Chaos Theory and History

Chaos theory is a mathematical system. History is not, and a mathematician colleague has argued—in a friendly way—that Chaos theory cannot be applied to non-mathematical systems. I understand what he means, but I would argue that the principle behind Chaos theory, that small events in a fluid system can have broad and unpredictable effects down the road, so to speak. The principle has been referred to as the “butterfly effect”—a butterfly flaps its wings in San Francisco and three days later you get rain instead of sunshine in New York City. Weather it is, of course, a a system that operates on temperatures, wind velocities, humidity, and other factors all of which can be assessed through mathematical calculation. History cannot be addressed in that way.

All that may be true, but consider this well known jingle:

For want of a nail a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a rider was lost; for want of a rider, a message was lost; for want of the message, a battle was lost; for one of the battle, a kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!

In considering the idea behind Chaos theory, that small events of apparent minor significance can determine the the outcome of subsequent much larger events, history shows that such things have happened numerous times. I will describe one such event in some detail, and you can use your imagination and knowledge to find other similar occasions.

Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg

June 1863, somewhere north of Virginia. The Union Army, having suffered a defeat at Chancellorsville, is on the march northward toward Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a former professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, had enlisted in the Union forces a year earlier and had was second in command of the 20th Maine Regiment. When the regimental colonel was promoted to corps commander, Chamberlain became the Colonel of the 20th Maine. Knowing that Lee's Confederates were following the same track to the west of the Union army, Colonel Chamberlain was aware that action probably awaited his regiment, which was part of the Union Fifth Corps, in the days ahead. No sooner had Colonel Chamberlain taken command of his regiment then he was informed that he was about to receive over 100 prisoners from the 2nd Maine Regiment who had insisted on being discharged because of a misunderstanding about their term of service; they had been declared "mutineers." As the 2nd Maine had been disbanded, there was nowhere for the prisoners to go except to another regiment from Maine.

chamber,ainChamberlain's Regiment had begun with about 1,000 men, but by late June of 1863 they were down to less than 300. Faced with the responsibility of guarding over 100 prisoners, Chamberlain decided to speak with the men, listen to their complaints, and perhaps persuade them to join his regiment. The order he received along with the prisoners informed him that he had permission to shoot the mutineers if they became rebellious. He quickly put the minds of the men from Maine at ease; they would not be shot on his watch. As a former professor of rhetoric, Chamberlain was an eloquent speaker. He spoke to the disgruntled soldiers of his thoughts about the war, the meaning of the Union cause, and his concerns about the coming battle with Lee's army. He told them that they would be coming along with his regiment, but if they were willing to pick up their rifles and join his men, there would be no further talk of any punishment. Chamberlain's speech moved the prisoners, and all but a few of them decided on the spot to join the 20th Maine. Their decision would become critical in the days ahead

A few days later the V Corps arrived at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as fighting had broken out between advance units of the Confederate and Union armies. On the second day of the fighting, Union commanders discovered that General Longstreet's Corps was attempting to turn the left flank of the Union army by capturing a piece of high ground known as Little Round Top. A union officer was horrified to discover that Little Round Top was unoccupied and ordered Chamberlain's Regiment to rush to the top and defend the ground. From the top of that rocky hill, Chamberlain could see that the position commanded the entire center of the Union line. His men would have to hold at all costs.

Over the course of the next hour soldiers of the 15th Alabama Regiment made repeated assaults up the slopes of Little Round Top. The 20th Maine held on, but after the third assault they were all but out of ammunition. At the crucial moment, realizing that he had no other choice, Colonel Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge down the hill. The startled Confederates were stopped, and over 100 of them were captured. the 20th Maine had saved the day; more important, on the following day Lee decided to make his fateful charge led by George Pickett's division against the center of the Union line. Had the Confederates taken Little Round Top and placed artillery there, the entire third day of fighting might have been very different.

Thus a small and apparently insignificant event involving 100 soldiers out of an Army of over 50,000 turned out to have a significant effect on perhaps the most important battle of the Civil War. The fact that Chamberlain had been an eloquent speaker, certainly an unusual coincidence in that setting, may have made a difference between the success and possible failure of his regiment. Those extra hundred men no doubt played a significant role in his defense of the vital hilltop position.the fact that Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric then was the nail in the horseshoe that held the whole sequence together. Chaos theory is about unpredictability—and who could have foreseen that outcome?

How many important events, especially wartime events where entire battles can turn on a twist of fate, are determined by some small event that would otherwise go unnoticed? How many accidents have been caused or avoided by the unthinking twist of a steering wheel? How many understudies in a stage production have risen to stardom because the leading actor suddenly came down with a sore throat?

As historians would like to think that we can determine cause-and-effect in assessing past events. In truth, as the story above and hundreds more like it demonstrates, it may not be that simple. Whether it is a mathematical system or not, we can look at Chaos Theory as a whimsical means of evaluating the past—and for that matter, perhaps even the future.

Sage History Home | History Resources Home | Updated March 25, 2017