Hood’s division.  The fighting was bloody and claimed many lives.  Colonel Chamberlain wrote, “we opened a brisk fire at close range, which was so sudden and effective they [Hood’s men] soon fell back among the rocks and low trees in the valley, only to burst forth again with a shout, and rapidly advance, firing as they came.”  In short, the Confederates weren’t backing down.  After over an hour of intense fighting, Chamberlain was informed that the regiment was exhausted of ammunition.  Their fateful hour had arrived.  However, surrender was the last thing on Chamberlain’s mind.  “Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it but to take the offensive,” he later said of his gutsy decision.  In a stunning gamble, Chamberlain turned to his troops and ordered them to fix bayonets.    Then, the soldiers of the 20th Maine beat all hell across the slopes of Little Round Top and into the Confederate line.  The intensity of the assault had the desired effect.  The Confederates broke in a panic and several of them were captured.  “The rebels were confounded at the movement,” writes survivor Theodore Gerrish.  “We struck them with a fearful shock.  They recoil, stagger, break and run, and like avenging demons our men pursue.”

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The stand of the 20th Maine

So, in one of the biggest bluffs of the Civil War, the 20th Maine saved the slopes of the Round Tops and the Union left flank with nothing but the bayonet.  Gettysburg wasn’t finished with them either.  On the third and final day of the battle, many exhausted 20th Maine members found themselves at the brunt of Pickett’s infamous charge.  They, along with many other regiments, again beat back the rebels, and Gettysburg was claimed for the Union.  It’s a heroic tale if there ever was one, and it has spilled down through the ages.  Even today, one can’t get through a Gettysburg telling without the story of Chamberlain and his 20th Maine.

A century and a half later, my husband and I took our own trip to Gettysburg under much more peaceful circumstances.  It was springtime, and all the dogwoods and red buds were in bloom.  The grass was green and the skies were blue.  It made Little Round Top an exceptionally beautiful place to visit, and the site of the 20th Maine’s stand was just one of the stops we made.  We also strolled through the blooming peach orchard and the sprawling wheat field.  We relived the opening shots in the open grasslands outside of town.  We walked the grounds at Seminary Ridge and beheld the many monuments to the thousands of soldiers who fought during those immortal days.  We also paid our respects in the graveyard, where a tragic number of stones are marked “unknown.”

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Devil’s Den – at the base of Little Round Top

After we were done in the fields, we partook in another favorite tradition in the town of Gettysburg.  We hung up our anxieties and decided to go on a ghost tour.  As darkness descended on the historic Pennsylvania town, we were led through the streets by a period-clad, candle baring lady who told us all of the city’s spookiest stories.  She told how on some nights, strange lights appear on the battlefields.  Ghostly soldiers have been seen lurking about the buildings of Gettysburg College.  Cameras and electronic devices mysteriously go dead around places like Devil’s Den.  A group of visitors once beheld a stunning reenactment on the battlefield, only to learn that there were no reenactors in the area that day.  Shots are often heard outside of town, yet when the cops investigate, there is nothing there.  It happens so frequently that their special code for these occurrences is “1863.”

The stories were hair raising and we enjoyed them all, but my favorite one had to do with the heroic stand of the 20th Maine.  Because according to local legend, the regiment may have had some ghostly help with their amazing feat.

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The stand of the 20th Maine

The fantastical tale goes a little something like this.  On the opening day of the battle, July 1, Chamberlain and his men were actually not even near Gettysburg.  Instead, they were on the march from Maryland in a speedy attempt to catch up with the rest of the army and stave off Lee’s invasion.  It was a difficult march, to say the least.  The road was clouded with dust and they had to move fast in the oppressive July heat.  They also came upon gory remnants of the fighting between famous Confederate General Jeb Stuart and Union horsemen who tried to best him.  In the dead of night, just as they approached the guns of Gettysburg, the regiment came upon a fork in the road.  One path would lead them to the assistance of their countrymen, and the other would lead them on a wild goose chase.  The maps were out of date and they had no idea which one to take.  Suddenly, in the bright moon light, there appeared a mysterious rider on a magnificent pale horse and adorned with a brightly-colored tricorn hat.  He urged his horse down one of the paths, and then he waved for Chamberlain’s confounded troops to follow him.  The strange man led them to the Union battle lines, and soon, the 20th Maine was rushed to the aid of their Union brothers.

But who was the rider?  Witnesses on the roadside that night were mixed.  Some thought it was deposed General McClellan come back to lead them to victory.  They threw their hats into the air and cheered accordingly, but as soon as the sun was up, they were fed into the battle fray and the mysterious rider was forgotten… until the critical moment of the fighting on Little Round Top.  As the frightened soldiers prepared to charge the rebel line with nothing but bayonets, the mysterious man reappeared.  This time, he was at the front of the Union line and bared a sword that glowed with fire.  His identity was also unmistakable.  It was George Washington.  Now under the supernatural command of the general that helped give birth to their nation, the Union boys blasted over the hill and right into the pages of Gettysburg history.

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The Town of Gettysburg

It is one of the most fantastical accounts from the Battle of Gettysburg, and it circulated in Civil War circles for decades.  One Google search of the subject will yield many results.  Some are outrageous, some are somewhat believable, and all are quite entertaining.  On our own ghost tour, our guide saved this incredible tale for last and it sure made a fitting finale, as would any story that involves George Washington with a flaming sword.

But is it true?  Most historians and academics will give you a quick answer – hell no.  There is no way that George Washington came back from the dead to lead Union troops to a spectacular victory.  However, that might not convince some of the fighters from the 20th Maine.  Even Chamberlain himself later noted that his troops were inspired by some curious vision that day.  When questioned on the subject after the battle, he had this to say – “Now from a dark angle of the roadside came a whisper, whether from earthly or unearthly voice one cannot feel quite sure, that the august form of Washington had been seen that afternoon at sunset riding over the Gettysburg hills.  Let no one smile at me!  I half believed it myself….”  In another interview on the matter much later in life, he also said – “…I have no doubt that it [the Washington tale] had a tremendous psychological effect in inspiring the men.  Doubtless it was a superstition, but who among us can say that such a thing was impossible?  We have not yet sounded or explored the immortal life that lies out beyond the Bar… I only know the effect, but I dare not explain or deny the cause.”

Inspired by this and the many stories from the tour, my husband and I made another bold decision during our visit to Gettysburg.  When darkness fell, we returned to the battlefields to tempt fate and chance a ghostly encounter.  We walked along the pitch black Emmitsburg Road, and we stumbled through the trees in the wooded area nearby.  Although we encountered a few mishaps from walking around in the dark, we didn’t see any ghosts… at least not with our eyes.  I don’t know about the tale of George Washington and the 20th Maine.  It seems a little out there, doesn’t it?  But I do know this.  There is something in the air at Gettysburg.  A heavy and sad energy lingers about those fields and indeed across the entire town.  You can hear it in the breeze that rustles through the trees.  You can feel it when strolling through the graveyard.  The old brick and stone houses, some of which still have bullet holes, do loads of talking in the silence.  And the sight of Pickett’s Charge drips with something that I can’t quite describe.  If you ask me, hauntings don’t always mean seeing a ghost.  Sometimes, it’s just something you feel deep in your bones.  In my opinion, Gettysburg is definitely haunted.  Because it is sacred ground that was washed in the blood of thousands.  Something like that leaves a permanent stamp on the timeline, and the ghosts of such a past will never fade away.

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SOURCES

“Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg” – J.L. Chamberlain

“Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage” – N. Trudeau

“Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War” – T. Gerrish

Gettysburg Ghost Tours (2016)

“Ghosts of Gettysburg” – Mark Nesbitt

“Civil War Ghosts and Legends” – N. Roberts

“Civil War Ghost Stories” – A. Konstam

All photos by M.B. Henry.  For more on Gettysburg, click here. 

SUMMER TRAVELS!! – The traveling season is upon us, and I am very excited to announce that very soon, my husband and I will be embarking on a road trip across Western Europe for three weeks.  This means this will be my last post for a month or so, and the website will be pretty quiet.  However, the history doesn’t have to stop!  You can follow along on Instagram and Twitter (handle mbhenry1985) as we visit eight countries and several WWI & WWII historic sites like Normandy, Verdun, Flanders, Dunkirk, Bastogne, and more! I will look forward to catching up with all of you when we return in August!   

 

73 Comments on “A Ghost at Gettysburg: The 20th Maine’s Mysterious Encounter

    • Thanks Dave! I’m sure we’ll have a great time. I’m so glad you came by and enjoyed the post 🙂

  1. Fascinating story. I had the same feeling at Vicksburg. Thank you for sharing!

    • Ooooh Vicksburg is on my list of places to visit. I bet that was very powerful for you! Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Very good! I will be looking forward to seeing your trip to Europe and the places you may see. Will be interesting, I’m sure. Would love to see those places myself, but don’t think that will happen. I have not gotten to Fredricksburg, VA yet.

    • I went to Fredericksburg just after our stop at Gettysburg. A lot of it has been built up, unfortunately, but Marye’s Heights are still preserved as is the stone wall just above them. It’s pretty neat if you ever feel like making the trip. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Having been lead through Gettysburg’s battlefield by an excellent NPS guide, I thoroughly enjoyed this post MB! It took me right back! 🙂

    • Oh I’m so glad it could rekindle some fond memories for you! I’m also glad you had a good guide – that can make all the difference! We kind of went off on our own, but if we go again I’d like to do the guided tour. I bet they tell you all kinds of the lesser-known things.

  4. An exceptionally well-written account by an exceptional writer! I once walked Pickett’s charge. From the Confederate side it doesn’t look all that daunting but from the Union lines, looking down on the beaten zone, one wonders why anyone would attempt that charge. Have a great trip to Europe. Can’t wait to read your accounts.

    • That is very flattering compliment coming from you! I totally agree about the battlefield positions too. It’s hard to tell from the Confederate side the way the ground sort of slopes in the middle. Hindsight is 20/20 so they say! I’m sure our Europe trip will spawn many articles, I will look forward to having you back for them!

    • Sometimes nothing beats a good ghost story 🙂 glad you liked it

  5. I walked Pickett’s charge in 1995. The tour guide did not know the music played for the charge. It was Camptown Races – “do da do da day”. I have a rock where Gen Armistead fell and took 3 pebbles from the ridge and left them at the Vietnam Memorial back in DC that evening. You may appreciate my post January 9, 2011.

    • Im going to have to look that post up! And I know a lot about Gettysburg but I did not know about the Camptown Races. I always learn such good extra tidbits from your comments. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I love a good ghost story! This was a battle tale I hadn’t heard before. I haven’t been to Gettysburg since I was very young, but it made an impression on me even then. Same with Valley Forge.
    This was a well-told tale!
    Enjoy your European adventures – I look forward to reading about them when you return!

    • Oh Valley Forge that’s one I haven’t made it to yet. I bet that’s a powerful place to visit. Im sure we will have a great time in Europe and I will come back with many new stories to tell!

  7. What a wonderful story! I was fascinated by the accounts! You are right that there is an aura about old battlefields and military cemeteries. Out west here we have no historical places associated with the Civil War, but in the years I lived in Arizona I often visited the graveyard at Fort Huachuca in the southern mart of the state which was the headquarters for some of the early cavalry as well as many foot soldiers and it has a very significant feel to it.

    • Oh wow that’s cool! What city is that by? Maybe next time I’m over that way I can check it out. There is definitely a strong energy in places like that and im always drawn to them. Glad you enjoyed the story and thanks for stopping by!

      • I enjoyed the story very much! Fort Huachuca is south and east of Tucson right on the Mexican border. If I recall correctly, the nearest town is Sierra Vista.

      • Doh i was right around there earlier this year! Oh well now I have an excuse to go back 🙂 thanks for the great tip!

  8. Wow! I was totally intrigued by this story! My grandmother Branch used to tell ghost stories about the Civil War. She never spoke of this one though. I agree that a haunting doesn’t always mean seeing a ghost. There is just a feeling of a presence in the air. Thank you once again for sharing your wonderful talent with us!

    • Oh yes Ypres is on our list as well 🙂 I can’t imagine how powerful it will be. I am so glad you enjoyed the ghost story, Gettysburg has a lot of good ones!

    • Definitely lots of photos. I got a nice hiking camera bag just for the occasion 🙂

  9. Gettysburg is stunningly beautiful country. It should be on everybody’s bucket list to go there – but what struck me about Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den was just how difficult the terrain was. You have to admire the strength and determination of all who fought there.

    • I completely agree. And in such bad heat no less. And after marching twenty miles the day before in some cases! How did they do it??? I also agree about the countryside. It was so beautiful!

  10. For a southerner visiting Gettysburg, the powerful mysteries of the battle there are overwhelming. My ancestry snooping revealed I had family fighting on the wrong side of history and supporting the clearly immoral causes of the South. One of them surrendered with Lee at Gettysburg…thankfully.
    Loved your post and particularly the George Washington story. Awesome.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post -I totally agree that Gettysburg is an overwhelming place – that’s a great way to put it. War is a very very complicated and awful thing, especially for the foot soldiers and the civilians. In most cases they had nothing to do with starting it, but they end up suffering the most 🙁

    • I know. And sadly I don’t think we ever will 🙁 I’m sure we will enjoy our travels and will have lots of stories to share when we get back!

  11. Oh man. I LOVED this post. This is one of my favorite posts of yours, M.B. I am a sucker for a good ghost story, and I loved hearing about you and your husband out ghost-hunting. This made me really want to go to Gettysburg and walk the town at night myself! Thanks for this.

    • Shelly I am so pleased and honored that you enjoyed it so much! Seems we’re alike in yet another way and that we both get pulled in by a good ghost story 🙂 And yes, I highly HIGHLY recommend Gettysburg, you would very much enjoy it. Take care though, the energy of the place will work its way in and you will feel it. It can be quite heavy, but very worth it.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope the Mrs. will too! Ghost stories are always fun to tell and pass along 🙂

  12. So revelant to the state of our usa union. Once there were real. heroes and patriotic men and women. Thanks MB Henry for this heartfelt reflection.

    • I am so glad that you stopped by and enjoyed it. It was definitely different times back then! When standing in a place like that, I don’t know how they did it – marching dozens of miles in a day, scaling rocks and mountains, all while piled with equipment and going to such a terrible battle. It’s hard to imagine!

      • My husband and I did a huge Civil War battlefield tour in 2016 that included Gettysburg and a large portion of the Overland Campaign of 1864. You would be amazed at how many scars from those battles still linger. Trenches, cannon emplacements, and of course the graveyards. It’s both amazing and humbling.

      • I hope someday you get to see it in person!!

      • Yes I hope so too, (soon) because another civil war I see as imminent. The state’s by judicial do not want a President. Judges or SCOTUS is ruling the US (I am referring to governments and court systems, worldwide that are setup as the US). This is again (as the US Civil War) breaking away from the union… The next civil war may be the great tribulation. Enjoy your weekend!!

    • Why thank you! I’m very pleased that you enjoyed it so much. And I certainly will keep it coming!

  13. A fascinating account. Not being an American, I’m not all that familiar with the U.S. Civil War or many of these legends. So it’s good to read about them here. 🙂

    Also, have a wonderful time on your European trip. I hope it’s everything you want it to be. Have fun!

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the story. I’m sure there will be lots of adventures to write up when we return from Europe! 🙂

  14. Seems like you experienced a unique and surreal encounter, MBHenry! Thanks for sharing the story with us and introducing this place. Adding Gettysburg to my bucket list!

    • Oh you will love it. It is definitely worth the trip! Glad you enjoyed the post!

    • I’m so glad! Those ghost tours are pretty eerie, especially around Gettysburg!

      • You will love it! Gettysburg has done a fantastic job with preservation, it’s really like stepping back in time. Enjoy!!

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