Diary Leads War Buff To Discovery Of An Unsung Gettysburg Hero Holman S. Melcher Was The One Who Really Led The Bayonet Charge, A Publisher Says.

Posted: July 20, 1994

KEARNY — William Styple wasn't looking for anything in particular last year as he strolled through a Bellingham, Mass., antiques store. His eyes scanned the relics on the floor and shelves, and then caught the glint of a shining gold medal in a display case.

It was a Maltese cross, the badge of a Civil War army corps, and next to it was a drinking flask and a diary.

A publisher of books and producer of videos about the war, Styple was drawn to a series of engraved abbreviations on the badge. The front read "20th Me. Vols" and "HSM." The back listed battles including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Antietam.

Here were the personal belongings of Holman S. Melcher, a long-forgotten war hero who helped rescue the Union one day in 1863, on a rocky hill called Little Roundtop, just outside Gettysburg, and then somehow sank into dusty obscurity.

Now, he was about to be rescued.

Styple, 34, owner of Belle Grove Publishing, in Kearny, read the yellowing, faded pages of the diary, became intrigued with Melcher and began a little historical sleuthing.

The result was a book released in the spring, With a Flash of His Sword - The Writings of Major Holman S. Melcher 20th Maine Infantry, an account that has helped rewrite the record of the epic battle. Melcher finally got his due, albeit 131 years later.

"I feel like I know him well," said Styple, after months of research that took him to libraries and archives in several states. "It's like he's still with us."

Before the book project, Styple knew only a few details of Melcher's role in the battle, from general accounts of the fighting. One history edited out crucial information, and a recent book misspelled his first name "Homer." Others didn't mention him at all.

Melcher's commander, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, usually got the credit for leading Union troops on July 2, 1863, in a desperate attack against Confederates who outnumbered them. Chamberlain's story has been told in histories, even movies such as the recent Gettysburg, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels.

The fight was crucial because the Southerners, if successful at Little Roundtop, could have forced the federal troops to abandon their defensive lines outside Gettysburg, and won the battle.

But with ammunition nearly gone, the federals fixed bayonets and charged down the slope, driving the Confederates before them. The question for the Kearny publisher was: Who really deserved the credit?

"I knew something was up," Styple said. "The accounts didn't square with each other. I wanted to get first-person stories from anyone else who had written one."

Styple made a list of potential witnesses, conducted research at the Library of Congress and checked Chamberlain's papers for names. He looked through old muster roles and pension and service records. Little by little, Melcher's crucial role became clear, from the accounts of officers and the troops.

Chamberlain did order the fixing of bayonets, but Melcher, not Chamberlain, led the impulsive charge, responding to the cries of wounded comrades between the lines.

"With a cheer and a flash of his sword that sent an inspiration along the line, full ten paces to the front he sprang - ten paces - more than half the distance between the hostile lines," wrote Private Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. " 'Come on! Come on! Come on boys!' he shouts. The color sergeant and the brave color guard follow, and with one wild yell of anguish wrung from its tortured heart the regiment charged."

Styple uncovered many historical treasures in his research, including previously unpublished Melcher letters found at Maine's Bowdoin College. Chamberlain was governor of the state and president of the college.

"I was checking to see if Bowdoin had any letters Melcher might have written to Chamberlain," he said. "The librarian said, 'No,' but she said the name Melcher was familiar. Soon, she produced manila file folders containing some 50 letters Melcher had written to his younger brother, Nathaniel, a student at the college."

The letters described battles and camp life and gave new insights into the Union officer.

"When you looked at the original letters, you can see he's nervous," Styple said. "He's a young man in his 20s, writing under difficult conditions."

Styple began reading from an 1864 letter, written by Melcher to his brother, just before the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia.

My seat is a rubber blanket spread on the ground, and my writing desk is my knees. It is late too, and we are expecting to be far away from here by morning. And before another night, to have taken part in the great struggle on which so much is pending. It is with pain, that I look forward to the conflict, for I know its scenes . . . "

There were times, especially at night, when Styple could feel the years melt away. Sitting at a computer, he'd transcribe the old letters and imagine what it must have been like. It wasn't difficult. In an 1864 letter, Melcher said:

Our whole Division of over 10,000 strong is camped in a beautiful green field . . . The thousands of white tents dotting this green surface, and the many wagons, and ambulances, which go with the marching column makes a really grand sight. And the bands have been playing all evening, making music sweet and soul-stirring, which floats forth in the pleasant evening air . . . But I am moved when I think that before another evening, this beautiful scene will be stained in the blood of thousands who are to-night happy actors in it."

"I could picture the same scene in my mind," Styple said. "I could see the men laughing, the white tents. That's when I could feel his presence."

Melcher was wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania in Virginia but survived the war. He became the mayor of Portland, Maine, and died in 1906, without ever seeking the recognition he deserved.

Styple's book now places his name on the honor roll of American heroes. Alongside Alvin York in World War I and Audie Murphy in World War II, write down another name, Holman S. Melcher, from the Civil War.

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