I love movies, and like most people, certain scenes from certain films make a powerful impression on me from time to time. I often catch myself replaying these scenes in my mind throughout the course of a day. While this is detrimental to remaining present and aware of the moment, these borrowed mental movies can serve as powerful motivators.
One that has come back to me recently is from a film I saw a long while back, Gettysburg, depicting that famous American Civil War battle. The standout sequence from this very long film is the depiction of the Union forces’ defense of a hill called Little Round Top, led by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment.
Upon arriving with his regiment at their position, Chamberlain (played by the great Jeff Daniels in one of his greatest all-time performances) is informed that his regiment is the very end of the line. If they are flanked or overcome, then the whole Union line will crumble. He cannot retreat under any circumstances.
The battle begins as soldiers from the 15th Alabama charge up the hill. Chamberlain’s men repel the assault, but the Confederates continue to charge and attempt to flank the 20th Maine. After fending off repeated assaults, and constantly reforming their line to avoid being flanked, Chamberlain’s men are exhausted and, more alarmingly, almost entirely out of ammunition.
As Chamberlain’s officers explain the situation to him, and insist that retreat is the only option, Chamberlain makes a bold decision. Knowing that they cannot retreat, and that they also cannot continue to hold their current position with no ammunition, he orders his men to fix bayonets for a charge down the hill.
As the Confederates come up the hill for another assault, the Union soldiers come tearing down the hill, yelling and brandishing their empty, bayoneted rifles. The 15th Alabama is caught entirely by surprise, and the 20th Maine overruns the Confederate position, taking many prisoners in the process.
Yes, the events are highly Hollywood-ized, with the sweeping score swelling one’s heart as the dozens of blue uniforms charge through the trees, gunsmoke filling the air and the Stars and Stripes waving proudly. But all that sexed-up movie magic only accentuates an inherently inspiring story.
Reading about Chamberlain on Wikipedia, I admire him all the more. He was an intellectual, a college professor from Bowdoin College in Maine who knew several foreign and ancient languages. When war broke out, he had no prior military training, and enlisted out of his powerful belief in the Union cause. He had conviction and willpower, and these qualities helped make him a battlefield hero.
One of most inspiring quotes that I read regarding Chamberlain and his defense of Little Round Top came from the opposing commander, Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama. Oates credited Chamberlain’s brilliant defense of the Union position as preventing what could have been a Confederate victory at Gettysburg and a subsequent march on Washington, stating, “Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.”
We all face those moments in life when we feel spent, and retreat looks like the only option. What if at those moments, like Chamberlain, we refused to accept prescribed defeat, and instead charged the threat head on?
It is in such small decisions that big success is born.