Holman Melcher

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Holman Melcher
Brevet Major Melcher
34th Mayor of Portland, Maine
In office
Preceded by Charles J. Chapman
Succeeded by George W. True
Personal details
Born Holman Staples Melcher
(1841-06-30)June 30, 1841
Topsham, Maine, U.S.
Died June 25, 1905(1905-06-25) (aged 64)
Portland, Maine, U.S.
Resting place Evergreen Cemetery
Portland, Maine
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Alice E. Hart (1874 – 1905; his death)
Children Georgiana Hill
Residence Portland, Maine
Alma mater Bates College
Profession Soldier, politician, author
Military service
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1862 - 1865
Rank Brevet Major
Unit Maine 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Commands 20th Maine Infantry

American Civil War

Holman Staples Melcher (/ˈmɛlər/ MEL-chər; born June 30, 1841 – June 25, 1905)[1] was an American Union Army officer, politician, and businessman. He served two one-year terms as the Mayor of Portland, Maine from 1889 to 1890. He served as a highly respected Union officer, reaching the ranks of Lieutenant, Captain, Major, and eventually was appointed as Brevet Major. He is mostly known for his part in the bayonet charge at Little Round Top that helped repulse the Confederate attack.[2][3][4][5]

He first began his formal military career in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was mustered in and equipped at Camp Mason near Portland, Maine, in August 1862. He and his regiment were assigned to the 5th Corps (1st Division, 3rd Brigade) of the Army of the Potomac, and first engaged in military combat at the Battle of Shepherdstown Ford. During the Battle of Antietam, the 20th Maine was held in reserve on a hill near the Pry Farm.

Melcher became the Union Army Lieutenant of the 20th Maine Infantry, which charged down Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. This marked the second unsuccessful assault by Confederate troops against the Union's left flank on July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Most of Melcher's recollections of the battles have been carefully preserved by his younger brother, Nathaniel. During the Battle of the Wilderness, Melcher lead a small company of seventeen men through a forest along the Orange Turnpike needed for strategic alignment with the adjoining company. After being completely surrounded, he ordered his men to lay on the ground and start shooting, they captured thirty confederates and sustained minor injuries.[6]

His involvement in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, resulted in him being promoted and serious injury. While engaging in the battle, he was promoted three different times, starting with First Lieutenant, Captain in 1864, while actively fighting, and near the conclusion of the battle, Brevet Major. He also went on to serve in three different companies during that battle, resulting in him being mustered out on July 16, 1865.[2][3]

Early life and education[edit]

Melcher was born in the small town of Topsham, Maine, on June 30, 1841. He was born to James and Nancy Melcher. His father was a native of Brunswick, Maine and his mother was the daughter of Captain Nehemiah Curtis of Harpswell, Maine, who traces his lineage to colonizing New Englanders.[7] As a young boy Holman Melcher worked on his family farm with his brother, Nathaniel, and his sister, Mary. He initially began schooling in towns near Topsham, in a small school district. After graduating from secondary school he enrolled at Bates College (then known as Maine State Seminary), at age fifteen. He was enrolled at the institution from 1858 to 1862, in Lewiston, Maine.[3]

In the spring of 1861, there was an attack on Fort Sumter, which took the nation into the Civil War. During this time Melcher was completing his studies at Bates, and holding a small teaching job in Harpswell.[3] He became engrossed with the patriotism involved with the war and upon concluding his studies he quit his teaching job, and enlisted formally on August 19, 1862 as a private in Company B, 20th Regiment Maine Volunteer Infantry.[7] His younger brother became interested in following his footsteps but Holman advised him to avoid enlisting and pursue education at Bowdoin College, promising to write each other weekly. A week after enlisting, he was mustered into the United States service at the rank of Corporal.[3]

American Civil War[edit]

After completing his studies at the seminary, he enlisted as a Corporal in the Union Army. Melcher was assigned to the 20th Maine infantry which was organized in and equipped at Camp Mason near Portland, Maine, in August 29, 1862 and was immediately assigned to the 5th Corps serving in that organization for the duration.[3]

Battle of Shepherdstown Ford[edit]

He and his regiment were assigned the 5th Corps Division, and first engaged in military combat in the Battle of Shepherdstown Ford, the end of the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War.[2]

Battle of Fredericksburg[edit]

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Melcher was promoted to Sergeant-Major for "meritorious conduct", by Col. Adelbert Ames. One year later he was promoted to First Lieutenant of Company F.[1]

Battle of Gettysburg[edit]

On April 2, 1863, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, appointed him acting Adjutant of the regiment. He served in this position until army restructuring by the incoming General Ulysses S. Grant, in March.[6]

On July 2, 1863, Melcher was a Lieutenant and took part in the bayonet charge at Little Round Top that helped repulse the Confederate attack.[2][2][3][4][5] On the second day of Battle of Gettysburg, military forces moved to Little Round Top, where Col. Chamberlain began preparing strategic options, as Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was recently replaced by George G. Meade. As fighting raged in the Wheatfield and Devil's Den, Col. Strong Vincent of V Corps had a precarious hold on Little Round Top, an important hill at the extreme left of the Union line. His brigade of four relatively small regiments was able to resist repeated assaults by Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law's brigade of Hood's division. The defense of Little Round Top with a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine was one of the most fabled episodes in the Civil War.[4]

Charging Little Round Top dispute[edit]

There has been some controversy tied to the charge on Little Round Top with historians challenging who exactly lead the charge. Historians widely agree that it was Col Joshua Chamberlain who conceived of a charge but one argues that Melcher physically engaged first. This was later confirmed by Brigadier General, Ellis Spear,[7] as he stated that Melcher initiated the charge by spontaneously running down the hill and calling the men to follow and to protect fallen comrades.[8] This one historian has concluded prior to the order of Chamberlain to fix bayonets, Melcher "led the impulsive charge, responding to the cries of wounded comrades between the lines."[5] The key source for this conclusion, however, is a quote from a book, written in 1882, by a private in the regiment.

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... 'Come on! Come on! Come on boys!' [Melcher] 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.

- Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine[9]

However, Gerrish was not an eyewitness to the charge as he was in a hospital in Philadelphia during the Battle of Gettysburg. Among Gerrish's other false claims in this same account is that the 20th was attacked by a force "ten times their number." After reading a pre-publication copy of Gerrish's 1882 book which included this quote, Chamberlain consulted with the color bearer of the regiment and wrote this account of Melcher's involvement in the charge.

I went for the Color then at the angle in our center and the Color bearer was beside me advancing when Lieut. Melcher came dashing in and right up to my side. I was then in front of the commanding officer of the advancing front line of rebels. He fired one shot of his pistol at me and I raised my saber to give him the point when he handed me his sword and pistol both at once and called out "we surrender."[10]

By nearly every account of the battle by members of both the Maine and Alabama regiments, the charge of the regiment down the slope began on the left wing of the 20th Maine (not the center where Melcher was stationed), resulting in something akin to a "gate swinging on a post". This movement cannot happen if it begins in its center. Any advance of the center prior to the movement of either wing would have broken the regimental line into two or three pieces at its middle. The center, or hinge, does not initiate a swinging motion.

It is important to note that Chamberlain was very complimentary of Melcher's role in the charge, even crediting him with saving his life, though not with leading the charge.

I think it was the sight of Melcher and his squad coming down like Tigers that both made him quit firing on me and surrender. Had not Melcher come on I think this officer would have shot me (4 barrels were loaded when I took his pistol) and very likely his men would have got such headway they might have swept us all back.[10]

Battle of the Wilderness[edit]

During the Battle of the Wilderness, in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, Lt. Melcher lead a small company of seventeen men through a forest needed for strategic alignment with the adjoining company. Due to the heavy fog and subsequent lack of vision, they failed to notice Confederate soldiers move up to their left flank and were completely surrounded. He ordered his men to lay on the ground and start shooting, they captured thirty confederates and sustained minor injuries.[6]

Battle of Laurel Hill[edit]

Three days later he was shot in the right leg following a counter-attack, during the Battle of Laurel Hill, in Spotsylvania, Virginia. He was rushed to a makeshift hospital in the Mary Washington house. Due to the level of injury sustained he was escorted by military personnel to Armory Square hospital in Washington, and returned to Maine for recuperation. He returned to active duty in the fall of 1864.[11]

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House[edit]

The Battle of Spotsylvania, where Melcher was severely injured

His involvement in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, resulted in him being promoted and serious injury. While engaging in the battle, he was promoted three different times. He was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in 1863, and Captain a year later; and near the conclusion of the battle, Brevet Major. His commanding officers, impressed by him, promoted him to acting adjutant to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain.[3] Serving under Ulysses S. Grant, and George G. Meade, he and his company were tasked with the advancement of soldiers to Laurel Hill, a position that was blocking them from Spotsylvania Court House. Confederate soldiers returned heavy fire and the initial program was unsuccessful in dislodging the Confederates. Melcher ordered a clearing of the Brock Road for the infantry, but the troopers soon bogged down, and provided a weak defense against the confederates at that point.[3]

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.

- Holman Melcher[5]

Eventually, Melcher was brevetted to the rank of Major by the end of the battle. He was badly wounded in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, but survived.[3]

Battle of Petersburg[edit]

He went on to serve in three different companies during that siege, he served as Inspector-General to the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment until he was mustered out on July 16, 1865.[2][3]

Post-war service[edit]

Successful Businessman[edit]

Letterhead for H. S. Melcher Co.

In his postwar years, Melcher put the wartime skills he obtained working as adjutant for Maine Generals O.O. Howard and J.L. Chamberlain to good use. He founded and operated the H.S. Melcher Company, a wholesale produce business on Fore Street along the waterfront in Portland, Maine. After many years he sold it for a handsome profit to what became the A&P grocery chain.

Mayor of Portland[edit]

His business success garnered him wide support and respect. His old commanding officer, Col. Chamberlain, wrote to the advertisement board of the city and published the following:

I want to propose a name for the Republican nomination for mayor-- a name that needs no recommendation; a man with a record of splendid courage and endurance in the late war, from the beginning to the end since the war an honorable, high-minded citizen and energetic businessman, enjoying the confidence and respect of his fellow citizens in both parties. From this man no pledges need or will be asked. All these years of his well-regarded life are pledges for his good conduct in any situation. And his name is Holman S. Melcher.

- Joshua Chamberlain[11]

Melcher was elected to Mayor of Portland on 1889, and a year later married Ellen M. McClellan who was the daughter of George McClellan, a prominent Portland lawyer. He was elected as a Republican and advocated for progressive values and the establishment of a central-city government. His first wife, Ellen died from consumption, and he later remarried with Alice Hart.

The 20th Maine Regimental Association at Gettysburg in October 1889.

He was elected again and served for a second term ending in 1895.[3]

20th Maine Regimental Association[edit]

As Mayor, he remained committed to the progression of Veteran Affairs and founded the 20th Maine Regiment Association (1876 – 1905), where he served as president. 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.[3]

Death and legacy[edit]

Regimental monument on Little Round Top for the 20th Maine.

Melcher suffered from poor health toward the end of his life due to the pain from his old war wounds. He eventually died after a long fight with Bright's Disease, and died on June 25, 1905, at age 64.

He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, Maine.[12]

His brother, Nathaniel died in 1902.[1]

His family have largely survived him. Melcher and Alice Hart had one daughter, Georgiana Hill, who married Harry Tukey Johnson.[13] Hart outlived Melcher by 18 years, and

Most of Melcher's papers are currently stored at the Maine Historical Society, Bates College, and Bowdoin College.

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Styple, William B. (Ed.), With a Flash of his Sword: The Writings of. Maj. Holman S. Melcher, 20th Maine Infantry, pp. xiii
  2. ^ a b c d e f "1st Lieut. Holman S. Melcher, Co. B, 20th Maine Wearing Unique Maltese Cross, CDV". Bidsquare. Retrieved 2016-02-21. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Melcher, Holman (1994). With a Flash of His Sword: The Writings of Major Holman S. Melcher 20th Maine Infantry. Ladd Library, Bates College: Belle Grove Pub Co; First edition. pp. multi–source. 
  4. ^ a b c Eicher, pp. 527–30; Clark, pp. 81–85.
  5. ^ a b c d "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.". philly-archives. Retrieved 2016-02-21. 
  6. ^ a b c Styple, x
  7. ^ a b c Style pp. viii
  8. ^ Desjardin, p. 69.
  9. ^ Gerrish, Theodore (1882). Army Life: A Private's Reminiscences of the Civil War. 
  10. ^ a b Chamberlain to Theodore Gerrish, 1882. Elisha Coan Papers, Bowdoin College Archives.
  11. ^ a b Styple, pp. x
  12. ^ http://findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Melcher&GSfn=Holman&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSst=23&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=39466955&df=all&
  13. ^ Genealogical and Family History of the STATE OF MAINE, Compiled under the editorial supervision of George Thomas Little, A. M., Litt. D., LEWIS HISTORICAL PUBLISHING COMPANY, New York, 1909. http://dunhamwilcox.net/me/me_bio_melcher.htm


  • Styple, William B. (Ed.), With a Flash of his Sword: The Writings of. Maj. Holman S. Melcher, 20th Maine Infantry, Belle Grove Publishing, 1994, ISBN 1-883926-00-9.
  • Desjardin, Thomas A., Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign, Thomas Publications, 1995, ISBN 1-57747-034-6.
  • Donald, David Herbert (1996) [1995]. Lincoln. Simon and Schuster.

External links[edit]