Behind The Stonewall

Little Round Top (On The Summit) - Gettysburg Pennsylvania



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Using the tall monument as a reference point, the viewer is looking almost due south, and in the background, can clearly see the conical peak of Big Round Top.  In addition to its height, some 135 feet higher than where the viewer is standing, the major difference is in the shape of the summit of the two hills.  Though rocky, and precarious, the summit of Little Round Top is a “crest” or ridge-like formation, while the summit of Big Round Top clearly shows a “peak” configuration. 

During the late afternoon of July 2nd, 1863, Little Round Top was the focus of an assault by the troops of Major General John Bell Hood’s Division, of James Longstreet’s First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia.  Not the original objective for Hood, the presence of the Union Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps under Major General Daniel E. Sickles in a forward position west of Houck’s Ridge, to the Emmitsburg Road at the Peach Orchard, and north along that road nearly to the Codori Farm, forced Hood’s assault more to the east, and thus, eventually onto the slopes of Little Round Top.  Forming a “Line of Battle” nearly a mile-and-a-half to the southwest, astride the Emmitsburg Road on the lower portion of Warfield Ridge, Hood’s Brigades (those of Brigadier Generals Evander M. Law, J. B. Robertson, George T. Anderson, and Henry L. Benning) stepped off about 4:30 PM.  Nearly at the start, General Hood was wounded, and taken to a hospital on the west side of Warfield Ridge.   Law, who wouldn’t find out about it until nearly 40 minutes later, succeeded him in command of the division.  At that point, he was busy making sure his own brigade was lined up properly, and ready for their meeting with the Union defenses.  As a result, Law exercised little control over the opening phases of the battles.  His brigade would do the bulk of the fighting in the “Slaughter Pen” below Devil’s Den, and on the southern approaches to Little Round Top. 

Union Brigadier General Gouveneur K. Warren, Chief of Engineers for Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac, spent a considerable amount of time on Little Round Top during the afternoon of July 2nd.  If the viewer will pan around 180 degrees, his statue becomes visible silhouetted against the sky.  It was from this approximate position that Warren first thought he saw the approach of Hood’s brigades.  By his own account, he thought he saw movement in the woods to the southwest, and to verify it, he ordered a round fired into those woods by the battery of Captain James Smith, 4th New York Artillery, which was located with Ward’s Brigade on top of Devil’s Den.  At the approach of the shot, the Confederates turned, and Warren was able to pick them out by the glint of the sun’s reflection on the barrels of their rifles.  While Warren should have been able to see nearly all of Hood’s Division on its approach to Little Round Top, for there were far fewer trees in between this hill and Warfield Ridge, there were some trees, and it is possible that Hood’s Division stepped of before Warren gained his vantage point.  Regardless, Warren realized the left flank of the Army of the Potomac, which should have been Sickles’ Corps stretched south from a point a quarter mile north of Little Round Top, was actually Ward’s Brigade of that Corps, and it was situated on top of Houck’s Ridge, (over Devil’s Den) approximately a half-mile to the southwest, directly in the path of Hood’s Division.  Recognizing the danger to the flank, Warren immediately sent for help.  Intercepting his messenger, Colonel Strong Vincent, commanding the Third Brigade, of the First Division (Barnes), of Major General George Sykes’ Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, and immediately grasping the significance of the orders, informed the messenger that he would take his brigade up onto Little Round Top.  He deployed his brigade, starting just below the crest on the west face of the hill, from north to south, the 16th Michigan, the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the 20th Maine.  The regiments formed a thin line which wrapped around the southwest curve of the hill, with the 83rd Pennsylvania and the 20th Maine generally facing south.  It would be a close-run thing, with the regiments getting into position only minutes before the first Confederate soldiers made their appearance, and it would be from the south, where Colonel William Oates 15th Alabama, (Law’s Brigade) having scaled Big Round Top from south to north, would take fire from the 20th Maine, and turn and charge them.  On the left of that unit was the 47th Alabama (Law’s Brigade) and they would assault the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the right of the 20th Maine.  The 4th Alabama (Law’s Brigade) would join on the left of the 47th Alabama and assault the 44th New York’s defenses, while the 5th Texas (Robertson’s Brigade) joined them.  The 4th Texas (Robertson’s Brigade) formed on their left and assaulted the 16th Michigan.  Joining Vincent’s Brigade on the crest was Battery D, 5th United States Artillery under the command of Captain Charles Hazlett.  The terrain on Little Round Top is rugged enough that even General Warren dismounted and helped the artillerist and infantry manhandle the gun carriages and caissons over the boulders and up onto the crest.  The pressure applied by the 4th Texas on the right flank of the 16th Michigan was such that the entire brigade was in peril of being cut off.  Warren rode down the north slope of the hill in an effort to find help.  He found it in the Third Brigade, Second Division of Sykes, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac.  Commanded by Brigadier General Steven H. Weed, the brigade consisted of the 140th New York, 146th New York, the 91st Pennsylvania and the 155th Pennsylvania regiments.  Weed ordered Colonel Patrick O’Rorke to take his 140th New York and race ahead to provide the first bit of help.  Moving his men quickly up the north slope of Little Round Top, O’Rorke hastily formed the regiment at the top, and without pause, pressed forward in a counter charge aimed at the 4th Texas.  It was successful, but it cost the gallant O’Rorke his life.  The rest of Weed’s Brigade came up, and extended Vincent’s line northward along the western face of Little Round Top. 

 Near dusk, the Confederate troops which had fought their way north across the Wheatfield, and some of those which had battled their way past the Union defenses at the Peach Orchard, arrived just west of Plum Run near the Wheatfield Road.  The First Brigade (Colonel William McCandless) of the Pennsylvania Reserves (Brigadier General Samuel Wiley Crawford’s Third Division, of Vth Corps, Army of the Potomac) formed north of Weed’s Brigade, and advanced down the slope astride the Wheatfield Road, sweeping the Confederate forces out of Plum Run Valley, and back across the Wheatfield, which became a “no-mans-land” for the night.  The battle for Little Round Top was over, and the Union’s left flank was safe.   

W. G. Davis

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