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Last Assault on Little Round Top

By Glenn W. LaFantasie
1/11/2019 • MHQ Magazine

Chamberlain’s famous charge didn’t win the day— or battle—for the Federals. Had a final Confederate attack on the hill succeeded, the outcome at Gettysburg might have been different.

The fight for Little Round Top on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, has become one of the most popular stories from the Civil War. Most accounts focus on the heroic actions of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Infantry in beating back repeated Confederate assaults and then counterattacking the enemy when all seemed lost. Other versions of the story emphasize the efficient work of Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, the Union army’s chief of engineers, who hurried Federal troops to the undefended hilltop in the nick of time.

Older histories without fail underscore the brave efforts of Colonel Strong Vincent, Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett, and Brig. Gen. Stephen Weed. All of them died in the desperate defense of the hill against waves of determined Texans and Alabamians sent by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to turn the left flank of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac that terrible afternoon.

Yet the story of the final phase of the fight for Little Round Top, which took place along the northwestern slope of the hill and across a valley that would later be called the Valley of Death, has not received much attention from historians. Perhaps this is because the climax took place just as the main fighting, off along the southern and southwestern faces of the hill, was sputtering to a conclusion. Or perhaps the efforts of the Pennsylvania Reserves and the other Union regiments that held back the last Confederate assault that day never quite captured the imagination of writers and historians who looked more admiringly to the colorful drama and human pathos offered by the likes of Chamberlain, Warren, Vincent, and O’Rorke.

Whatever the reason for this neglect, the final act on Little Round Top deserves to be told, if only because of its significance in the overall battle. It ensured that the hill commanding the Union line along Cemetery Ridge would not be captured by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and would remain in the possession of Union forces for the remainder of the three-day battle. In the end, the finale of Little Round Top made its own formidable contribution to the Union victory at Gettysburg.

After nearly three hours of fighting that afternoon—some of it hand-to-hand, all of it bloody and deadly—along the rocky slopes and cragged crest of the hill, the outcome on Little Round Top was still in doubt as twilight settled over the battlefield. Sporadic firing continued as the light waned. The acrid smell of battle smoke still lingered, thick enough in some places to choke a man if he breathed too deeply, and the aroma of death, sickeningly sweet and foul, was wending its way across the broken battlefield. The landscape around the Round Tops had become a veritable theater of death. And the drama was not yet over.

The Confederates still had more work to do. Longstreet’s forces had successfully taken Devil’s Den and the ridges and woods around it, the Peach Orchard, and a long section of the Emmitsburg Road. While their attack had slowed and lost most of its punch in the twilight, they still threatened to overrun the remaining Union defenses near the Wheat Field, along the center of Cemetery Ridge, and along the northern ridges of Little Round Top. Despite all the death and all the bloodshed that had taken place on the hill that afternoon, the Union’s repulse of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s brigades had not fully secured the position against capture by the Confederates.

The tattered but determined remnants of the brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes, and Brig. Gen. William T. Wofford from Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ division, and some Georgians from Brig. Gen. George T. “Tige” Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division—the Southern troops who had so effectively demolished Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ salient and driven their far-more-numerous foes back in retreat—were now moving in the direction of Little Round Top. But the hill looked ominous as the daylight ebbed. It was, said Captain George Hillyer of the 9th Georgia, “the strongest natural position I ever saw.”

To meet this threat, the Union commanders had set up some formidable obstacles. More guns had been moved up to defend Little Round Top, namely Captain Frank C. Gibbs’ Battery L, 1st Ohio Light Artillery, which placed one section to the right of Hazlett’s battery and south of the Wheat Field Road on the north slope of Little Round Top, and the other two sections north of the road, overlooking the Valley of Death. Other batteries lined up to the right of Gibbs’ battery, including Battery C, 1st New York Light Artillery, commanded by Captain Almont Barnes, and the 3rd Massachusetts Battery, under Lieutenant Aaron F. Walcott.

The ground, broken and rocky, was not suited for artillery placement. Gibbs and his men had to get the Little Round Top section into place by hand, although their efforts required less herculean labor than Hazlett’s gun crews had earlier performed that afternoon when artillery pieces had been manhandled up to the crest of the hill.

Major General George Sykes, commander of the V Corps, also ordered his 3rd Division, consisting of two infantry brigades of Pennsylvania Reserves under the command of Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford, to assist Vincent’s and Weed’s V Corps brigades on Little Round Top. These Pennsylvania Reserves, who were itching to defend their home state, had been detached from duty manning the defenses of Washington, D.C., on June 25. The veterans of the Army of the Potomac regarded these reservists with disdain, but the Pennsylvanians were determined to prove their prowess as fighting men in this crucial campaign against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, fought on their native soil.

Yet Crawford’s division had been marching since the early morning of July 1 with only a few hours’ rest. “Pretty hard this,” admitted one veteran of the Pennsylvania Reserves, but the weary men—understanding that the emergency was pressing, and forgetting the want of much-needed sleep and food and rest—pushed forward eagerly toward what they knew must be a bloody battle.

Crawford, also a native of Pennsylvania, had only been in command of the Reserves since May. He was rather an odd duck. A graduate of the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania, Crawford had served in the old army as an assistant surgeon. Stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861 when the fortress was besieged by Confederate forces, he witnessed the outbreak of the war and apparently decided to join in the fight, not as a medical officer but as an infantry commander.

After Sumter, Crawford sought his first infantry assignment and received a commission as major of the 13th U.S. Regiment. In the spring of 1862, he received his brigadier general’s star and commanded a brigade at Cedar Mountain, Virginia; at Antietam, where he was wounded, he led both a brigade and a division in the XII Corps. After recuperating, he was given command of the Pennsylvania Reserves in Washington.

Ambitious and petulant, he yearned for recognition and advancement. He was solemn and stern: His bulging pale-blue eyes were not so much piercing as they were earnest; yet his high forehead, Roman nose, and positively wild mutton chops that framed his narrow face gave him a comedic, clownish appearance that he must not have fathomed. How anyone gazing upon those ridiculously bushy sideburns could ever have taken him seriously is beyond twenty-first-century comprehension. For the rest of his life, the contentious Crawford took on the world, trying to prove that his Pennsylvania Reserves deserved all the credit for saving Little Round Top from the clutches of the enemy.

Given his burning desire for the main chance, Crawford was not about to waste an opportunity like the one offered him at Gettysburg. When Meade ordered Sykes to bring his V Corps to Sickles’ assistance, Crawford trailed behind Barnes’ 1st Division and Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres’ 2nd Division of regulars. Almost getting lost on the way to the battlefield, the two brigades of the Pennsylvania Reserves finally managed to find the northern slopes of Little Round Top, where Crawford received an order to send one of his brigades as reinforcements for Vincent’s and Weed’s brigades. He dispatched the brigade under Colonel Joseph W. Fisher to aid Vincent, while he retained one regiment of Fisher’s brigade—the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves—to remain with Colonel William McCandless’ brigade along the northern slopes of the hill.

Crawford deployed his regiments in two lines, with the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves in the first line on the far left, just below and to the right of Gibbs’ artillery section, the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves in the center, and the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves on the right. In the second line, the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves took position on the left, and the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves on the right. To the immediate right of Crawford’s flank were the two sections of Gibbs’ battery, and to the right of Gibbs’ guns was the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Division of the VI Corps. Although Colonel McCandless was technically in command of the 1st Brigade, Crawford later said that the colonel “was not to be found… until all was over,” so the general assumed direct command of the regiments.

Somehow the 98th Pennsylvania, which belonged to the 3rd Brigade and to Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, became confused during the approach to the battlefield and found itself detached from its brigade and standing to the left rear of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves. Despite this anomaly of a lone VI Corps regiment taking up a position beside the Pennsylvania Reserves, the Federal defensive line was rock solid. The Confederates, moving forward in their irregular lines, would have a difficult time breaking through this wall of fresh Union troops. In the distance, the Pennsylvanians could see the last vestiges of the sun that one trooper described as “a dull, red ball of fire” sinking below the smooth, rounded peaks of South Mountain.

But the enemy was moving forward with “impetuous speed” toward Little Round Top, their “waving swords and glittering bayonets” somehow still visible in the gathering dusk, Evan Morrison Woodward of the 2nd Reserves recalled later in a letter. The Confederate advance aroused concern not only among the infantry, who could only wait for the enemy to close in, but among Gibbs’ gunners as well. A favorite story later told by the Pennsylvania Reserves, and especially among the men in Company K of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves—a company made up of Adams County boys from in and around the borough of Gettysburg who were truly fighting for their homes and families this day—concerned an artillery officer of German descent (as many of these fellows in Company K were themselves) who came up to them, raving and cursing, fearful that his guns would be captured. “Dunder und blixen,” cried the officer, “don’t let dem repels took my batteries!” Colonel Samuel Jackson of the 11th Reserves told him to doubleshot his guns, hold his position, “and we would see to their safety.” Along the line, the infantrymen hollered to the battery officer, “Stand by your guns, Dutchy, and we will stand by you.”

No sooner had Crawford gotten his line in order and told his men to lie down than the Confederate skirmishers came into sight, followed by thick columns, although the mass of enemy troops looked to be in considerable disarray. Between Crawford and the oncoming enemy, however, were retreating regulars from Ayres’ divisions, who had been earlier placed in position for a brief time to the right of Weed’s brigade (and adjacent to Gibbs’ battery section) on the northern slopes of Little Round Top and then sent forward into the fight for the Wheat Field. Driven back by the Confederates, the regulars—who had lost fifty percent of their men—now came streaming toward the safety of the rear, if they could only find the rear.

Coming off the field, they passed through Crawford’s newly formed lines. “The Regulars,” wrote an officer in the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (also known as the “Bucktails”), “came back stumbling over us as we lay hugging the ground closely to avoid the shower of bullets.” Already enemy bullets were bringing down some of the reservists, despite their efforts to stay low. Crawford reported that “the plain to my front was covered with fugitives from all divisions, who rushed through my lines and along the road to the rear.” Broken regiments, he said, “came back in disorder, and without their arms, and for a moment all seemed lost.” Another reservist, later wounded in the battle, described the retreating Regulars as “running like sheep.”

Colonel Jackson of the 11th Reserves asked Crawford if he could order his regiment to open fire. “Not yet, Colonel,” said Crawford, “the way is not clear of our own troops.” While the Pennsylvanians waited, they loaded their smoothbore muskets with extra charges of buckshot. Waiting the moment when the field of fire would be clear—minutes that seemed interminable to Crawford and his men—the reservists watched as the enemy advanced farther toward the battle lines of the Pennsylvania Reserves, with the enemy skirmishers almost reaching the base of the hill.

It is possible—given the shambles in which the Confederates and the retreating regulars found themselves, and the great difficulty in distinguishing friend from foe in the deepening twilight—that the Confederates actually swept up a short distance on the hillside. Major Henry D. McDaniel of the 11th Georgia, one of Tige Anderson’s regiments, reported that his men “vigorously pressed” the retreating Union regulars “to the very foot of the mountain, up the sides of which the enemy had fled in the greatest confusion.” Captain Hillyer, in the 9th Georgia, agreed that his men reached as far as “the base of the mountain.” Private Thomas Ware of the 15th Georgia, a unit from Brig. Gen. Henry L. Benning’s brigade, said that “at the foot of the mountain the engagement became general & fierce” and lasted, he thought, until about eight o’clock, that is, until after dark.

To Colonel Jackson, it seemed as if nothing could stop the Confederates; in fact, they looked to him like an “irresistible mass of living gray.” The Pennsylvanians, however, held their places and did not flinch, despite the enemy onslaught. “Most gallantly did the brave fellows dispute the ground,” wrote E.M. Woodward.

Through the valley echoed the Rebel Yell as the enemy advanced, already triumphant and expecting complete victory. Woodward described the scene: “Our battery to the right belched forth its sheets of flame and smoke, hurling its missiles of death over the heads of the flying mass into the enemy. Immovable and firm stood the Reserves, resting on their arms.”

But the Confederate attack was already losing steam, although it did not seem so to the waiting Pennsylvanians. In nearly total disarray, exhausted and with little order to their ranks, the butternut waves lapped forward with fierce determination, but with little power. Still, their rifle fire was deadly. In Crawford’s lines, men were being wounded by the enemy bullets that sprayed the front ranks of the reservists. If the Federals waited any longer to return the Confederate fire, this would quickly become a spot too hot to stay in, and the Union defenses might fold under pressure.

Other Union troops were restraining the Confederates, however. Even while Crawford held back his musket fire, Gibbs’ battery opened fire with canister that cut through the advancing Rebels like a scythe. Captain Hillyer of the 9th Georgia could not keep his men going forever: “Our little band, now thinned and exhausted by three and a half hours’ constant fighting, made a gallant attempt to storm the batteries, but the enemy being again heavily re-enforced, we were met by a storm of shot and shell, against which, in our worn-out condition, we could not advance.”

If his men had not been so fatigued, and if the rest of McLaws’ division could have advanced with them, he later wrote, “we would have carried the position.” Major McDaniel of the 11th Georgia agreed. “Nothing but the exhausted condition of the men,” he wrote, “prevented them from carrying the heights.”

Finally, the battered U.S. Regulars finished limping through Crawford’s line, and the front was cleared for action. Crawford, filled with energy and longing to get into the fight, ordered his regiments to open fire up and down the line. Orders flew from regiment to regiment, and from company to company. The men stood up, raised their muskets to their shoulders, and squeezed the triggers. From the ranks of the Pennsylvania Reserves exploded two tremendous volleys that tore through the approaching Rebels. It was, in itself, wrote Confederate Thomas Ware, “a fatal blow.”

Some men had not waited for the order to fire. Lieutenant Frank Bell saw an enemy infantryman closing in on one of Gibbs’ cannons, so he raised his pistol and shot the man at close range. The musket fire forced the Confederates to “halt and hesitate.” Smoke filled the valley, screening the Rebels.

Riding a spirited blood bay horse, Crawford found himself next to the color guard of the 1st Reserves. He leaned over and seized hold of the flagstaff, but the color bearer, Corporal Swope, refused to let the general have them. “I can’t give you my colors,” Swope said. Crawford, with some annoyance, replied: “Don’t you know me? I am your general. Give me your colors.” The corporal gave up the colors, but he insisted on grabbing the general’s pants leg and holding on, hoping, one supposes, that by so doing he could stay near his cherished flag and protect it from any harm.

The general, firmly gripping the colors and holding them high, rode a short distance to the front of the reserve brigade, accompanied by several officers and two or three mounted orderlies, one of whom carried the division flag aloft. Crawford ordered an immediate advance, crying out, “Forward, Reserves!”

With a “simultaneous shriek from every throat, that sounded as if coming from a thousand demons, who had burst their lungs in uttering it,” boasted one veteran, “on swept the Reserves.” The brigade “advanced in gallant style,” wrote Colonel McCandless, who seems to have been with his regiment after all, and soon “charged at a full run down the hillside and across the plain, driving the advancing masses of the enemy back.” The enemy was wiped from the hillside and pushed relentlessly across the level ground and a marshy field, where Plum Run divided the plain and served as an obstacle to both the retreating Confederates and the pursuing Federals. Beyond the marsh and creek, a high grassy hill rose up before the charging Pennsylvanians, but they scaled it with relative ease and continued pushing the enemy back through a belt of woods and toward the open space of the Wheat Field.

When the order to charge was given, the Bucktails (13th Pennsylvania Reserves) were still in the process of forming their lines. Seeing the regiments on their right preparing for an advance, the Bucktails moved forward “in a somewhat broken line,” as one Pennsylvanian remembered, “but when they received the order to charge every one of those veteran soldiers quickly found his place, and as if by magic they presented a solid and unbroken line to the enemy.” According to this soldier, the enemy had advanced so far up the slopes of Little Round Top before the Pennsylvania Reserves began their counterattack that the Bucktails had to grapple, hand-to-hand, with the Confederates as the brigade moved forward.

The struggle, however, “lasted but a short time,” the soldier said, and the Rebels retired quickly from the hillside in confusion. The Bucktails followed on the heels of the retreating enemy and took many prisoners as the regiment swept across the shallow valley to a stone wall on the edge of the Wheat Field.

There, the Confederates attempted a final stand. But the momentum of the Pennsylvania Reserves was overwhelming. One of the Bucktails marveled at the Rebels’ “desperate courage that animated them upon every field. But,” he said, “it was on Pennsylvania soil we were fighting.” So on went the Union flag toward the wall. Three standard bearers were brought down, but the Federals advanced steadily and with grim determination.

The Pennsylvanians rushed the stone wall and drove the enemy from its shelter. Some of Crawford’s men ran far beyond the wall, chasing the Confederates into the Wheat Field itself, but the general called them back, not wanting to overextend his troops or push his luck. Arriving at the stone wall on his bay mount, Crawford discovered that the corporal from the color guard—the man who had grabbed hold of his pant leg— was still beside him clutching his trousers. The Pennsylvanians realized their success and let loose with “one loud shout of victory [that] ran through the valley, and over the hills,” Woodward wrote.

During the attack, the second line of the Reserves—consisting of the 13th Reserves and the 2nd Reserves—had been led to the left, while the front line attacked nearly straight ahead across the valley. These Bucktails advanced far beyond the point reached by Crawford’s first line; ahead of the other regiments, the Pennsylvanians suffered from a galling enemy volley into the regiment’s right-center. Meanwhile, recalled one veteran of the Bucktails, “the smoke had settled so thickly in the valley that our gunners on the crest could not see where we were, and could not tell when to stop firing.” As a result, “shells from our own cannon were cutting the timber overhead….An unlucky shell struck the fence and exploding wounded half a dozen of our men.”

In the middle of this chaos, Colonel Charles Frederick Taylor, much admired among the Bucktails, discovered a small contingent of Confederates, some two hundred or three hundred men, firing from a nearby stand of timber. A Federal officer demanded their surrender, and most of the Southerners threw down their muskets. But one man, toward the rear of the ranks, shouted, “I’ll never surrender to a corporal’s guard.”

At that oath, his comrades picked up their muskets again and opened fire. A lieutenant in the Bucktails told his men to find cover behind any available tree. Before Colonel Taylor could find shelter, a Confederate bullet found him. He fell to the ground, a bullet in the heart.

Corporal Aaron Baker ran to his side and gave the colonel a sip of water. But blood gurgled out of Taylor’s mouth as he tried to speak. Baker thought the colonel was saying, “Mum, Mum,” as the corporal wrote in a letter to Annie Taylor a few days after the battle. Less than two minutes later, Taylor died. The Bucktails poured several volleys into the Confederates and again demanded their surrender. About fifty enemy soldiers threw down their weapons, and the remaining Confederates bounded toward safety within their own lines. Worried that Rebel troops might outflank them, the Bucktails retired to the protection of the stone wall at the edge of the Wheat Field, where Crawford had halted the first assaulting line of the Reserves.

While the Bucktails moved to the left during the assault, so too did the 98th Pennsylvania, which joined Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserves in the counterattack. As the reserves stepped off to their right, the men of the 98th Pennsylvania sent up “a ringing cheer” and “swept down the face of the hill, meeting the rebels as they came pushing forward.” The line of the 98th crumbled into disorder as the regiment’s companies pursued the retreating Confederates. Eventually the regiment reached the stone wall where Crawford had halted the advance, and the work of the 98th Pennsylvania was over.

No one among the driving Pennsylvanians was more enthusiastic than the boys from Adams County in Company K, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, who helped push the Confederate advance back across the valley. These local boys had, according to one veteran, “chased many a rabbit all over these hills, and gathered berries in these valleys, [and] played ‘hide and seek’ among these rocks and boulders.” Now they dashed toward the enemy, crossed the marshy ground along Plum Run, and advanced toward the Wheat Field. They swept the retiring Confederates from their front with admirable courage and determination. The Confederates retreated without stopping much to fire their muskets.

Scattered musket fire continued to crackle in the timber near the Wheat Field, along the crest of Houck’s Ridge, among the rocks of Devil’s Den, in the tangled woods on the northern shoulder of Big Round Top, across the wide expanse of valley through which Plum Run flowed, and up and down the rocky and wooded slopes of Little Round Top. Even darkness did not end the sporadic fire.

But as night closed over Little Round Top, the serious fighting had ended for the day. Finally it could be said that the hill had been saved for the Union and that the Confederate assault had been halted. The cost could not be reckoned immediately, but in the end the grim numbers told only part of the story. The fight for this little hill had revealed a more intense brutality—a more feverish bloodletting—than these soldiers, some of them hardened veterans, had so far witnessed in this terrible war. Both armies did no more desperate fighting than they did across the approaches and on the slopes of Little Round Top. They had learned already—at Manassas, the Peninsula, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville—that war soils everything that it touches and strangles the life out of the men who wage it.

But at Little Round Top the Union and Confederate soldiers who fought for possession of the hill also learned another lesson. The joy of victory and the heartbreak of defeat last only fleeting moments. What remains, after the troops’ emotions have run their swift and pointless course, are the lonely dead. The survivors of the battle only needed to look around them as the darkness fell. The angel of death had done fearsome work at Little Round Top that day.

 

GLENN W. LAFANTASIE is the author of Twilight at Little Round Top (Wiley, 2005), from which this article is adapted, and Gettysburg Requiem: The Life of William C. Oates (Oxford, 2006). He recently joined the history department at Western Kentucky University.

Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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