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It was a hot, humid day in early July. July 2nd, to be exact, 1862, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The intense summer sun reminded me of my boyhood days in Alabama. For a moment, I longed to be home, sitting on the porch or skipping rocks down at the creek.
I was crouched down between two large rocks when Tom slid next to me. He looked up the hill that lay before us. His sandy hair stuck out from under his cap like straw from a scarecrow. He turned and fixed his pale blue eyes on me. In his slow Southern drawl, he spoke.
“Jeb? What’s wrong with you? You haven’t fired a shot.”
I bowed my head.
Tom shook me.
“Jeb!” He growled in a hushed whisper. “What’s goin’ on?”
He shook me again.
I cleared my throat.
“I can’t – I just can’t.”
Tom looked around like he was looking to see who might be watching or listening.
“Can’t what?” He grabbed me by my arm. His voice cracked. “Jeb, don’t go squirrely on me. Ya, hear me.”
His whiskey and tobacco laden breath made me shudder. I blinked and looked into his wild eyes as they searched mine.
“Tom. I don’t know what’s goin’ on. You know me. I ain’t never had a moment’s hesitation to pull the trigger, but I just can’t.”
Tom looked down at my shaking hands, and then searched my face again.
“Whatcha mean, Jeb? Whatcha mean?” He let me go and then looked up the hill. He squinted, and then looked at me again.
“You mean – up there? Isn’t that a Yank officer up on that hill? Standing there, plain as day?”
“Since when can’t you shoot a Yank? You getting soft on us?”
I didn’t answer.
His smile faded. He got in my face again.
“Jeb, you the best we got. Ain’t no one a better shot in the 15th Alabama than you, and ain’t no one been more willin’ to take down a Yank.”
He spit. Tobacco juice spittled down his chin. He wiped it with his sleeve.
“I know, Tom, but not this one. There’s somethin’ – different about this one. I can’t. When I first saw him, I thought it a mighty good thing to put him out of the way. Tom, I had him, perfectly certain, several times and I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I just couldn’t. I tried, but I can’t.”
Tom shook me – hard.
“Jeb! You gotta understand. We need to take that hill. We done hit it twice and was pushed back. Many of us done fell. You gotta kill as many Yanks from a distance as you can. One less Yank means one less of us that dies. If you kill an officer – if you cut the head off the snake, the body dies. You’ve got do it. It’s your duty.”
“I can’t. Don’t you understand? I tried. I did. Every time I take aim at him, my hands shake, and something comes over me. I’m ashamed. I can’t pull the trigger.”
“You should be ashamed that you can’t kill a Yank! He ain’t nothin’ but a flea on nanny’s dog’s hind end.”
“No! I’m ashamed to pull the trigger. I can’t explain it. I go to pull the trigger, and I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed to shoot him. He’s in plain sight. I’ve dropped deer further away than this without hesitation. But I’m ashamed to pull the trigger on this Yank.”
“Why? What is he? Something special? I heard Col. Oates talking to his brother earlier. He thinks that’s the 20th Maine up there. If that is true, then that could be Chamberlain, and he needs to be dropped like a Christmas turkey.”
“It is Chamberlain, and that is the 20th.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. I can tell by the way he conducts his self with his men. I can also see his rank.”
“Listen to me, Jeb. We gotta take that hill. If we take that hill, then this could be our chance to end this God-forsaken war. We’ll be able to see the whole valley below, and we can rout the Yanks. We’ll split them in half and turn their own guns on them and then Lee can march into Washington and force Lincoln to stop this war. Jeb, are you hearing me? We gotta get up on top of Little Round Top.”
The steely look on Tom’s face faded. I could tell that he was convinced I couldn’t go through with shooting this Yankee officer. He shook me one more time and pushed me back against the boulder. He looked back up the hill, spit, looked at me, and then walked away, back to the remaining regiment.
I don’t know how long I sat there. It seemed like days. Ashamed that I was ashamed.
Before the sun went down that day, we were ordered up the hill one more time. As a sharpshooter, I maintained my position and supported my regiment. They fought valiantly, as they assaulted the hill with volley after volley. Men fell like swatted flies.
I took out several Yanks as they stood up to return fire. I felt redeemed. I had no problem now in the heat of battle to defend our cause and my fellow soldiers. I caught sight of Tom as he led his men over a little knoll right into a clod of Yanks. One had Tom dead to rights, but I made sure he didn’t fire.
Tom turned toward me. Our eyes locked. He nodded his thanks. I returned it.
I quickly reloaded my rifle to prepare for another shot. When I looked up, Tom was gone and so were his men. I’m not sure what happened next. I dropped one more Yank, and then they came over the breastworks with fixed bayonets. They were a wave of blue, yelling at the top of their lungs. Bugles blared the charge, and their flags flowed in the wind. They must have gotten reinforcements.
Our own buglers sounded retreat, and we fled. We weren’t taking Little Round Top, not today, not ever. It wasn’t meant to be. I grabbed my gear and headed out of there like the devil himself was after me. I heard later that Tom had fallen on that knoll. I stopped one Yank from killing him, but I couldn’t stop them all.
I’m still not sure why I could not shoot Col. Chamberlain. I heard that even one of our officers tried to shoot him during that bayonet attack and failed. He had a better chance than I. How could the officer’s revolver misfire just at the time it was aimed at Chamberlain’s head?
Chamberlain was hailed as a war hero. He even became governor of Maine. I wrote him a letter telling him how I had him in my sights twice, but could not pull the trigger. I recounted to him how each time some peculiar notion shut me right down, so I gave up his life to him. I also told him that I was glad of it and hoped he was as well.
I learned that he wrote me back, and invited me to visit him in Maine to see if I had made a good choice. I never received the letter, nor did I answer him. How could I? It was revealed to us that at that critical moment, on that critical mountain, he and his men had insufficient ammunition to defend another attempt by our forces. If we had pressed the moment, and taken that hill, Tom’s words may very well have rung true.
Looking back now, I gotta wonder. If I could have brought myself to drop Col. Chamberlain that day, on that hill, would have things been different? Would we have taken that hill? Would Tom have died as he did with my secret? Would we have split the Yanks, and taken Washington, like Tom said? Would Lee have ordered Pickett’s Charge the very next day in an all-out, last-ditch effort to win this battle and maybe the war? Would have fewer men, on both sides, have died?
I wonder if God Almighty had his hand on me to shame me not to kill Chamberlain because there was a higher power and purpose at work. I wonder.