If you attend a fireworks show this evening, we invite you to think about what a remarkable week this is in American history.

We created a nation in 1776, and then we guaranteed its survival as a union in 1863.

As the darkness envelopes you tonight, and the first fireworks light the sky, imagine you are one of the men under the command of Joshua Chamberlain, a colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, crouched at the bottom of Big Round Top at the battle of Gettysburg.

In the darkness, you nervously contemplate the bayonet charge you are about to make up Big Round Top, running “steep and rocky terrain that would have been a difficult climb in broad daylight,” according to the Maine State Archive record on the Civil War.

That was on July 2, 1863, and many of the survivors of that fight later remembered the night assault as even more terrifying than their more famous charge at Little Round Top, a maneuver often credited with saving the Union cause at Gettysburg.

July 1-3 changed the course of the war between the states, and likely saved the union.

But those “fireworks” must have been so much more vivid, frightening and deadly to the men, and a few women, who endured the three-day fight at Gettysburg.

You can follow the entire course of the Civil War through the eyes of Mainers who fought it on the Maine State Archives website.

The fireworks tonight are meant to serve a different purpose, to celebrate our formal Declaration of Independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1776.

The Revolutionary War was an eight-year affair with major battles broken by long periods of inaction, often accompanied by disease, cold and starvation for our soldiers. When it was over, our country stood proudly among the nations of the world.

The Civil War was half as long, claimed far more lives and sealed our future as a true group of “United States.”

Since we are also recognizing the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, it is worth remembering it through the eyes of several Mainers.

There was Abner Small of Waterville, whose 16th Maine Regiment had been on the march since June 12, passing through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to Gettysburg.

They quickly joined a battle against Confederate forces to cover the retreat of a large force of Union soldiers.

“We were sacrificed to steady the retreat,” Small noted in his memoir.

When their position became impossible to maintain, they knew they would be overwhelmed and many captured.

“We looked at our colors, and our faces burned. We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith,” Small recounted.

Capt. Samuel Belcher of Farmington ordered the men to tear the flags to shreds, the men stuffing pieces inside their pockets and hats to hide them.

“Many of the regiment’s survivors treasured the flag remnants for the rest of their lives,” according to the state archives, “and bequeathed them to their descendants.”

Small came away with a strip that contained a golden star.

By the end of the third day at Gettysburg, only 15 soldiers and two officers of the 16th Maine remained.

John Keen of Leeds was a farmer and shoemaker when he volunteered in 1861. He quickly rose through the ranks and was a captain when his regiment arrived at Gettysburg.

Keen’s Company K was stationed near Seminary Ridge when it was ordered forward to lead the rest of the company in an attack. Keen and his color bearer were among the 113 men killed of the original 214 in the 3rd Maine.

He was awarded the Kearney Cross for Bravery and buried at Gettysburg National Cemetery, although a memorial stone for him was also placed beside his wife’s plot at Additon Cemetery in Leeds.

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago today, July 4th, Confederate forces were slowly withdrawing in heavy rain, having been decisively defeated at Gettysburg. Their wagon train of wounded was reported to have been 17 miles long.

Also 150 years ago today, the Confederate Army defending the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered after a long siege by the Union Army led by Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant.

The victory gave the Union control of the Mississippi and a more secure supply line.

The two union victories sealed the fate of the Confederacy, forcing the South into a war of defense, retreat and attrition.

Today, U.S. forces are stationed around the world, and thousands are trying to wind down a long and deadly war in Afghanistan.

Thankfully, Independence Day is the closest many of us will ever get to the smell of gunpowder and the sights and sounds of war.

The rest is left to history and to our imaginations.

[email protected]

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: