2013-12-20 / Community

Historian brings Maine Civil War hero to life

By Tracy Orzel
Contributing Writer

Jerry Wiles holds a presentation on two Civil War soldiers at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. (Tracy Orzel photo) Jerry Wiles holds a presentation on two Civil War soldiers at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. (Tracy Orzel photo) CAPE ELIZABETH – Marvel Earnshaw grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., approximately 180 miles from Gettysburg, where the Union Army defeated confederate forces 150 years ago. The Cape Elizabeth resident said she’s always loved history, but her close approximation to the iconic battleground has given her a deep appreciation for Civil War history. That appreciation is what brought Earnshaw to Thomas Memorial Library on Dec. 10, when local historian Jerry Wiles discussed the lives of Civil War Cols. Joshua Chamberlain and William Oates.

Described as being “a great learner, a great teacher and a great storyteller” by former colleague Bill Maxwell, Wiles began giving historical lectures in 2001 after teaching history at Greely Middle School for 33 years. Wiles, who lives on Chebeague Island with his wife Beth, speaks four to five times a week on a variety of topics that range from the American Civil War to Jackie Kennedy at libraries and assisted living homes across Maine.

Jerry Wiles, an area historian, was a history teacher for more than three decades. (Tracy Orzel photo) Jerry Wiles, an area historian, was a history teacher for more than three decades. (Tracy Orzel photo) “It’s all about these two guys right here,” Wiles began, while pointing to two black and white pictures of Maine’s own Joshua Chamberlain and Alabama’s William Oates.

“It’s one of the most remarkable stories I’ve read in American history; that you can take our Chamberlain and Alabama’s Oates and bring them together. I wish there were more stories like this,” Wiles said.

Born in Pike County, Ala. in 1835, as a young boy Oates was known for his temper. When he was 16 years old, Oates fled his home state after striking a man with a shovel and knocking him unconscious. When Oates returned to Alabama three years later, he studied for the Alabama bar and went on to become a lawyer.

Wiles called it “a remarkable turn around for a man in the 1850s, to pull himself up, calm himself down and make something of himself.”

In contrast, Chamberlain was born in 1828, and grew up in a devout Christian household in Brewer. As a child, Chamberlain had difficulty pronouncing words that started with P, B and D, and suffered from a stuttering problem throughout his entire life.

In 1848, Chamberlain began attending classes at Bowdoin College, where he would eventually teach as a professor and go on to become the college’s president after the war.

While studying in his dorm room one day, Chamberlain and a handful of other students were asked to take a look at a few chapters a young woman had written for a book. The book was called, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the woman was Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“I wished I could have been sitting at that table and looked at them and gone, ‘You realize how famous you people are going to be?’” said Wiles with a laugh.

When war broke out in 1861, Oates joined the Confederate States Army as a lieutenant, while Chamberlain joined the Union Army as a lieutenant colonel one year later.

On July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain, who was commander of the 20th Maine Regiment, and his men engaged the 15th Regiment of Alabama Infantry led by Oates in battle at Little Round Top.

Chamberlain had been given orders by Gen. Strong Vincent to hold off the Confederate States Army and prevent confederate forces from seizing the Union Army’s left flank at Gettysburg.

Running low on ammunition, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge down the hill on the 15th Alabama. Because of this, said Wiles, the 20th Maine Regiment was able to repel the 15th Alabama and force them to retreat.

After three days of fighting, the Confederate States Army retreated back to Virginia.

Wiles stressed how important the battle at Little Round Top was to the outcome of the war.

“If (the 15th Alabama is) not taken care of, if (an attack on the Union’s left flank is) not prevented, it could open up the whole battlefield, and from there to Washington, D.C., could be Confederate territory. It could be a changing point in the war,” Wiles said.

After the Battle at Little Round Top, the two men remained in the war. Chamberlain would engage in 24 battles before retiring, while Oates finished out the war even after his right arm was amputated after being shot in the shoulder.

Following their service, both men were elected governor of their respective states, and Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership at the Battle of Little Round Top.

The two men never met, said Wiles, but nonetheless, “a boy from Brewer and a boy from Pike County went about their way and they found themselves trying to kill each other, telling their men to go kill their men on that afternoon down in Gettysburg.”

For Wiles, history isn’t about political strategy or social implications; it’s about people.

“I’m not for the abstract. I’m just for people and what they do and how events influence people.”

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