About Holman Staples Melcher
Holman Staples Melcher (1841–1905) was an American Civil War officer and postbellum mayor of Portland, Maine. Melcher was a company commander in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment that charged down Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Melcher was born in Topsham, Maine. He attended Bates College (Maine State Seminary) in Lewiston, Maine from 1858 to 1862, until enlisting as a Corporal in the Union Army on August 29, 1862. During the Civil War, he served with the 20th Maine Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg and many other engagements. At Gettysburg, Melcher was a company commander and claimed he initiated the bayonet charge at Little Round Top. Melcher was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in 1863 and served as acting adjutant to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a former Bowdoin College professor. Melcher was later promoted to captain in 1864 (serving in Companies B, F, and H over the course of the war). Eventually, Melcher was brevetted to the rank of major by the end of the war. He was badly wounded in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, but survived the war, being mustered out on July 16, 1865.
Holman Melcher later served as president of the 20th Maine Regiment Association (1876 – 1905). He published an article titled An Experience in the Battle of the Wilderness in the Maine MOLLUS's War Papers Vol. 1 (1898), based on his own experiences in that battle. Melcher went on to become a successful wholesale grocer in Portland, Maine, and was elected to two terms as mayor of the city as a Republican (1889 – 1890). Melcher was an active member of the Free Street Baptist Church.
Holman Melcher first married in June, 1868 to Ellen M. McLellan, from Portland, who died in May of 1872. He then married on May 21, 1874 to Alice E. Hart, who was also born in Portland, and was the daughter of Deacon Henry B. Hart and Sarah (Hill) Hart. Melcher and Alice Hart had one daughter, Georgiana Hill,who married Harry Tukey Johnson.
Most of Melcher's papers are currently stored at Bowdoin College.
Controversy surrounding leading the charge at Gettysburg
In 1994 many of Melcher's writings, along with correspondence from other members of the 20th Maine were published in With a Flash of His Sword: The Writings of. Maj. Holman S. Melcher, 20th Maine Infantry. These writings claim that it was Melcher, and not Chamberlain, who was responsible for initiating the famous bayonet charge that helped to defeat the Confederate attack on Little Round Top at Gettysburg and turn the course of the War. Many years after the war, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor, although he admitted in a speech that, "(i)n fact, to tell the truth, the order [to charge with bayonets] was never given, or but imperfectly." Chamberlain has been credited by most historians for ordering the advance. Chamberlain's version of the story is that he decided to order the charge before Lt. Melcher requested permission to advance the center of the line toward a boulder ledge where some of the men were wounded and unable to move. Admiring the lieutenant's bravery and compassion, Chamberlain agreed and sent him back to his company, telling him that he was about to order the entire regiment forward. As Melcher returned to his men, the shouts of "Bayonet!" were already working their way down the line. Alternative interpretations cite claims (including those by Brig. Gen. Ellis Spear) that Melcher in fact initiated the charge by running down the hill and calling the men to follow and to protect fallen comrades.