Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain once said that war was a “test of character” for the participant, and that “it makes bad men worse, and good men better.” When you look at all the wars fought throughout our history, that statement is certainly true. However, regardless of the character of the person, war impacts all people, sometimes in negative ways. For the individual who experiences combat, and sees the horrors and destruction that it can cause, life afterward will never be the same again.
Perhaps no battle has had a greater impact on its participants than the Battle of Gettysburg. And how could it not? In just three days of fighting, over 50,000 men were killed, wounded or captured. Anybody who went through that horrible ordeal, and came out of it alive, would remember the horrors, and the failures, of those three tragic days. For the Confederates, it would be the battle that signified their eventual doom. For the Federals, it was the victory that they needed to show the world that there was a chance at winning the war, restoring the Union, and ending slavery.
Of all the people whose lives were changed by the Battle of Gettysburg, perhaps no two were more greatly affected than the lives of Confederate General George Pickett, and Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Both men went into the battle, and would come out of the maelstrom changed men.
For General Pickett, it was not a good change. Going into battle, the commander of a Division under General James Longstreet was almost boyish and charming. He was very exuberant, and sported a brand new uniform, and perfumed ringlets of hair. He was also hoping to get his men into battle before the glory was gone. On Friday, July 3rd, 1863, he got that chance when ordered to take part in the assault on the Union Center at Gettysburg. And in the charge that would bear his namesake, he would see his entire division virtually destroyed. And from that charge, his spirit would be forever broken. It was a loss that he would brood upon until his dying day. And he laid the blame of the charge at the feet of Robert E. Lee. After visiting Lee with another man a few years after the war, he said of Lee: “That old man had my division slaughtered.” Although he did achieve glory in the years after Gettysburg, the defeat at Gettysburg forever changed him.
As for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, he went into the battle a relative unknown, and would come out of it with great regard within the army. As commander of the 20th Maine Regiment, his troops were placed on Little Round Top, at the very end of the Union left flank, on Thursday, July 2nd. There, his troops, along with the rest of the brigade of Colonel Strong Vincent, held off assault after assault by Confederate troops. Finally, with ammunition running low and a number of his men killed or wounded, Chamberlain, who had never received military training prior to the war, did what possibly none of the West Point officers would have done. He ordered his men to fix bayonets, and charge against the attacking rebels. The charge was successful, and many claim that his charge saved the Union left, and possibly the battle itself (Though some claim that last statement might have been a bit exaggerated). By the end of the war, Chamberlain would eventually rise to the rank of Major General, and was chosen personally by President Grant to oversee the Confederate surrender ceremony at Appomattox Courthouse in April. In 1893, over thirty years after the battle, he would receive the Medal of Honor. After Gettysburg, the relatively unknown Professor of Rhetoric would rise to become one of the Union’s greatest officers thanks to his actions on Little Round Top.
These are just two examples of how the Battle of Gettysburg changed the lives of the participants, in both good and bad ways. Each man involved in the struggle had their own lives changed in different ways. But the examples of George Pickett and Joshua Chamberlain illustrate how the largest battle of the war impacted the lives of those involved. It is the impact of war on the participants that shows both the heroism that happens in war, as well as the tragedy of war itself. From these stories, we get a better sense of what happened in this horrific chapter of our history, and why it is important that we never go down that same road again.