Big Round Top - Gettysburg Pennsylvania
Welcome to the “peak” of Big Round Top. It is really a peak, and not a “crest”, and the conical shape of Big Round Top is very distinctive. It towers 135 feet over its smaller neighbor to the north, Little Round Top, which differs in its features by having a “crest”, and not a “peak”, being more ridge-like. The two hills measure 650 feet and 785 feet respectively. The Round Tops, along with Devil’s Den are some of the more distinctive natural features of the Gettysburg Battlefield. They also generated their share of interest from both sides during the battle.
This scan was taken in the winter, so one will have to imagine what visibility of the battlefield existed at the time of the battle, two weeks after the onset of summer. With full foliage, visibility would be rather limited at best. And so it was. Nevertheless, the Army of the Potomac utilized the peak of Big Round Top as an observation and signal station during parts of the battle.
On July 2nd, At approximately 6 PM, Colonel William Oates led his 15th Alabama Regiment up the southwest face of this hill, his progress contested by a company of Colonel Hiram Berdan’s US Sharpshooters using repeating rifles. Because of their rate of fire, Oates was convinced he was facing a regiment. Just before gaining the summit, Oates “phantom regiment” disappeared. From the summit, Oates could peer out a bit to the northeast, and see a rather large wagon train sitting just off the Taneytown Road, about three quarters of a mile away. He moved his regiment down the hill, in an attempt to get to the wagons. Before he could reach them, however, his men came under fire on their left from the 20th Maine under Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. After a desperate battle, the 15th Alabama retired back up the hill and over the summit of Big Round Top. The hour was late, and darkness was starting to set in. Some of the men of the 15th went down the southwest face of the hill they had scaled hours earlier, and reaching a point of exhaustion, stopped on the lower slope and set up a “cold bivouac” in the darkness. Meanwhile, after fending off the final assault of the 15th Alabama with a bayonet charge, the 20th Maine was ordered to occupy the peak of Big Round Top. Arriving after dark, Chamberlain still threw out his skirmishers and pickets. Some of them, being challenged by the members of the 15th Alaabam in the dark, responded that they were members of the 15th Alabama, stragglers. They were invited into the camp, where they took the Confederates prisoner. The 20th Maine was relieved the morning of the 3rd, and sent to the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge….for rest!
Several Union regiments occupied the summit of the hill for the balance of the battle, but there was no more action here.
The terrain features of Big Round Top are such that it’s steep, rocky slopes prohibited the scaling of the hill by artillery or horse, though there is a report of a mounted messenger reaching Colonel Oates on the peak of Big Round Top before he descended to his meeting with the 20th Maine. It is hard to imagine a horse making the climb, as it is difficult for a person to do it. The paved paths which exist today we certainly not present during the battle. As the viewer can see by scanning around there is simply not much room on top of the hill for much more than a regiment or two, and they would be spread down the slope a distance.
While coveted by both sides during the battle, it turned out that it was more to keep the other side from using the hill, than to mount much in the way of operations from it. It became, simply, a terrain feature to cross.
W. G. Davis
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