By Jim Bliffen
“I cried out, ‘Fix bayonets!’ and instantly the entire regiment became electrified and charged with great fury.” That was the story told by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain concerning a bayonet charge at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is one of my favorite stories from the American Civil War. That charge repulsed a Confederate attack which saved the Union Army’s left flank and helped secure victory in the face of defeat. The story I heard and believed for a long time was that Chamberlain was attacked by 2,000 Confederate soldiers, 10 times as many as the number of his own men, and captured nearly all the enemy soldiers in his charge. I have heard this a couple of times just recently. I even heard a missionary tell this same story from a book he was reading. He even translated into Pidgin and used this story as an allegory for spiritual warfare. He showed how God’s people, through His power, can achieve victory in the face of overwhelming odds. It was impressive.
It is an impressive story! It just isn’t quite true. Oh, there was a great bayonet charge that saved the Union Army that day. It is just that some of the details are a little off. Perhaps taking the story from the perspective of the enemy might give a little better understanding. I believe the truth gives a better allegory for spiritual warfare than the story I have often heard repeated.
The 15th Alabama regiment was awakened from their sleep at 4:00am on the morning of July 2, 1863. They marched over 20 miles getting into position to attack the left flank of the Union Army on the south end of the battle field. They arrived in position at about 4:00pm. Thinking they had a short amount of time before the attack was to commence Colonel William C. Oats, the regiment’s leader, ordered one of his companies to take all the regiment’s canteens and fill them with water from a spring they had passed a short distance behind them on their march. He was mistaken. Instead of getting to wait for a short amount of time he was immediately ordered to attack a New York sharpshooter company that was harassing the Southern army. They were located on a high, steep, rugged hill called Big Round Top. Oats didn’t know if the company he had sent for water had been killed or taken prisoner, but he never saw them or the canteens again. So the regiment went into battle with no water on an unusually hot 98 degree July afternoon.
After chasing the Union sharpshooters up and over the Big Round Top Oats lost contact with them. They seemed to just disappear. Oats stopped his troops to give them a rest and wait for stragglers to reach the top of the hill. Most of his men were barefoot by this time in the war and the sharp rocks and thorn ridden steep hillside played havoc on his men. They rested for 15 minutes and then were ordered to move on the next smaller hill called Little Round Top, which was unoccupied. However in the 15 minuets that Oats rested, Colonel Vincent Strong’s brigade was ordered to that very spot with the 20th Maine commanded by Joshua Chamberlain taking up their position at the end of the Union line. They were ordered to hold their position “to the end.” They could not retreat.
10 minutes after the 20th Maine arrived on the field the 15th Alabama attacked. There were less than 300 men left in the Southern regiment still able to fight, not 2,000, which was just a few more than the Union fielded. They attacked for 2 hours in 6 different assaults, uphill, over difficult terrain, in 98 degree heat, wearing wool pants, shirts and jackets, with no water. It is easy to understand in terms of physical endurance what no water meant to those men under those circumstances. However, there was an even bigger problem in terms of their equipment. After you fired the kind of guns they were using 2 or 3 times you had to swab them out with water. If you didn’t the gun may well blow up in your face the next time you fired it. After 6 assaults Oats decided that his men had done all they could. Chamberlain had led well and countered every move Oats attempted. Even though his own regiment was pushed to the brink of total collapse, Chamberlain refused to give up and go away. The confederates were out of ammunition, water, and had guns that were no longer safe to fire. Oats ordered his men to withdraw.
Chamberlain realized that he too was near the end. He was running out of men and ammunition. He knew that he could not stay and withstand another assault. He knew he could not retreat or move to the left or to the right. There was only one way to go and one thing to do. The cry went up, “Fix bayonets!” Chamberlain’s men charged. The charge caught the Southerners completely by surprise. At the same time the New York sharpshooters who had disappeared earlier showed back up on the field and fired a volley into the backs of the retreating Confederates. Also the 83rd Pennsylvania regiment finished fighting off attacks by the 47th Alabama regiment and they found themselves free to join the fight against the 15th Alabama. They began pouring down fire on them from the hill above. Oats later wrote that one man was shot in the face while another next to him was shot in the back and still another was shot from the side. Not knowing what exactly was going on Oats gave the order, “Every man for himself!” Every man that could run did run. The rest lay down their guns and surrendered. The 15th Alabama lost over half their men that day. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine took 100 men prisoner.
Even though I love the picture of an army fighting off overwhelming odds through audacious courage and aggression as a picture of victory in spiritual warfare, I think the truth gives us a more accurate understanding. First, even though our enemy is powerful and tenacious, he cannot defeat us if we stand firm against him. From the moment Oats lost his water he had lost the battle that was coming. There was no way to be successful in a prolonged struggle in which the enemy refused to quit. Satan is a defeated enemy who nevertheless is still capable of doing a great deal of damage. The Bible is clear in telling us he cannot overcome the Kingdom of God or its royal citizens that stand firm against him and refuse to quit or surrender. Second, even though Satan may push us to the very limits of our ability to withstand and it seems as though he won’t quit coming at us, we are told that if we stand firm to the end we will win a crown of life. Chamberlain got to the point after six assaults by the enemy that he said he knew he could no longer stand, retreat, or move to the left or the right. There was only one thing to do; fix bayonets and charge. For his efforts that day he won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for bravery in combat situations. Third, God does not intend for the church to hold its ground against the forces of evil. He intends for the church to be a stronghold demolishing principalities and spiritual forces of evil, disarming and taking captive every thought, philosophy and empty deception that stands against Christ. Last, if you are tired, suffering, tempted to give up and give in, remember your enemy may be close to the end of his strength too. He may be preparing to retreat. Remember, you never fight alone! The Bible tells us that Satan will have to flee from the one who resists him, so hang on just a little bit longer. Therefore, brethren, be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13) Fix your bayonets! (Ephesians 6:17) Charge!!! (Matthew 7:13)
Jim serves on the Scripture Impact team.