Desperate battle for the end of the line and the turn of the flank
The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top by Boyd Vincent & The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top and Strong Vincent and His Brigade at Gettysburg July 2, 1863 by Oliver W Norton
In early July of 1863, the opposing armies of the Confederacy and the Union were inexorably drawn together for battle around the town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Initially the tactical advantage appeared to be with the advancing Lee, but an outstanding defence from the first Union troops into action, combined with delays and procrastination among the Confederate command, enabled Meade’s forces to take up strong defensive positions on rising ground. Nevertheless, Lee determined to engage in a potentially overwhelming assault, which, if successful, would open an invasion of the North and might pressure an end to the civil war. So began the momentous battle which would define the entire conflict. All commanders seek to turn the enemy flank, and, sitting upon a hill, one end of the Union Army line was destined to become famous in military history for the desperate bravery of those who assaulted it and the equally tenacious courage of those who defended it. This is the story of Little Round Top, a fascinating episode, and a battle within a battle, which immortalised the commanders, men and regiments of both sides who fought and died there. This unique Leonaur edition which includes contributions by several authors contains many useful maps and illustrations.
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This position, easy to defend and impossible to recapture, whose importance Warren alone seems to have then understood, was therefore about to fall into the hands of the enemy, without striking a blow. The young general of engineers makes a last effort to save it. He directs the officers of the signal corps, who are preparing to abandon a post without defenders, to continue waving their flags, in spite of the enemy’s fire, in order to deceive him and detain him for a few moments while he is going to ask for assistance from a body of troops whose column he sees moving along the road followed a short time since by Barnes. It is the Third brigade of Ayres’ division of the Fifth corps, under command of General Weed, and is preceding the rest of the division at a considerable distance.
Weed has gone forward in advance to ask for instructions from Sickles; but the first regiment that Warren encounters is commanded by Colonel O’Rorke, his friend and during a certain period of time his subordinate, who does not hesitate to respond to the pressing demands of his former chief. While the rest of the brigade is continuing its march, O’Rorke causes the column of the One Hundred and Fortieth New York, which, fortunately, is of considerable strength, to scale directly the acclivities of Little Round Top.
During this time, Vincent, hastening the pace of his soldiers, has reached the southern extremity of this same hill. On this side, it is not so steep as on the other sides, being prolonged by a ridge which about halfway presents a horizontal stretch of nearly one hundred yards in length, descending thence by gentle gradations as far as the foot of the large Round Top. This ridge affords an excellent position to Vincent for barring the passage to Law’s soldiers, who are rapidly advancing in his direction. He posts himself along the western slope, with the Sixteenth Michigan on the right, below the very summit of the hill, the Forty-Fourth New York and the Eighty-Third Pennsylvania in the centre, and the Twentieth Maine, under Colonel Chamberlain, on the left, along the extremity of the ridge. These troops could not have arrived more opportunely.
Hood, after being for some time held stationary by the difficulty of keeping his soldiers in the ranks under the fire of a Federal battery posted at the bottom of the gorge, has at last reached the foot of Little Round Top, which he points out to them as a prey thenceforth easily captured. A great yell goes up from the ranks of the assailants, who rush with impetuosity upon the centre of Vincent’s brigade. But upon this ground all the advantages are in favour of the defence, while the fire of the Unionists, sheltered among its inaccessible recesses, stops the. Confederates, who stumble at every step they take in their efforts to reach them. They do not turn back on that account, but, posting themselves in their turn behind the rocks, engage in a murderous encounter with Vincent’s brigade, which defends itself almost at the point of the muzzle.
Law, seeing the resistance which this small band makes in front of him, determines to turn it. He extends his left for the purpose of outflanking the Sixteenth Michigan, and attacks it with so much vigour that it cannot resist the onslaught. The situation is becoming serious for the Federals; Vincent is entirely isolated from the rest of the army, and no longer protects the principal point of the position, the summit of Little Round Top, on which the officers of the signal corps are bravely continuing to wave their colours.
At the very moment when the Sixteenth Michigan is succumbing, O’Rorke’s soldiers, by a really providential coincidence, reach at a full run this summit which Warren points out to them as the citadel to be preserved at any cost.
At their feet lies the vast battlefield, whence are heard vague noises and savage cries, the rattling of musketry, the cannon’s roar, and where all the incidents of the combat are seen through a cloud of smoke; but they have no leisure to contemplate this spectacle, for they find themselves face to face with Law’s soldiers, who are climbing the hill on the opposite side. A few minutes’ delay among the Federals would have sufficed to put the Confederates in possession of the summit. Never perhaps was seen the winner of a race secure such a prize at so little cost. The Unionists, although surprised, do not, however, hesitate. They have time neither to form in line of battle nor even to load their guns or fix bayonets. O’Rorke calls them and pushes them forward.
A large number of them fall at the fire of the enemy; the rest rush down upon the latter at a run, brandishing their muskets aloft; and this movement suffices to stop the Confederates. The Federals take prisoners those among the assailants who had been foremost in the race, and open a brisk fire of musketry upon the others. Vincent’s right, having recovered from its check, comes to their assistance. Hazlett’s battery has scaled Little Round Top, with the One Hundred and Fortieth New York; the most extraordinary efforts, together with the co-operation of a portion of the regiment, have been required to haul the pieces of artillery as far as the summit.
Although the position is very dangerous, for showers of bullets are falling around the guns, which cannot be depressed enough to reach the enemy along the slope which he is scaling, Hazlett boldly takes his position and directs his fire against the Confederate reserve in the valley; he knows that the presence of his guns encourages the Union infantry. The Federal line, thus strengthened, presents an impregnable front to Hood’s assaults; the position of Little Round Top is safe for the present. But this advantage has been dearly bought; in a few minutes the One Hundred and Fortieth New York has lost more than one hundred men, a large number of officers being wounded. The valiant O’Rorke has paid with his life for the example of bravery which he set to his soldiers. Having left West Point two years previously with the highest honours, he had been destined, in the judgment of all his comrades, for the most elevated positions in the army.
A personal and desperate struggle takes place along the whole front of the two bodies of troops. They watch each other, and aim from behind the rocks and bushes; some of the combatants are seen here and there climbing trees in order to secure a better shot; the balls whistle in every direction; two pieces of Smith’s Federal battery take the line of the assailants obliquely, throwing shells into their midst. The dead and wounded disappear among the rocks. On both sides the officers perform prodigies of valour, for they feel the importance of the disputed position. Law is not satisfied with musketry-fire, which may be prolonged without any decisive success; he wishes to pierce the enemy’s line, and brings back against the One Hundred and Fortieth New York the soldiers of his command who had been stopped by the unexpected arrival of this regiment; but Vincent, who had assumed command of the whole line, hastens with a few reinforcements and the attack is repulsed.