Articles

One Man, One Choice, One Moment

07/2/19

Timothy D Padgett

Today marks the 156th anniversary of a dark day for my ancestors but a day of great rejoicing for the cause of humanity and liberty. You see, my great-great-grandfather was a Confederate officer. And, while I do not think he was in Pennsylvania on that hot July day, many of his comrades in arms were, and a great many remain there, interred in its rich soil.

The Battle of Gettysburg had many key moments: the failure of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to arrive in time to give Lee information about the whereabouts of his Union opponents, the inability of Pickett’s forces to exploit their brief breach of the Union lines in their famous and ill-fated charge, the unwillingness of Longstreet to simply go around the right flank instead of charging into it.

Yet, for all that, there stands one moment in all the chaos and history-making that is in a class by itself. There was one choice made by one man that altered all that followed. After a series of intense attacks by Confederate forces under General John Bell Hood, Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine infantry regiment, turned the tide by doing the unexpected.

Instead of waiting for another Southern assault to ensue or seeking safety in retreat, Chamberlain ordered his outnumbered and outgunned men to attack. This was no small thing as his unexpected action made all the difference in and for the world. Chamberlain’s charge at Little Round Top was one of the most singularly pivotal moments in history, where one man’s one decision altered the course of all that followed.

Had Chamberlain lacked the moral fortitude and foresight to take the risky option, the Yankee lines at Gettysburg would have collapsed in the face of an advancing Confederate force. A strategic Southern victory north of Washington would have compelled a Northern surrender, ending the war in slavery’s favor.

For his actions that day, Chamberlain was awarded the newly named Congressional Medal of Honor, was eventually promoted to general, and was onsite to oversee the surrender of Southern forces at Appomattox, offering a memorable, if controversial, sign of respect to his enemies by calling his men to attention as the boys in grey passed by.

Later, he was to become president of a college and a four-term governor of his home state of Maine. Living all the way to 1914, Chamberlain lived a life of honor and success that any of us would and should seek with righteous covetousness. But, of all those glories that Chamberlain rightly earned, in the grand scheme of things it was this one moment of decision made by the then 34-year-old man that all posterity would and should give him praise. For in that one choice, this one man saved the Union and changed the world.


Chamberlain was no disinterested military man, doing the job assigned to him. Nor was he a partisan nationalist or political opportunist fighting for his side against the enemy, whoever that enemy might be. He was a man possessed of strong Christian convictions which drove him to abandon his safe spaces and to enter the fray in a dangerous cause.


This moment did not come from nowhere. Chamberlain was no disinterested military man, doing the job assigned to him. Nor was he a partisan nationalist or political opportunist fighting for his side against the enemy, whoever that enemy might be. He was a man possessed of strong Christian convictions which drove him to abandon his safe spaces and to enter the fray in a dangerous cause.

Before that day in 1863, he’d been a college professor in Maine, teaching rhetoric as well as one of the several languages in which he was fluent. Convinced of the rightness of the Union cause, he was not content merely to teach his principles; he sought to live them, saying:

“I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery.”

Failing to secure permission to join the army, Chamberlain asked his fellow faculty for a leave of absence to study in Europe, only to then sign up with the 20th Maine. Eventually he rose to command the entire unit just before Gettysburg. He and his men were assigned the far-left flank of the Union lines. Were the Maine men to fold in the face of the enemy, the highly skilled Confederate army could have come in on the Union army from the side and rear and annihilated its Northern foe on Northern soil. With much of the Yankee government having already fled from D. C., President Lincoln would have been hard pressed not to sue peace, giving the Confederacy its independence and condemning its slaves to continued bondage.

Chamberlain’s actions at Gettysburg were not the result of extraordinary military brilliance. Don’t get me wrong. He saw the situation for what it was and acted accordingly with lethal precision and skill, but don’t fail to see the great risk he took. He had no secret weapon to back up his play. He had no amazing subterfuge with which he could undo his enemy. He had fewer resources and even those were about spent. What he did have was the courage of his convictions.

Ordinary logic says that when you and your men are out of ammunition and outnumbered, the wise course is to pull back to fight another day. No one could have faulted him for withdrawing, but he didn’t withdraw. He stood. Yes, moved forward with his men, but in another sense the key thing was that he stayed. He stayed in the fight for the sake of his principles when the practical thing to do was to get out and save his skin.

His men launched their unexpected attack at the attacking enemy, pushing them back for a final time. This action broke the Southern assault on the Northern flank for that day. Had it not, there would have been no Pickett’s charge to falter and leave in ruins the Confederates’ dream. There would have been no Sherman’s march to the sea. There would have been no battles near my home in Franklin and Nashville destroying the last large Southern force outside Virginia.

There would have been no surrender at Appomattox. The concurrent victory at Vicksburg and the earlier Emancipation Proclamation would have been footnotes in history. The Union would have endured but only as a single nation alongside its victorious Confederate twin. Slavery would have been enshrined, not as a constitutional compromise but as the cornerstone of the new Southern nation. All this from one man’s courage.


Chamberlain’s choice meant death for many of his fellow men of Maine, but it meant liberation for millions of slaves of the South. In all likelihood, none of us will have such a fortuitous moment in our lives. Most of us don’t lead men in a desperate battle which changes the course of history for the better, but we still have our own choices and our own moments.


One man’s choice saved the Union and ended the dark hope of an enduring slave nation in America. How long slavery could have survived is questionable. My guess is that eventually the Industrial Revolution would have eventually had the same effect on Dixie as it did in the North and caused slavery to wither on the vine. But, this would have been all that much harder in a future looking back to the honored dead who had fallen for the liberty to keep other men enslaved.

Simply as this, Chamberlain’s actions sound like a big deal, and rightly so. But, there’s more than even this. A disunited America would never have been in the position over the next few decades to play its destined role in history. What would have happened a half-century later when German expansionism reared its ugly head in World War I? Where would be the power and might of the New World to save the Old in the face of Fascism? Could the scourge of Communism, that, even in defeat, killed 100 million people, be pushed back with an America divided and one-half prizing slavery and oppression?

One man, one choice, one moment of courage, and the cause of liberty for the whole of humanity, then and now, was preserved. Even from an early age, Chamberlain was a man of strong principles. He had a comfortable and safe life, living in the hallowed halls of academia. Safety called for staying exactly where he was, but his worldview demanded that action be taken in the face of the great inhumanity of American Slavery. He defied convention and the wishes of his family and employers to live out his principles in a tangible way.

Even in the face of battle, he had a moment where he could have caved without shame. He and his men could have found safety further in behind Union lines, but he made the hard choice, the principled choice, the Christian choice. His choice well could have meant the end of his life. For many of his men, this was the case. They didn’t get to live on to old age and strip their sleeves and say they fought at Gettysburg.

Chamberlain’s choice meant death for many of his fellow men of Maine, but it meant liberation for millions of slaves of the South. In all likelihood, none of us will have such a fortuitous moment in our lives. Most of us don’t lead men in a desperate battle which changes the course of history for the better, but we still have our own choices and our own moments.

Everyday, we are faced with options. We can stay with the comfortable, culturally conforming practicalities of going with the flow. Or, we can, like Chamberlain, take the risk. We can take the risk that the implications of the Christian Worldview are worth losing everything we hold dear in this world for the sake of everything we hold even dearer for the sake of a higher world, a better world.

Like Chamberlain’s men who fell that day because of his choice, it may not work out for us. We may live out the tragedy of good intentions gone awry. But, as Tennyson said, “Ours is not to reason why.” Our calling is not to act only when we may know the outcome of our efforts ends in victory. Our task is to live out the will of God in our lives, no matter the cost. We each have our choice each day; we each have our moment. When that moment comes, God grant that we have the fortitude to yield the comfort of the merely practical for the courage of our principles.

We may never know the impact our actions have on those who come after us. What is to us an innocuous moment may set in motion a chain of events that alter the course of history. Then again, our lives may play no role in the destiny of anyone. What does that matter? Our calling is the same. Be faithful to the place that God has called you. Let Him worry over how big your role is. The one role you may be assured of is the one He has laid out for you.

Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973
Image: Joshua Chamberlain, Google Images

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