Today’s view of Little Round Top’s rocky slopes

On your next Gettysburg Journey, we invite you to join the fight on Little Round Top. The battle here begins on July 1st, when two commanders receive word that the armies have been engaged in battle, in the small town of Pennsylvania, named Gettysburg. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 20th Maine USA, still in Maryland with his troops, is now preparing a forced march to Gettysburg. Equally, Col. William C. Oates, 15th Alabama CSA, has just heard the news that a battle has begun, north of the Mason Dixon Line, and he urges his troops forward. Both of these officers will march their men overnight, July 1st, so they can be engaged at Gettysburg. A journey, by foot, taking hours through the night, that will take them over 10 miles, not stopping for food, water or rest. They continue ever onward toward Gettysburg. When these men arrive the next day, they will pen their pages in history during a struggle against one another, for the strategic high ground of the once peaceful hill, locals would picnic on, for its serene and beautiful views, aptly called, Little Round Top.
Photo of Col. William Oates CSA (Left) Photo of Col. Joshua Chamberlain USA (Right)

Gen. John Bell Hood CSA courtesy of Library of Congress

After a chaotic day of fighting on July 1st, both armies have settled themselves into position by the morning of July 2nd. With Cemetery Hill as the center point of the Union forces, they have taken charge of the surrounding ridges south and east of the town. The Confederate army has command of most of the town and the ridges to the north and west. After scouting the Union position, Gen. Lee sees his enemy sitting on hilltops, their line forming what almost looks like a fishhook. With his army in such mass quantity, surrounding the enemy position he sets his strategy for today’s fighting. Gen. Longstreet gives the orders to his officers and the South rallies themselves for another day for their glorious cause of freedom. Gen. John Bell Hood has been ordered to march his brash Texans across a field and take the hill of Little Round Top. After looking at the terrain himself personally he returns to Gen. Longstreet before making his attack and questions his orders. (Anyone who has seen the movie Gettysburg, will well remember how this conversation plays out in the scene from the movie. In my opinion, the film makers did a fantastic job bringing history to life. With what has been researched on this conversation, the movie scene portrays it perfectly!) Gen. Hood expresses his concern to Gen. Longstreet stating how the ground is strewn with boulders. Every move he would make with his troops will be observed by the enemy from that small rocky hill. He seeks permission to move around to the right, and take the larger hill that no one has command of yet. Placing artillery on this large hill would give the Confederates an advantage of shooting down the entire enemy line. Longstreet, who has Lee urging him forward on getting an attack underway, regrettably tells Hood he cannot change the orders that were given. These two men, having a long military career, fighting side by side, now make the conversation a bit more personal. Longstreet tells Hood, “Sam, it will take too long to place artillery on that hill. It’s heavily wooded. I can’t change these orders this time, it’s got to be the way it is.” Hood then replies, “Pete, they don’t even need guns to defend that hill, they only need to roll rocks down on us.” Longstreet pauses a moment, breathes deeply, then says “Sir, if you are ready, will you take that hill?”

Artwork sketch from 1863 of Little Round Top battle

As the Battle progresses, on the second day of fighting, Confederate troops have moved through the Peach Orchard, across the Wheatfield and are now entering Devil’s Den at the foot of Little Round Top. The front slope of Little Round Top, is far less wooded compared to the rear of the hill. This leaves the Union troops exposed to Confederate sharpshooters. Even though they are being plucked off one by one, the Federal forces at the top of the hill keep up a steady enough round of fire that Hood’s men are unable to come close to the top. Instead at the base of the hill, the area between Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, becomes known as the slaughter pen. Gen. Hood receives a serious wound in effort to take the hill with his men. Losses are heavy for the Confederates, and by the end of their assault, they are unable to seize Little Round Top.

Meanwhile, on the backside of the hill, Chamberlain has just arrived with his troops. They are immediately given their orders, being placed on the Union flank, that they are to hold to the last. Col. Chamberlain, a college professor by trade, before thrust into war, begins to ask himself a lesson in rhetoric, “hold to the last what?”. As his troops are dodging, solid shot, cannon fire that is overshooting their target of the troops on the front side of the hill, they begin to place themselves quickly, fortifying what they can, not knowing what is coming.

Coming in the Taneytown Road, Col. Oates and his men can hear the cannon fire, smell the gun smoke, and they know that they will soon be engaged in battle. As they come to the base of Little Round Top, they do not entirely know for certain if they are marching into a defending enemy or sneaking up behind the Union line. Above them, Chamberlain and his men begin to see rustling and disturbance at the bottom of the hill, and quickly the sound of the Rebel Yell hits the air as both men in blue and gray realize their fate in this battle has begun. Musket fire begins to zip through the heavily wooded rear slope of Little Round Top. As quickly as the Alabama troops rush towards the top, they fall back again. It’s a steep hill, and they now know they have enemy waiting for them. The Maine and Pennsylvania boys at the top, are disoriented and in a state of disarray, after being thrust immediately into line upon arrival to their position. Did they really see an enemy attack that quickly, in just a matter of minutes of them establishing their position? How soon will the Confederates return, or was this just a single attack? There is no way it was a single attack; the country has been engaged in war for two long years now. Of course, there will be a second attack, possibly even a third. What if there is a fourth? As their minds are racing, the next wave is preparing to break on the shore of their hastily built stone and log wall. Oates’ Alabamans barely stop to catch their breath and push up the hill, once more attempting to unhinge the Union flank from its position.

The defense of the Union’s flank is now strongly underway. As he is firing off round after round from his pistol, reloading, and shouting reinforcement orders to his men, he is receiving updates from lower officers of how many men are down, the status of ammunition, and all the while trying to keep a watchful eye on his younger brother, Chamberlain remembers his orders. “Hold to the last.” He has no time to think, barely time to process the updates, he has been given on the condition of the line he is defending. The Confederate troops are a steady wave of gray lapping at the hilltop then slowly fading downhill, and back again at a constant pace. Briefly a remark made to him by another officer flashes across his memory, “now we will see how professors fight.” How do professors fight? Professors do not fight, they teach, they instruct, they study. Study! Quickly he begins to run through the roster of information in his brain, things he has studied to be able to teach to his students. These men are no different than students. They are young boys under his direction, like students look to him for knowledge, these men look to him for orders. What orders can he give them, with little to no ammunition and a stubborn enemy refusing to give up? What can be done to hold to the last?

Oates’ men are tired and weary. They marched overnight without food, rest or most importantly water. Now they have been charging uphill at a steady pace, and it seems they are gaining no dominance over their enemy. If they can take charge of this hill, they can break the Union line. From this position they can run the Federal troops off every hilltop in town and send them back to Washington in defeat. A victory on Northern soil is exactly what the Southern cause needs! He cannot be more proud of these men. They have kept the consistent attack on this hill, without needing to be told. Rolling on their own adrenaline, they charge up further and further, not needing orders to go back again. On their own, they regroup and continue on upward refusing to give up. This time may be the final assault, this time may be when the Union line breaks. We may make it over the small defense those boys in blue have up there and this time, wait this time, what exactly are THEY doing this time????? Alabama finds themselves extremely perplexed, caught off guard and would never want to admit, but half frightened this time. On their next rush up the hill they are met face to face with Federal troops running straight for them. Who makes a charge downhill? When you are entrenched, dug in, standing your ground at the top, you never abandon your position, unless you are retreating in defeat. And there is no way these troops feel defeated, a defeated army does not run head on into their enemy. They run away hoping to not be captured. This is the oddest, strangest, most frightening thing that no soldier in the Confederate army has ever encountered before. How do they combat against this? What are their orders? There is no time for orders, running downhill is faster and more efficient then running up hill, if they do no respond in this moment at the split of a second they will be overrun and find themselves captured. No time to think, no time to respond. What is the man next to you doing? Maybe you should follow suit and do the same?

In the moment of truth, answering his own question now, “how do professors fight.” Chamberlain has given the order to fix bayonets and charged his men downhill. He felt he only had a mere five seconds to form a plan, and this is the inspired thought that came to him. With no ammunition to shoot with. Running low on men, as casualties have piled up. He felt a rush downhill towards an approaching enemy would take them by surprise, a maneuver never done before in military history, not that he knew of. But if they stayed in position it would be a literal fist fight. How many men would he lose? His numbers were already too low for what they should have been. And if they lost their position, he knew the Confederate troops would overrun the entire Union line, and that simply could not happen. He felt he had nothing to lose, and it was worth the risk and the gamble, knowing the alternative was unacceptable. Downhill his men rush, screaming as they go, bayonets glistening in the soft, green light of the sun through the trees. Much to his astonishment the Alabama forces take off running away. He truly did not have a plan or a thought of how his enemy would respond, and he is happily relieved to see them giving up. This means the fight will be over, and his troops can finally get something to eat, and some rest. As quickly as it started, the fight to defend the Union flank has ended. July 2nd now drawing to a close, history tells us that the battle is far from over here in Gettysburg.

Caitlyn Mathis

Thank you everyone for following our blog, as we enjoy so much bringing our history and research to you as often as we can. In closing of this article, we would like to take a moment and introduce you to the photographer. A young woman, a local, and also a follower of Gettysburg’s history, Caitlyn Mathis. Her and her husband have spent years of their marriage touring the Battlefield, appreciating the history and beauty of these seven thousand acres. When we met Caitlyn we very quickly saw talent in her photographic point of view. Much like the Tyson brothers in 1863, being locals to the town, took to these fields, capturing the view of the aftermath and changes left in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg, Caitlyn is on the battlefield as often as she can be, with her husband by her side, looking for the perfect perspective. She is dedicated to her passion of preserving history, taking photographs from today’s point of view, but with a reflective angle looking back on the past. I have personally been with her a few times. One becomes captivated by her viewpoint, you can see she knows the history of what happened, and is looking to step herself into the shoes of the men who fought here and capture that moment as best she can, spiritually, today to be shared with all of you. We are pleased to add this talented historical photographer to our blog team. Please enjoy future articles coming soon, all to include her photographs exclusively!