Washington Bureau Chief

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — More than 150 National Guard members from Maine and Alabama gathered on a wooded hillside Wednesday in rural Pennsylvania to commemorate a more violent meeting of their citizen-soldier forefathers 150 years ago this month.

The weather was hot and humid — much as it was on July 2, 1863, when units from Maine and Alabama clashed on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top during one of the most pivotal skirmishes of the Civil War’s most pivotal battle.

But while a few ceremonial rifles were present Wednesday, the 170 men and women dressed in camouflage stood side by side, posed for pictures together and shared the camaraderie of soldiers who have ever served together in battle.

“My message is thank God we unified the country, for now we are one, a great nation,” Maine Gov. Paul LePage, commander in chief of the Maine Army and Air National Guard, said during the ceremony. “And we owe it all to you — the liberty and the freedoms that you fight for every day.”

The scene on Little Round Top was far different a century and a half ago. Nearly 400 members of the 20th Maine Regiment — under the command of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain — fought back repeated waves of Col. William Oates’ larger 15th Alabama Regiment. The 20th Maine represented the far-left position of the Union Army as Confederates attempted to flank the Union lines in a maneuver that — if successful — could have changed the course of the battle.

Exhausted, nearly out of ammunition and probably unable to withstand another assault, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets, and the Maine volunteers charged downhill into the oncoming Alabamans. The surprise move thwarted the flanking attempt and earned both Chamberlain and his unit instant fame among Union leaders.

But the battle came with a heavy price for both sides, with hundreds of soldiers killed or wounded.

Some of the units present Wednesday are direct descendants of those that clashed in July 1863. In fact, some of the soldiers attending the ceremony from both sides had ancestors who were there 150 years earlier.

Spc. Adam Simmler, with the Maine Army National Guard, said one of his ancestral uncles on his mother’s side (so far back he isn’t sure how many “greats” to put before “uncle”) served in the 20th Maine. On Wednesday, he was documenting the commemoration ceremony as a photojournalist for the Guard’s 121st Public Affairs unit.

“I always heard about Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War,” Simmler said after the ceremonies were over. “Coming here and seeing it and learning more about my state and how my state participated gave me a whole new perspective on my job, what I do in the Guard and what soldiers from my state did before me.”

Planning for Wednesday began more than a year ago when Brig. Gen. James Campbell, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, contacted his counterpart in the Alabama National Guard, Maj. Gen. Perry Smith. The two immediately began working with the National Park Service on a ceremony.

“It is important to do this kind of thing because this (battle) helped make us who we are as soldiers and as people,” Campbell said. If today’s soldiers lose touch with that heritage, he added, they lose some of their identity.

Standing atop a rock where the 20th Maine men were lined up, Smith reminded those in attendance that citizen soldiers organized as militias date back more than 370 years, more than 150 years before the Marine Corps was formed.

“Citizen soldiers throughout the history of this country have kept this nation united and free,” Perry said. Smith later remarked in an interview that some of his Guard members told him about serving alongside Mainers in Afghanistan.

The top commanders from the two states exchanged gifts. Maine presented Alabama with a framed picture showing depictions of the battle of Little Round Top from each side’s perspective, while Alabama presented Maine with an engraved eagle made from clay found only in Alabama.

The two states also presented Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard bureau, with a large joint plaque featuring renditions of the battle and a map of the troop lines at Gettysburg.

During his remarks, Grass pointed toward the color guards carrying battle flags from Alabama and Maine, adorned with streamers showing each major battle in which units have participated, starting in the Civil War.

“This is a special event to come here and to look back 150 years at what occurred and to have soldiers and airmen of the Guard standing in the ranks, looking back at these flags and these colors, and how you have carried that tradition to this battlefield today,” Grass said.

After the ceremonies, the 120 members of the Maine National Guard and 50 members of the Alabama National Guard marched down to the base of Little Round Top to pose for a group picture with LePage and others. They repeated the exercise at the base of Devil’s Den, another infamous nearby spot where Mainers and Alabamans clashed that same day in July 1863.

Afterward, the Guard members were spotted enjoying dinner and drinks together in downtown Gettysburg in perhaps their last rendezvous before meeting again either at the next Gettysburg commemoration or a more modern battlefield.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256

[email protected]

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