Thursday, July 4, 2013

The myth of Gettysburg's Little Round Top

Monument to the 20th Maine near the summit of 
Little Round Top, Gettysburg battlefield
On July 2, 150 years ago, one of the most heralded combat actions in US Army history took place. It was the second day of the battle of Gettysburg when the volunteers of the 20th Maine Regiment defended a hill known as Little Round Top (LRT henceforth) against the determined attacks of the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments. Other CSA regiments attacked elsewhere along the Union line.

LRT was key terrain because it sat just south of the end of the Union line which was entrenched along Cemetery Ridge, running northward from LRT to the small town of Gettysburg. "Key terrain" in military parlance is that terrain which, when occupied by a military force, affords a distinct advantage to the force possessing it. In this case, LRT afforded a comprehensive observation point over most of the battlefield, especially of Union positions, and a location from which enfilading fire could be placed upon much of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. "Enfilading" fire is when the long axis of the beaten zone (where the rounds fall) corresponds to the long axis of the target, as opposed to defilade, when most or all of the target is outside the beaten zone.

Statue of Maj Gen. Warren atop Little Round Top. 
The general was called the "Savior of the Union" by 
the northern press for recognizing the hazard if 
CSA troops had gained possession of the hill.
On July 2, the second day of the battle, Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, went to the peak of LRT to observe the battlefield and was shocked to discover that the hill was unoccupied. Spotting CSA formations maneuvering to occupy it, Warren sent an urgent notice to Col. Vincent Strong of the 1st Division, V Corps, who immediately sent a brigade to the area.

The 20th Maine wound up gaining the summit of LRT, arriving only 15-20 minutes before the Confederate regiments, who promptly attacked. The Maine troops were commanded by one of the most remarkable military figures America has ever produced. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine's commander, had no military experience or training before the war, spending his life in the bookish realm of Bowdoin College, where he taught classical studies and was an ordained minister.

Maj. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain
The battle of Little Round Top began his reputation but there was much more to come in the war for him. By war's end, he had been wounded six times. He was the only man in the Union army promoted to a higher rank (brigadier general) while a battle literally raged around him, this by Gen. Ulysses Grant at Petersburg. President Lincoln later brevetted Chamberlain to major general.

At Appomattox, Grant appointed Chamberlain to command the Union troops receiving the surrender of arms and colors from the various Confederate formations, probably the highest honor Grant could have conferred on any officer. Chamberlain went on to serve as governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College. He was somewhat belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for his command at LRT, receiving the decoration in 1893. He died in 1914 at age 85, the last Civil War soldier of either side to be counted as dying of wounds, having never fully recovered from his grievous battle wounds.

On July 2, 1863, Col. Chamberlain took 386 soldiers to the top of LRT. Within about an hour, 29 were dead, 91 wounded, and 5 missing, losses of one-third of their strength. The two CSA regiments had been repulsed with heavy losses themselves. The 20th Maine held the hill through the next day, although by then the center of the battle had shifted to the center of the Union line, where three divisions of CSA infantry attacked and were repulsed with very heavy loss. Since that day, the 20th Maine has been credited with, minimally, preventing the Union line from being turned by the Confederate troops which, it has been said for 150 years, would have meant the rout of the Union army at Gettysburg.

Had the Union lost LRT, it is universally acknowledged, none of the events of July 3 would have transpired as they actually did. The heavy losses the Army of Northern Virginia suffered on that day would not have occurred. The way instead would have been free for Gen. Robert E. Lee to advance the army toward Washington, D.C., with the battered Army of the Potomac offering only ineffectual resistance. Hence, the popular imagination holds that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine actually saved the Union itself from defeat.

Sorry, no.

In fact, a compelling case can be made that the battle for Little Round Top, for all its incredible bravery and lethality, was nothing more than a local action with little actual effect upon the battle of Gettysburg as a whole, much less upon the fate of the whole Union.

When I was finishing my military career in the 1990s, I worked for Maj. Gen. Peter Berry, a Maine native and devoted Chamberlain fan. He even had a bust of Chamberlain in his office and owned some of Chamberlain's original papers. Maj. Gen. Berry was also a close friend of one Brig. Gen. Nelson, who was the chief of military history for the whole Army. (He was a real historian, too, with a Ph.D. in the field from Princeton and published books and monographs.)

So the two generals got all us staff officers on an Army bus one day (we were stationed in Washington) and off we went to tour the Gettysburg battlefield, conducted at every point by the US Army's chief of military history, which would seem to me to be as about an authoritative docent as you could get. Brig. Gen. Nelson explained early on that as a Nebraska native, he had no apologist position for either side.

As we stood near the Warren statue at Little Round Top, Brig. Gen. Nelson explained the course of the action there and then why it didn't matter much in the outcome of the battle. The terrain at the time was  wooded. The summit of the hill was mostly cleared, but there was no road up the hill and the ground was still timbered in many places and generally very rough. Nelson pointed out that although LRT enfiladed the southern half of the Union line, small arms fire against the Union lines would have been wholly ineffective because of the engagement distances. Had the Confederates taken LRT, Nelson said, they would have had excellent observation of the disposition of Union formations, which would have been a real advantage.

But the Union commander, Gen. George Meade, would have adjusted his tactics and lines accordingly and almost certainly would have sent troops to attack LRT. A larger hill nearby, called Round Top (later, Big Round Top) was already in Union hands (though fighting for its possession continued until the next day). Artillery atop that hill could have effectively bombarded CSA troops on LRT, also.

No, said Nelson, the only way LRT could have afforded the CSA a location from which to inflict actual damage upon Union forces was artillery fire upon the Union line. But that would have required the Confederates to clear perhaps hundreds of yards of wooded terrain, irregular and rough, all uphill, then drag the cannon and ammunition up. This would have been no easy task as an exercise, but in actual combat, under fire or attack, probably could not have been accomplished at all and would have taken well into July 3 to get done at in any event. And Lee could not have afforded to wait on it.

Bottom Line: the battle of LRT has remained in the public imagination as a decisive action of the whole war. But in fact, its outcome more likely than not did not affect even the outcome of the battle. Here is an interactive, chronological map of the Gettysburg battle. A clip from the movie, "Gettysburg," which shows the 20th Maine's final, desperate and successful attempt to stave off defeat, is below.


And finally, speaking of things Civil War, there is the fabled "rebel yell." The largest Civil War veterans reunion ever held was at Gettysburg on the battle's 50th anniversary in 1913. More than 50,000 Civil War veterans of both armies attended, though not all had fought at Gettysburg, of course.

One story of the 1913 reunion I read said that when thousands of the Southern veterans lined up before Cemetery Ridge and together wailed out the rebel yell, a loud moan of despair arose from the Union veterans on the ridge. PTSD?

The elderly Confederate line advanced at a walk while the Union veterans crouched behind the stone wall of The Angle and other places along the old defensive line. No one else made a sound. When the two formations were only a dozen feet apart, suddenly all semblance of old military discipline was broken and the former enemies embraced and shook hands and slapped each others' backs.

There is a recording, purportedly of an elderly Confederate veteran giving the rebel yell. His name was Thomas Alexander of the 35th North Carolina Regiment, who made the recording in 1935 for a radio station at a regimental reunion. Here is the recording, followed by a contemporary digital special-effects manipulation of Alexander's yell to emulate that of a whole infantry company.

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