By David F. Cross
The Battle of Gettysburg, and perhaps the fate of the Union, was decided in one hour of desperate fighting on the rocky ledges of Little Round Top.
In June 1863, Confederate military fortunes in the East were at their zenith. The Union Army of the Potomac had just been defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville; flushed with victory, the Army of Northern Virginia began an invasion of the North. It seemed that one more decisive victory, this time on the soil of a Northern state, might crush the already sagging will of the North and force Abraham Lincoln’s government to the bargaining table, where a negotiated peace could win the war for the Confederacy.
On July 1, in swift, dramatic consequence, General Robert E. Lee’s army met the Army of the Potomac, commanded now by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, at the Battle of Gettysburg. On the first day of the encounter, Lee’s legions drove the Federal troops back through the town to a defensive position on Cemetery Ridge. Lee’s army seemed invincible. At the end of the day, it looked like another great Confederate victory was in the making. More than just another battle might be won this time, however–possibly the entire war.
It did not turn out that way, of course. Better generalship by Meade, superior tactical decisions by his field officers and, most important, stubborn fighting by Federal troops, defeated the Confederates and drove them back to Virginia. With the retreating Rebel army, the specter of peace faded forever.
But it was close. Ever since, the “what ifs” of Gettysburg have haunted historians of the most momentous battle of the Civil War. One of the greatest imponderables surrounds the fateful struggle for Little Round Top. The Union defensive position on the second day of the battle resembled an inverted “J,” extending from Culp’s Hill on the north, around Cemetery Hill and irregularly south along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top. Geographically and strategically, the 650-foot-high Little Round Top anchored the left end of the Union Line. In Confederate hands, Lee’s troops would have a springboard to attack the Union rear and force evacuation of Cemetery Ridge.
On the morning of July 2, the second day of the battle, Little Round Top was occupied by a division of the XII Corps commanded by Brig. Gen. John W. Geary. Meade ordered Geary’s unit to rejoin the rest of the XII Corps at Culp’s Hill and troops of Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps to take over Geary’s position. But in the confusion, III Corps troops failed to arrive and Geary pulled his men out too soon, leaving Little Round Top undefended. Lee, with a sense for Federal weakness, chose to attack the southern end of the Union line. If the Confederate troops could crush this portion of the Union defenses and occupy Little Round Top, the whole Union line would become indefensible.
There were many crucial moments in the three-day battle at Gettysburg, but none more so than the defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine Regiment. Had the Maine Yankees been driven off Little Round Top, the Battle of Gettysburg might have had a different outcome. At least, Meade thought so, saying later, “But for the timely advance of the Fifth Corps and the prompt sending of a portion to Round Top, where they met the enemy almost on the crest and had a desperate fight to secure the position–I say but for these circumstances the enemy would have secured Round Top planted his artillery there, commanding the whole battlefield, and what the result would have been I leave to you to judge.”
Fortunately for the Federal forces, it took Lee most of the day to assemble his troops and get them to the attack staging areas. His plan was to attack the Union left with 20,000 men while the rest of his army pressured the Union right. Major General John B. Hood’s division, composed of Brig. Gen. E.M. Law’s Alabama Brigade on the right and Brig. Gen. J.B. Robertson’s Texas/Arkansas Brigade on the left, advanced first at about 4:30 p.m. They headed toward the southern end of the Union line defended by Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ V Corps. As Law’s brigade advanced, it wheeled obliquely to the left, hitting the western slope of Little Round Top and pouring into the gorge of Plum Run; it threatened to envelop the entire Union left flank. Lieutenant General James Longstreet later described this advance of Hood’s division as the “best 3 hours of fighting ever done by any troops on any battlefield.”
Meanwhile, Meade was feeding troops into his line as fast as they arrived on the battlefield. He was concerned about the Union left flank and sent his chief of engineers, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, to Little Round Top to assess the situation. Warren arrived at 3:30 p.m. and–to his utter surprise–found the hill undefended. Recognizing a disaster in the making, he frantically sent riders to Meade and Sickles commanding the adjacent III Corps, requesting immediate assistance. Sickles, whose troops were already hotly engaged, replied that he had none to spare. Fortuitously, Colonel Strong Vincent, who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, V Corps, intercepted one of the messages for help. He immediately recognized the strategic importance of the hill and led the 1,350 men of his brigade at the “double quick” to Little Round Top. Vincent positioned the four regiments of his brigade–the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan–along the southern and western slope facing the oncoming Rebels. His last words to the 389 men of the 20th Maine were: “This is the left end of the Union line. You understand? You are to hold this ground at all costs!”
Advancing against them were the 15th Alabama Regiment and seven companies of the 47th Alabama Regiment, under the command of Colonel William C. Oates. He had been ordered to “pass up between the Round Tops, find the Union left, turn it and capture Little Round [Top].” His men were drawn to their right by fire from a detachment of Major Homer R. Staughton’s 2nd U.S. (Berdan’s) Sharpshooters at the base of Round Top. Pushing them back, the Alabama regiments drove to the top of Round Top.
Pausing to rest, Oates aligned his men and sent them crashing down the northern slope of Round Top into the saddle between the hills. Suddenly, what he described as a “heavy force” of the enemy poured “a most destructive fire” into his troops from the slope of Little Round Top–it was Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Regiment.
Oates had the advantage in numbers, 644 riflemen to 358 from Maine. He described the 15th Alabama as the “strongest and finest regiment in Hood’s division.” His men were battle hardened and supremely confident, boasting they’d “never been whipped.” When they attacked, they struck hard, “with an impetuosity which betrayed the anticipation of an easy triumph.” They must have been tired, however, having marched 28 miles in the previous 24 hours to get to the battlefield. Oates himself was not a professional soldier, having only become colonel of the 15th Alabama in May 1863, but he was known as a fearless and aggressive leader.
The men of the 20th Maine, in contrast to the Alabamians, were not veteran troops, having had little battlefield experience. These men were also tired; they had marched 107 miles in the past five days, including 26 miles the previous day, to get to the battlefield. Their colonel had been a professor of religion and romance languages at Bowdoin College. However, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain sought to offset Oates’advantage with strength of position, better handling of his men, and iron determination. Chamberlain reported that every man who could carry a rifle, including “every pioneer and musician,” was placed in the line. Two soldiers from the 2nd Maine Regiment being guarded by the 20th Maine Regiment while awaiting court-martial were also given rifles and willingly joined the battle line.
Chamberlain sent Company B, commanded by Captain Walter G. Morrill, out to the left as skirmishers to protect his flank. Cut off by the advancing Rebels, Morrill’s men hid behind a stone wall. There they were joined by 14 of Berdan’s Sharpshooters, who had previously been driven from in front of Round Top. This occurrence was subsequently to have important consequences.
The Alabama troops struck at 6 p.m., and the fighting immediately became intense. Oates later described the struggle: “I ordered my regiment to drive the Federals from the ledge of rocks, gain the enemy’s rear, and drive him from the hill. My men obeyed and advanced about half way to the enemy’s position, but the fire was so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk against a strong wind, and then slowly, doggedly, gave back a little.”
Oates ordered another advance: “We drove the Federals from their strong defensive position; five times they rallied and charged us, twice coming so near that some of my men had to use their bayonet.” Another charge by the Alabama troops and the “20th Maine was driven back from the ledge but not farther than to the next ledge on the mountainside.”
Fighting was now at close quarters, so close that–for once–the fabled bayonet actually became a weapon instead of a mere threat. One 20th Maine private, emboldened or maddened by the fight, tried to grab the colors from the 15th Alabama’s color-bearer, John G. Archibald. As the Yankee made a sudden lunge for the flag, Sergeant Pat O’Connor coolly stepped forward and jabbed a bayonet into the Federal’s head.
The noise of battle, as might be imagined, was deafening. Captain James H. Ellison, commanding Company C, cupped his hand to his ear as Oates shouted an order. Then, in the process of executing the ordered maneuver, Ellison suddenly fell with a bullet through the head. He turned over onto his back, raised his arms, gave a shudder and died. The rest of the company, horrified by the sight, lost momentum and gathered around their fallen leader until Oates got them started forward again.
Another company commander, Captain Henry C. Brainard of Company G, fell among the rocky ledges of Little Round Top. His last words were, “O God, that I could see my mother!”
Even more grievous to Oates, on a personal level, was the loss of his younger brother John, who now succeeded to Brainard’s command. The younger Oates had been sick that day and had only reached the battlefield after his brother found him a horse to ride. Colonel Oates then came upon him Lying sick in a field and suggested that he could, with honor, remain behind the lines. “Brother, I will not do it,” said John Oates. “If I were to remain here people would say that I did it through cowardice; no, sir, I am an officer and will never disgrace the uniform I wear; I shall go through, unless, I am killed, which I think is quite likely.” John Oates fell dead, struck by several bullets, moments later.
“Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine described the battle from his side: “Ten minutes have passed since we formed the line…but we have no indications of the enemy: ‘But look! Look! Look!’ exclaim half a hundred men in our regiment at the same time; and no wonder, for right in our front…we see the lines of the enemy. The conflict opens…the carnage began. Our regiment was mantled in fire and smoke.
“I wish that I could picture with my pen the awful details of that hour–how rapidly the cartridges were torn from the boxes and stuffed in the smoking muzzles of the guns; how the steel rammers clashed and clanged in the heated barrels; how the men’s hands and faces grew grim and black with burning powder; how our little line, baptized with fire, reeled to and fro as it advanced or was pressed back; how our officers bravely encouraged the men to hold and recklessly exposed themselves to the enemy’s fire–a terrible medley of cries, shouts, cheers, groans, prayers, curses, bursting shells, whizzing rifle bullets and clanging steel.
“The enemy was pouring a terrible fire upon us, his superior forces giving him a great advantage….The air seemed to be alive with lead. The lines at times were so near each other that the hostile gun barrels almost touched….At one time there was a brief lull in the carnage, and our shattered line was closed up, but soon the contest raged again with renewed fierceness….Many of our companies have suffered fearfully….But there is no relief and the carnage goes on.”
Oates now decided to concentrate the 15th Alabama on his right in an effort to outflank the left end of the Union line. Warned that “something very strange was going on” behind the attacking Confederates, Chamberlain climbed atop a large boulder and saw Oates’ flanking column moving to attack the left flank. The 20th Maine was in a very tight spot. Chamberlain had to maneuver to protect his left flank while actively engaged with the 47th Alabama along his entire front. He reported, “Without betraying our peril to any but one or two officers, I had the right wing move by the left flank, taking intervals of a pace or two…extending so as to cover the whole front then engaged; and at the same time moved the left wing to the left rear, making a large angle at the color which was now brought up to the front where our left had first rested.”
The 20th Maine’s line now resembled a “V” composed of a single rank of men. “We were not a moment too soon,” reported Chamberlain, for the 15th Alabama rushed forward against what they expected to be an unprotected left flank, reaching within 10 paces before being stopped by a sudden deadly volley by the new left wing of the 20th Maine. “From that moment began a struggle fierce and bloody beyond any that I have witnessed and which lasted in all its fury a full hour,” reported Chamberlain. Each side fought like madmen. The 20th Maine regimental history simply states, “No one could ever describe this part of the fight coherently.” Chamberlain remembered that “the edge of the conflict swayed to and fro, with wild whirlpools and eddies. At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men.”
The Confederates somehow broke through the Union line in several places; there was hand-to-hand fighting. Somehow the 20th Maine line held, but the left wing had been forced back so far that the line now resembled a hairpin and incoming fire on the left was landing in the rear of the right wing. It was now after 7 p.m. and the 20th Maine was in bad shape.
The regiment had fired 15,000 rounds, and the 60 rounds allotted per man were almost exhausted. Three hundred and fifty-eight riflemen had gone into the battle and only 228 remained effective. The enemy appeared to be massing for another charge, one that would certainly overwhelm the left wing of the 20th Maine. Private Gerrish remembered: “Our line is pressed back so far that our dead are within the lines of enemy. Our ammunition is nearly all gone, and we are using the cartridges from the boxes of our wounded comrades. A critical moment has arrived, and we can remain as we are no longer; we must advance or retreat.”
For Chamberlain there was only one thing left–a counterattack. He gave the order, “Fix bayonets!” Gerrish describes it this way: “Every man understood in a moment that the movement was our only salvation, but there is a limit to human endurance… and the little line seemed to quail under the fearful fire that was being poured upon it. In that moment of supreme need…Lieutenant Holman S. Melcher with a cheer and a flash of his sword, full ten paces to the front he sprang–ten paces–more than half the distance between hostile lines. ‘Come on! Come on! Come on, boys!’ he shouts. The color sergeant and the brave color guard follow, and with one wild yell of anguish wrung from it’s tortured heart, the regiment charged.”
In a brilliantly executed maneuver, Chamberlain’s men charged forward and across the hill from the left wing of their line while those on the right swung with them in an extended “right wheel forward” movement. Chamberlain described the charge as having the effect of “a reaper cutting down the disconcerted foe.” Stunned, the Confederate troops in the front ranks dropped their rifles and surrendered. The rest broke and retreated toward a stone wall in their rear.
“Suddenly,” said Chamberlain, “to our mutual surprise, two scores of rifle barrels gleam over the rocks, and a murderous volley was poured in upon them at close quarters.” Captain Morrill’s lost Company B and Staughton’s wandering sharpshooters rose up out of their hiding place, and with a shout they too charged into the Confederate flank, making such a commotion that the Rebels thought they were a whole regiment. Oates described the situation: “My position rapidly became untenable. The Federal infantry were reported to be coming down on my right and certainly were closing in on my rear.” He ordered his staff officers to “return to your companies; we will sell out as dearly as possible.”
What was left of the 15th and 47th Alabama Regiments fled to Round Top. Oates collapsed while climbing the hill and might have been captured had not two of his men carried him to safety. He described the retreat simply and honestly, saying, “We ran like a herd of cattle.”
Chamberlain reported capturing 400 prisoners. In addition, 150 dead or wounded Rebels were found in his front. These numbers seem exaggerated; at least Oates thought so. He admitted that in a roll call after the battle only 223 enlisted men and half the officers (19) of his regiment responded. The 20th Maine had only 200 of 386 officers and men still effective. The Confederate assault on the south slope of Little Round Top had been repulsed.
However, the battle was not going as well on the right, where Law’s men were pushing up the west slope of Little Round Top. The 44th New York and 83rd Pennsylvania in the center stood firm against repeated attacks, but on the right, part of the 16th Michigan fell back. When Vincent saw signs of faltering by the 16th Michigan, he rushed forward and, while encouraging his men, fell, mortally wounded. He died five days later.
It appeared that the Confederate drive might succeed despite the heroic defense by the 20th Maine. Warren, on the crest of Little Round Top, received a call for immediate help. He searched for reinforcements and found Colonel Patrick H. O’Rorke and the 140th New York Regiment in the rear. These 526 men, dressed in jaunty new Zouave uniforms, scrambled up the hill. Without taking time to align ranks, O’Rorke yelled, “Down this way, boys!” and led them down the western slope. His men drove back the Confederate troops, but O’Rorke fell with the first volley, fatally hit in the neck by a Minie bullet.
By the time the Confederates could regroup, more Union reinforcements had poured into position. This discouraged further attempts by the Southerners to take Little Round Top. The golden opportunity to turn the Union left was gone. Little Round Top had been saved for the Union, and in saving Little Round Top, its courageous defenders had saved the left end of the Union line, the Battle of Gettysburg, and perhaps the entire Union.
Oates said later, “General Lee was never so close to victory as that day on Little Round Top.” And he summed it up: “There was no better regiment in the Confederate Army than the 15th Alabama, and if it failed to carry any point against which it was thrown, no other single regiment need try it. It fought hard and persistently. The other regiments of the brigade did their duty at Gettysburg, but the 15th struck the hardest knot. There never were harder fighters than the 20th Maine and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistence and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top, and the Army of the Potomac, from defeat. Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.”
Perhaps because of his showing at Gettysburg, Oates was never officially confirmed a colonel by the Confederate Congress. Instead, his command was taken over by another officer in the regiment, Major Alexander A. Lowther, who managed to formally receive his colonelcy ahead of Oates. Reduced to major, Oates was transferred to the 48th Georgia Regiment, and while leading it he was shot in the right arm in June 1864 during the Wilderness Campaign. The limb was amputated and Oates subsequently left the service. After the war he served seven terms as an Alabama congressman and one term as governor. He later served, improbably, as a brigadier general during the Spanish-American War.
As for Chamberlain, the college professor-turned-warrior survived two wounds at Little Round Top and a more serious wound 11 months later at Petersburg, where commanding general Ulysses S. Grant, thinking Chamberlain was about to die, promoted him to brigadier general on the field. Chamberlain survived that wound, as well, and had the signal honor of receiving the formal surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
Like Oates, his young opponent that memorable day, Chamberlain entered politics after the war, serving four terms as governor of Maine before returning to Bowdoin College as its president. In a sense, Chamberlain had made it full circle. A grateful Congress bestowed him with the Medal of Honor in 1893, exactly 30 years after his quick thinking and gallant action saved Little Round Top–and the Union.
Like Joshua Chamberlain, author David Cross is an “Up East” Yankee, residing in Rutland, Vt. Further reading: Harry W. Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day, or William Oates’ firsthand account, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy.
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