An incident overlooked by the history books inexplicably placed 14 lads from the 20th Maine Infantry on Death Row, and someone must be held accountable for doing so.
Ellis Spear or Walter Morrill or Holman Melcher? No, they were not in charge when these men from Maine committed the transgression that led to their collective fates.
But Joshua Chamberlain was. If anyone’s responsible for lining up these 14 men side by side on Death Row, surely he must be Chamberlain.
What did he have against Goodwin S. Ireland, the Co. H private from Presque Isle?
Or 1st Sgt. Charles W. Steele of Oakfield and Co. H?
Then there are Corp. Melville C. Day of Jefferson and Co. G, Corp. William S. Hodgdon of Embden and Co. F, and Pvt. Orrin Walker of Stoneham and Co. K, plus nine more guys whose names escaped everyone’s attention.
What serious offense did these 14 lads commit to wind up on Death Row?
They stood and fought with Chamberlain at Little Round Top at Gettysburg on Thursday, July 2, 1863. That’s where and when they were all shot — and where and when they all died except for Orrin Ireland, wounded by an Alabamian’s bullet and destined to die afterwards.
Soon after the battle, Gettysburg resident David Wills envisioned establishing a national cemetery to which the Union soldiers buried on the battlefield would be relocated. He spent $2,475.87 to buy some 17 acres adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery on Cemetery Hill; the land stretched from Baltimore Pike west to the Taneytown Road.
“Lots were gratuitously tendered to each State that had committed itself to the project,” noted Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon. Each state received a lot “apportioned in size according to the number of marked graves each State had on the battle-field,” and the lots were laid out as “part, as it were, of a common center.”
Spreading outward in an arc from that “common center” (later occupied by the Soldiers’ National Monument), the state lots spread across ground that fell “away in a gradual and regular slope in every direction … a feature alike pleasing and desirable.”
Paid $1.59 per exhumed Union soldier, a contractor started digging up the Federal graves on October 27, 1863. Working until the last identifiable Union grave was opened on March 18, 1864, the contractor “removed to the cemetery” 3,354 bodies. Another 158 Union boys were recovered under a separate contract signed by Boston authorities.
According to Hodsdon, the 3,512 Union heroes went into “substantial coffins generously furnished by the United States government.” Hodsdon wrote, and each state’s honored dead were “deposited side by side, in parallel trenches.
“A space of twelve feet is allowed to each parallel, about five feet of which forms a grass path between each row of interments,” he noted.
The contractor recovered 104 bodies of Mainers belonging to state-raised units; other Mainers may be buried in the “lot set apart for the burial” of regular Army soldiers, Hodsdon observed.
The lot for each state is identified by a squat granite marker; “Maine. 104 bodies” reads that belonging to the Pine Tree State. Beyond the marker, the 104 Maine lads lie in seven rows arcing outward toward to the east and the Baltimore Pike. The granite markers for each row are flush with the ground.
I always figured the rows were numbered 1 through 7, with No. 1 nearest the state marker. Actually, as the 1864-1865 Maine Adjutant General’s Report reveals, the rows are called “sections,” A through G.
So Section A should lie closest to that granite marker, correct? Wrong! Section A lies farthest to the east, Section G the nearest to the state marker.
The sections gradually shrink in capacity from A to G. Section A contains 18 bodies, B has 17, C has 16, and sections D and E shelter 14 heroes apiece. In Section F lie 13 Maine boys, in Section G another 12. The graves in each section were numbered from right to left in the AGR’s report.
Except for Section E, where 14 lads from the 20th Maine lie side by side for eternity, Maine’s honored dead are buried intermingled by battery and regiment. How did this happen? Who arranged for the 20th to claim an entire row?
Twenty-six men from the 20th Maine and 30 men from the 19th Maine Infantry were laid to rest in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. We could argue that by rights, Francis Heath’s 19th Maine should have gotten a row by itself, but did not.
Did Chamberlain arrange this for his fallen heroes? He actually was a bit busy elsewhere in winter ‘64, so I doubt it.
Was the 20th Maine’s Death Row the result of happenstance, of men being re-interred in the order in which they arrived from their battlefield graves? I don’t know.
Sadly, of the 14 lads occupying Section E, authorities could only identify five men. The other nine are “known but to God,” to quote a phrase inscribed on the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“Unknown”: What a lonely way to describe a fallen hero.
Yet even amidst the Unknowns of Section E, there exists a bit of humor involving Orrin Ireland, his first name misspelled “Orwin” because someone, sometime during winter 1864, swapped out an R for a W.
The odds are good that his comrades often pronounced his name as “Orwin.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.