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Gazing out through the trees and smoke, the Union officer knew that his weary fighters were in trouble and that the next Confederate attack would likely overwhelm his outnumbered command. What to do? He could not stay put. Retreat was unthinkable. A desperate charge seemed the only choice. Quickly, word was passed down the line: Fix bayonets and attack on command.
A final glance told him all was ready. With a great roar, the men rose and charged the enemy. Startled, the onrushing Confederates fired a scattered volley and broke. Those who fought back were either killed or captured. The daring attack by the soldiers of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment was a stunning success.
Was it Colonel Joshua Chamberlain defending Little Round Top at Gettysburg? No, it was Lieutenant Holman Melcher leading a charge by Company F of the 20th Maine during the confused fighting in the Wilderness on May 5, 1864 — just one example of the heroism that the saviors of Little Round Top repeatedly displayed long after the smoke had cleared from the battlefield at Gettysburg.
Five regiments did the hard fighting that saved Little Round Top for the Union: the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, 16th Michigan and 140th New York. The first four made up Colonel Strong Vincent's brigade in the V Corps' 1st Division. The final unit was from Brig. Gen. Stephen Weed's brigade in the V Corps' 2nd Division, which arrived in the nick of time to help in the Round Top fight due to the initiative of its commander, Colonel Patrick O'Rourke, and the army's chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren. Collectively, the units came to be called the 'Little Round Top Regiments.
The critical role the regiments played at Gettysburg has garnered them much attention, but the story of the Little Round Top Regiments does not end there. The same men fought in all the major battles leading up to General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865. Four of the five units made it to Appomattox under their original regimental designations. Re-enlisting veterans from the fifth unit, the 44th New York, were assimilated into the 140th and the 146th New York and marched into Appomattox under the flags of those regiments.
The Little Round Top Regiments brought their own unique identities to Gettysburg. Three of the five, the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan, had been formed in September 1861, and they participated in all the subsequent major battles of the Eastern theater.
A well-drilled unit, the men of the 83rd Pennsylvania wore special French chasseur uniforms (each topped off by a tall shako sporting a green plume) awarded them by Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter in recognition of their marching precision. The 44th New York members were called Ellsworth's Avengers in honor of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who was killed hauling down a Rebel flag in Alexandria, Va., early in the war. Every ward in New York contributed men to this regiment. Recruits had to be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, single, under 30 and of good moral character. The New Yorkers developed a strong bond with the 83rd Pennsylvania after the Keystone troops shared dinner with the Avengers, who arrived in camp after a long march without provisions. They became known as the Butterfield Twins after their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Dan Butterfield.
The final veteran Little Round Top Regiment was the 16th Michigan. Recruited from the Detroit area, the hard-fighting unit had just 263 soldiers by the time it climbed Little Round Top (the other Little Round Top Regiments went into Gettysburg averaging 380 men each).
By contrast, the 20th Maine and the 140th New York were relatively green outfits. The 140th New York, nicknamed the Rochester Racehorses, suffered its first battle casualties at Chancellorsville, two dead and six wounded. Quarantined behind the lines with a smallpox epidemic, the 20th Maine missed that battle entirely. The regiment had seen action at Fredericksburg and against some of Lee's rear guard covering the Confederate retreat from Antietam.
July 2, 1863, found the troops in the crosshairs of history at Gettysburg. Although Lee had given the new Union commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, a bloody nose the previous day, Meade had managed to concentrate his army along the hills and ridges south of town. Meade's position looked formidable until an unauthorized advance by Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles' III Corps unhinged Meade's left flank. Southern Lt. Gen. James Longstreet eventually launched an attack against Sickles' exposed troops.
In response to this crisis, Meade sent the V Corps and elements of the II and XII corps to Sickles' assistance. Despite the flow of Union reinforcements to Meade's left, the flank's anchor — Little Round Top — remained devoid of Federal troops when Brig. Gen. Evander Law's Alabama veterans began moving toward the hill. If Law's men secured Little Round Top, the hill's cleared summit would provide a natural artillery platform enfilading the entire Union line. A devastating Federal defeat seemed merely minutes away.
Unfortunately for Law and the Southern cause, Gouverneur Warren also saw the problem and managed to intercept Vincent's 1,300-man, four-regiment V Corps brigade as it marched to aid Sickles and reroute it to Little Round Top. These bluecoats arrived on the boulder-covered hillock scant minutes before 2,400 hard-charging Southerners arrived.
The initial Confederate assaults hit the Butterfield Twins in the center of Vincent's line and were easily repelled. The 4th Alabama was particularly shot up as it came under cross-fire from the 83rd Pennsylvania and the 20th Maine.
Colonel William Oates brought his 15th Alabama and the 47th Alabama (whose colonel was skulking behind the lines) down the slopes of Big Round Top and attacked Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine. Oates was initially repulsed, but then the tenacious colonel sent out a squad to outflank the Maine men. Ordering a difficult, rarely tried maneuver, Chamberlain successfully stretched his line, bending it back at right angles and frustrating Oates' flanking attempt. Nearly out of ammunition, Chamberlain called for a bayonet attack. His men yelled as they charged down the hill and swept the surprised Confederates from the field. Chamberlain's bold leadership had secured the brigade's left.
Vincent's right was a different story. Reinforced by the 48th Alabama, the 4th and 5th Texas renewed their attacks, concentrating on Vincent's right flank regiment, the 16th Michigan. Climbing shelves and crevices to screen their advance up the rocky hill, a few of the Confederates were able to slide by their foes. Soon the Michigan men began receiving flank fire. As casualties mounted, panic grew.
Rebel pressure intensified until, suddenly, half the Michigan regiment broke in disorder toward the rear. Vincent climbed a rock to rally the men but toppled off, mortally wounded. The Michigan men held, but the Texans kept pressing on toward the summit.
At the very moment the Southerners believed they had triumphed, Colonel Patrick O'Rourke's 140th New York surged over the crest, racing toward the Confederate ranks. Commandeered by the frantic Warren, O'Rourke's men scrambled up the hill on Vincent's right. As the Rochester Racehorses cleared the summit, O'Rourke shouted, Down this way, boys! A Confederate salvo killed O'Rourke but could not stop the charge of his 450 men. The Rebels pulled back to Big Round Top and settled down to a long-range firefight. There would be no more attacks on Little Round Top.
Whatever gains Lee made on July 1 and 2 were more than offset by the costly failure of Pickett's Charge on July 3. The South's second major offensive north of the Potomac River had failed.
Meade did not follow up his victory over Lee to President Abraham Lincoln's complete satisfaction, and he was superseded by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. Although Meade retained nominal command of the Army of the Potomac, Grant, as general-in-chief, traveled with the army and directed its operations. The Little Round Top Regiments would play a major role in Grant's ferocious final campaign.
Grant opened his advance by crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864. The next day, Union pickets discovered Confederates moving down the Orange Turnpike to threaten the Federal march through a heavily wooded area known as the Wilderness. Grant thought the force was a decoy and ordered the V Corps — now commanded by Warren — to punish the intruders. In fact, most of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's II Corps stood in the Federals' path.
The 140th New York, freshly clad in new Zouave uniforms awarded them as recognition of superior service, headed across Saunders Field just to the right of the Orange Turnpike. Puffs of smoke from Southern muskets started to dot the woodline, and bodies in Zouave uniforms began to litter the ground. But the Rochester Racehorses had their blood up. Led by a hat-waving Colonel George Ryan (who had forgotten his sword), they sprinted across the field toward the fire-spitting tree line ahead. Crashing into the Confederates, the 140th drove the enemy back through the dense, woody tangle in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle.
As his troops moved deeper into the smoke-filled woods, Ryan — sensing gunfire to his flank and rear — sent out scouts who reported that the Confederates had overlapped his line. Even worse, the Rebels were moving in behind him. Aware that he was being cut off, Ryan immediately ordered a retreat. The Rochester Racehorses somehow disengaged and returned to the main Union line, losing 240 casualties in the brief but deadly excursion up and down Saunders Field.
Simultaneously with Ryan's advance, Vincent's old brigade, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett, moved forward to the left of the Orange Turnpike. After some initial success, Bartlett began taking heavy flank fire, and the Confederates overlapped his line as well. Casualties quickly mounted, including Colonel Orpheus Woodward, commanding the 83rd Pennsylvania, who took a bullet in the knee, which later required amputation. Sizing up the situation, Bartlett ordered an about-face, and the brigade fought its way back to Federal lines — all, that is, except Company F of the 20th Maine. At the end of the regimental front, screened by woods, they did not hear the command to retire.
Lieutenant Melcher learned of his predicament when he noticed Confederate soldiers crossing his rear. Figuring that the regiment had pulled back without him, Melcher realized he was surrounded. As soon as the Rebels knew he was there, his little band would be rounded up for a trip to Libby Prison. Desperate, Melcher told his 17 men that they were going to have to cut their way out. The men were to load rifles, fix bayonets and charge on signal. All were to pick a target and yell, Surrender! at the top of their lungs.
Screaming men suddenly charging out of thick, smoky woods startled the Confederates, whose ragged volley killed two of Melcher's men and wounded a few others. Federal return fire dropped many more Rebels, as the rest scattered or surrendered. Company F returned to its lines with 32 prisoners.
Grant suffered a tactical defeat in the Wilderness, losing 18,000 men against only 11,000 Confederate losses. But unlike the Union defeat at Chancellorsville the previous year, Grant won the strategic victory. The Army of the Potomac maintained control of the Brock Road, giving the Federals a short, eight-mile march to Spotsylvania Court House, the exit from the Wilderness. By contrast, Lee would have to march 13 miles over worse roads to reach that point.
Spotsylvania was also astride the direct route to Richmond. Federal possession of the key hamlet would force Lee to fight Grant out in the open or risk being cut off from Richmond. Realizing this, Grant ordered Warren's V Corps march there just after dark on May 7.
Unknown to Grant, Lee had also ordered his I Corps, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson in place of Longstreet, who was wounded on May 6, to undertake a similar nocturnal movement. Aided by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's delaying cavalry action against Warren, Anderson reached Spotsylvania the next morning, just ahead of the Federals. Anderson took up a strong defensive position across the Brock Road at Laurel Hill. Convinced that he still faced only cavalry, and frustrated by the slow pace of the all-night march, Warren ordered his tired troops forward without the benefit of reconnaissance or artillery support. Never mind cannon! Never mind bullets! Press on and clear this road! shouted Warren.
Taking picket and artillery fire the entire way, the V Corps charged up the hill in ragged formation, each regiment moving into line as it came up the Brock Road. Anderson's men paused a few moments before unleashing solid infantry volleys, stunning the Federals. The attack quickly broke down.
The Butterfield Twins — the 44th New York and the 83rd Pennsylvania — made two of the more successful Union assaults. The New Yorkers halted 20 yards from the Confederate line, firing a series of volleys. Troops from the adjoining 83rd Pennsylvania penetrated the Confederate position and began fighting hand to hand. In the midst of swinging muskets and screaming men, the 83rd's color-bearer, Corporal M.L. Vogus, planted the regimental flag on the enemy breastworks. But the collapse of the Union left-flank regiments doomed the Twins by opening their own flank to a devastating counterattack.
Hit by enemy fire from two directions, the twin regiments realized that they had to retreat. As he turned to move to the rear, Vogus was hit in the chest. Still, he managed to keep his hold on the 83rd's colors. As he staggered and fell, he flung the banner to a comrade to prevent its capture. The last unwounded member of the color party ran a few yards with the flag before he, too, was wounded. Desperate to get the flag to safety, Vogus hailed a nearby 44th New York soldier to rescue the colors. Dodging bullets, the New Yorker scooped up the flag and carried it back to the regiment. The heroic Vogus would survive his wounds and receive a well-deserved promotion to sergeant.
Over the next several days, the V Corps made a series of attacks against Laurel Hill that accomplished nothing except to lengthen the Union casualty lists. One such casualty was James Rice, former commander of the 44th New York. Promoted to brigadier general and given command of a New York brigade in recognition of his services at Gettysburg, he was shot down on May 10. When told that his wound was mortal, he replied: Tell the 44th I am done fighting. Turn me over and let me die with my face to the enemy.
Locked in place across from Laurel Hill, the V Corps missed the horrific carnage resulting from the Union's partial penetration of the Confederate Mule Shoe salient on May 12. Lee was pushed to the brink by Grant's attack, but he held on and the stalemate at Spotsylvania continued.
Grant continued sidling left, trying to gain Lee's flank. The Little Round Top Regiments helped lead this effort, crossing the North Anna River at Jericho Mill Ford on May 23. A spirited Rebel attack routed several Union brigades, getting within 1,000 yards of the Federal pontoon bridges. Preparing to charge some Union artillery batteries — the only organized Federal defense remaining in front of the bridges — the Confederate right suddenly collapsed when Bartlett mounted a three-regiment flank attack. The 83rd Pennsylvania led the assault, driving off the 1st South Carolina (Orr's Rifles). During the charge, Pennsylvania Corporal Lewis Corbin collared the South Carolina brigade commander, Colonel Joseph Brown, yanking him back to Union lines as a prisoner.
With the North Anna fighting proving inconclusive, Grant once again slid left, reaching the vicinity of Cold Harbor on June 1. Stationed to the right at Bethesda Church, the V Corps was fortunate enough to miss Grant's doomed Cold Harbor onslaught two days later.
The Little Round Top Regiments crossed the James River with the rest of the army in mid-June, participating in the subsequent assaults on Petersburg. The Federal soldiers were exhausted and worn from the month of maneuvering and battle, and only minimal gains resulted from these assaults as Warren, like other Union corps commanders, failed to drive his attacks home.
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, former commander of the 20th Maine and now in charge of a V Corps infantry brigade, fell in action at Petersburg. Chamberlain had received orders to make an unsupported attack on a heavily defended part of the Confederate lines guarding the Jerusalem Plank Road. After lodging a fruitless protest with Meade's headquarters, Chamberlain led his men forward. As the brigade emerged into open ground, it received a sharp volley that struck dozens of troops, including a color-bearer. Chamberlain grasped the flag and carried it toward the enemy lines. Forty yards into the maelstrom, Chamberlain took a bullet through his hips. The doctors pronounced the wound mortal, and it would, in fact, kill him — but not for another 50 years. In the meantime, Chamberlain was promoted to brigadier general, and upon his recovery the following spring, he returned to lead his brigade for the final, decisive stage of the campaign.
The nine-month siege of Petersburg was made up of several dozen battles and engagements, including a critical three-day fight that August for possession of the Weldon Railroad. Known as the Battle of Globe Tavern, the fierce contest exploded when Grant extended his lines west across the railroad. Once again, Warren's V Corps drew the tough assignment of spearheading the movement. When the smoke cleared, Warren was firmly astride the railroad, but only after some hard fighting.
The initial Union position extended west along a tree line before turning south at the railroad. The Confederate divisions of Maj. Gens. Henry Heth and William Mahone advanced unseen through the woods, hitting Warren hard. The 140th New York was in danger of being cut off and fought its way to the rear, where the Zouaves re-formed under cover of Union artillery. Ordered to make an immediate counterattack, the Zouaves reclaimed the lost ground, rescuing many captured comrades, including their brigade commander.
The Confederate attacks battered but did not break the Federal lines — the V Corps still maintained its hold on the railroad. Heth and Mahone now shifted their attacks to the southern portion of the Union line, which paralleled the railroad. This time the Rebel reconnaissance was poor, and the Confederates walked into a trap. As soon as they reached the middle of an open field, their ranks were shredded by a withering cross-fire exploding from the Union breastworks.
For the 20th Maine, it was payback time. One soldier wrote, Our men enjoyed it very much, for we remembered how often we had been obliged to charge upon their lines, and be shot down by the thousands, while they were screened from our fire, and we now rejoiced that for once the tables were turned, and that to our advantage.
Having lost the Weldon Railroad, Petersburg's last remaining lifeline was the Southside Railroad. Grant would continue his leftward sidle until that, too, fell under his control, dooming Petersburg and the Confederacy to their inevitable surrender.
One of the stepping stones to cutting the Southside Railroad was a battle called Peebles Farm. The Union V Corps again led the flanking push. Grant believed that Lee's fortifications on the Confederates' extreme right were incomplete and poorly manned. He was wrong.
On September 30, 1864, the V Corps came upon a line of Confederate breastworks supported by an artillery redoubt. The 16th Michigan, 83rd Pennsylvania and 32nd Massachusetts were told to capture the position. Unlike their fellow Little Round Top Regiments, the 16th Michigan had been under a cloud since Gettysburg. A portion of the regiment had given way under pressure, nearly losing Little Round Top. The regiment's commander, Colonel Norval Welch, was among those who had pulled back during the confusion. Whether he lost his nerve or retreated up the hill in an attempt to rally his men remained a matter of controversy.
As Welch prepared his men to charge the Peebles Farm redoubt, he knew this would be his last battle. His enlistment had expired and no further fighting was required of him. Nonetheless, he decided to remain with his troops while awaiting his formal discharge. Perhaps he was looking for one final opportunity to erase the stigma of Gettysburg.
At last the order to advance was given, and the Union lines stepped forward. With Confederate artillery ripping holes in his lines, Welch led his men up to the walls of the Rebel fort. A commission to him who first mounts the parapet of that redoubt, called out Welch. Follow me! Sword in hand, Welch sprinted ahead of his men and leaped onto the walls of the redoubt. He climbed a few steps and then toppled backward with a bullet through his head.
Eager to avenge their colonel's death, the Michigan men stormed over the fort's walls, capturing 100 prisoners and a Rebel cannon. They spotted a second line of entrenchments and charged out, helping capture those works as well.
At the end of the day, Grant finally had a position from which he hoped he could launch an assault on the Southside Railroad. And at the cost of his life, Colonel Welch had forever redeemed his honor.
Despite the best efforts of the Army of the Potomac, however, Lee managed to prevent the capture of Petersburg throughout the winter of 1864-65. In the spring of 1865, Grant devised a plan to break the Petersburg deadlock. He ordered Warren's V Corps to move around the end of the Confederate lines, isolating Maj. Gen. George Pickett's 10,000-man outpost from Lee's main army three miles away. Meanwhile, Grant directed Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to sweep up the back roads with his cavalry and either cut the Southside Railroad or pounce on Pickett if he attempted to interfere.
Pickett's job was to act as a mobile, detached force capable of blocking any Federal attempt on the railroad. Unknown to Pickett, he had been cut off from Lee as a result of Warren's victories at Lewis Farm and White Oak Road on March 29 and 31. Chamberlain, recovered from his Petersburg wound and now in command of a brigade in Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin's V Corps division, played a decisive role in both battles.
Chamberlain's brigade led the way at Lewis Farm, repulsing a vigorous Confederate counterattack. At White Oak Road, a determined Rebel attack routed two Union divisions before Warren personally ordered Chamberlain to rectify the situation. Chamberlain'scounterattack repulsed the Confederates, gaining a lodgment across White Oak Road.
Meanwhile, Pickett won a small victory over Sheridan's troopers at Dinwiddie Court House. Then, under Grant's orders, Warren reached Sheridan on April 1, allowing Sheridan to launch a combined cavalry and infantry assault on Pickett's troops at Five Forks later that day. The attack totally smashed Pickett's force. The way to the Southside Railroad was open.
The war-torn V Corps fought well in the battle subsequently referred to as the Waterloo of the Civil War. Two men from the Little Round Top Regiments, Sergeant Robert Shipley of the 140th New York and Lieutenant Albert Fernald of the 20th Maine, received the Medal of Honor for capturing the 9th Virginia colors during a wild melee in the center of the Rebel line.
The commanding general also had praise for Chamberlain, whom he saw leading his men into the attack. Galloping over, Sheridan shouted: By God, that's what I want to see! General officers at the front! Warren, though, was a different matter. Angered over Warren's apparent slowness, Sheridan summarily sacked him, appointing Griffin to replace him as the V Corps commander.
The day after Pickett's defeat at Five Forks, Lee abandoned his Petersburg lines and marched west, hoping to reach the rail lines that could take him to General Joseph Johnston's troops in North Carolina. Grant had other ideas, and eight days later, on Palm Sunday, the more numerous, better-supplied Army of the Potomac brought Lee to bay at Appomattox Court House. Out of options and surrounded on three sides, Lee reluctantly agreed to surrender his army.
With the war drawing to a close, the Little Round Top Regiments were given one final task. The evening of the day that Lee signed the surrender papers, Griffin informed Chamberlain that he would have the honor of receiving the surrender of weapons and flags from Lee's entire army on April 12. That the honor should go to one of the heroes of Gettysburg — perhaps the Army of the Potomac's finest hour — was only just. Chamberlain's brilliant performance at Little Round Top had been nearly duplicated in every subsequent engagement in which he fought.
Joshua Chamberlain was one among many candidates for the task. A major factor in his favor was that he was still alive and in the army — a not inconsiderable advantage over some of the other Gettysburg heroes. A quick roll call of the Little Round Top commanders is instructive. Colonel O'Rourke of the 140th New York, along with brigade commander Colonel Vincent, was killed during the famous engagement. The 83rd Pennsylvania's commanding officer, Colonel Woodward, lost a leg at the Wilderness, knocking him out of the war. Colonel — later General — Rice of the 44th New York died facing the enemy at Spotsylvania. And Colonel Welch of the 16th Michigan fell charging a redoubt at Peebles Farm. Many of the heroes were gone.
Chamberlain seemed to recognize the sacrifices of these other soldiers. Although his new command had fought well, it was a relatively recent addition to the Army of the Potomac. Chamberlain asked if he could be reunited with his old comrades — the 1st Division's 3rd Brigade — for this one day. This was to be a crowning incident of history and I thought these veterans deserved this recognition, Chamberlain later wrote.
His request was approved. For a single day, Chamberlain was back among the soldiers of the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania and 16th Michigan. Chamberlain looked up old friends and prepared his former comrades for one last gesture of chivalry.
On the morning of the appointed day, Maj. Gen. John Gordon led the first group of Confederates up to the Surrender Triangle to lay down their arms and battle flags. Dejected, heads hanging low, Gordon and his men marched slowly forward. As they rounded the final turn, overcome by emotion and memories, oblivious to their surroundings, the sudden bark of a bugle pierced the air. Instantly the Federal troops lining the road snapped to carry arms. Gordon, wrenched from his thoughts as he recognized the significance of Chamberlain's salute, wheeled his horse and then gracefully brought his sword point down to his boot toe. Gordon then ordered his own troops to carry arms, two honorable gestures signifying the respect those fellow Americans felt for each other.
So ended the last page in the heroic story of the Little Round Top Regiments. The men went back to their wives and sweethearts, their farms and fishing boats. They had been involved in a great enterprise and had succeeded. Many had died before the goal had been achieved, but in a way they had succeeded also. The Union was preserved — at a cost that the survivors of the Little Round Top Regiments knew all too well.
This article was written by Jim Heenehan and originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of America's Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America's Civil War magazine today!
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