Mapping Little Round Top: A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg

Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for that action. How many men can say that they saved the Union on one moment's decision? Okay, fine. How many Christian rhetoricians can claim that?

Chamberlain was a great man, and congratulations to those Mainers for their actions on July 2, 1863.

Posted by Casey Klahn at July 2, 2013 10:41 AM

Chamberlain saved the Union? Nope.

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.

MG Berry was also a close friend of a brigadier general, whose name IIRC was 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 us all on an Army green 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.

BG Nelson explained early on that as a Nebraska native, he had no apologist position for either side.
Atop Little Round Top, he explained the course of the action and then why it didn't matter much in the outcome of the battle. The terrain at the time was heavily wooded. Although LRT enfiladed the southern half of the Union line, small arms fire against them would have been wholly ineffective.

Had the CSA taken LRT, Nelson said, they could not have exploited it except through artillery fire upon the Union line. But that would have required them to clear hundreds of yards of heavily 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 probably could not have been accomplished at all and would have taken well into July 3 to get done at all. But Lee could not have afforded to wait on it.

As well Meade would have certainly adjusted his lines. Fighting on the adjacent Big Round Top continued into July 3 under any event, and Union efforts to exploit their hold on it to bring fire on a CSA-occupied LRT would have been redoubled.

Bottom Line: the battle of LRT has remained in the public imagination as a decisive action of the whole war. But in fact, it's outcome almost certainly did not affect even the outcome of the battle.

BG Nelson also explained why the South lost the battle: Lee just plain got beat by Meade, outgeneraled and outfought. And that seems correct to me.

It is probably worth noting that Meade had been in command of the Army of the Potomac for only five days by the battle's start. He was that army's final commander, leading it for the rest of the war. (Grant was never named as Meade's successor. Grant was the overall commander of all Union armies in the field anywhere. He simply decided to make his headquarters travel with Meade rather than stay in Washington.)

Posted by Donald Sensing at July 2, 2013 2:42 PM

Chamberlain received a lawful order, he carried out that order, and he exceeded his command's highest expectations.

Sounds kind of, I don't know, sublime, to me...

Lee won a string of magnificent victories by splitting his forces and attacking the Federals where they were weak, or encouraging them to attack him in prepared positions. But up until Gettysburg he almost always possessed a better appreciation of terrain and conditions on the battlefield greater than that enjoyed by his opponents, and in his Corps commanders had superbly capable subordinates that almost unfailingly employed initiative correctly where their orders permitted.

He arrived on the Gettysburg battlefield blind and with the engaged portion of his army operating dead opposite their standing orders.

His orders to Ewell on the first, to take the heights south of Gettysburg "if possible" should have been appended with directions that in the event he could not take the heights, he was to report so, and then the priority would be to disengage by night and concentrate with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at some spot chosen by Lee.

It is a given that Lee had to be daring. The entire invasion was about bleeding the Union bad enough to force a crisis of political will resulting in a negotiated peace. In the absence of any decent intelligence on the composition of the Federal forces and no prospect in sight of receiving any he should have stopped the fight once it became clear he would not have any sort of favorable ground at all to fight from on the second.

Lee had to reason to hope the breaks would go his way. On the occasion of the Battle of Gettysburg, not much went his way at all. Murphy rules all battlefields.

Posted by TmjUtah at July 2, 2013 5:25 PM

I was fortunate enough to tour the Gettysburg battlefield with other members of the 24th Infantry Division staff when we were up from Fort Stewart to evaluate the Penna Nat'l Guard at Ft Indiantown Gap back in the early '90s.

We were able to take a day trip to Gettysburg and one of the Majors from the G3 office was a bit of a historian and quite knowledgeable of the battle there.

If you EVER get a chance to walk that battlefield, do it. Be sure to get someone familiar with the battle, of course.

We started at the Railroad Cut and walked & drove through the various parts of the battle to Pickett's Charge and Cemetery Ridge.

It was quite a moving experience.

Posted by OldFert at July 2, 2013 5:33 PM

Walk out of the woods just south of the Lutheran Seminary and look East across that field at the big oak tree on the ridge across the way.

Do it on a hot, still, summer afternoon.

You will hear them if you listen close... and the rumble in the distance that never stops... just waxes and wanes.

It is a very special place. We haven't honored the sacrifice they made there these last fifty years or so. Lincoln was right. We'll suicide before any outsider takes this land.

Posted by TmjUtah at July 2, 2013 5:39 PM

Lacking a Major General as a tour guide, get the CD for the driving tour; it is excellent. By the time you get to Pickett's Charge you will have some clue of the desperation, futility, and bravery of that maneuver.

Posted by Cris at July 2, 2013 5:57 PM

I just found your blog and I think it's great. I'm putting you in my blogroll or links and I hope you don't mind.

Posted by The Daily Smug at July 2, 2013 6:05 PM

Two of my great-great-grandfathers were in the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg-- not in the 20th Maine but in one of the German-speaking Pennsylvania regiments. When I was a kid growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, the annual Scout troop trip to Gettysburg was an event we all looked forward to. The church camp I attended each summer was only about ten miles from the battlefield, and it was not hard to imagine during evening worship on a hillside looking south toward Maryland, that you could hear some ghostly voices joining in the hymn singing.

Posted by PA Cat at July 2, 2013 6:56 PM

Gerard's selection of the link is outstanding. So, too, the comments. It's always a good day when you can learn more about our history.

Posted by Jimmy J. at July 2, 2013 7:32 PM

With deference to you, Donald, and the good general who toured you through the battle, I still don't see why the reb inf couldn't have "rolled-up" the flank after succeeding on LRT.

I'm always wary of any lecture that says "couldn't have." I agree that BRT was still in play, and direct fire was not possible from LRT to BRT. Maneuver was always a possibility, though, and the moral factor is in play.


Casey Klahn

Posted by Casey Klahn at July 2, 2013 8:04 PM

Second the moral factor.

By 1863 the Army of the Potomac was ready to win, not just fight. They had finally worked through enough poor generals to have a chance.

Posted by TmjUtah at July 2, 2013 8:49 PM


The Left always says there is no glory.

The Left always lies.

Posted by Mikey NTH at July 2, 2013 8:54 PM

The War Between the States ended one great evil, and begat another. I don't think we will overcome this one. I'm done celebrating. Tomorrow is Dependence Day.

Posted by james wilson at July 2, 2013 10:00 PM

"The terrain at the time was heavily wooded"

A common error. We tend to forget that there were remarkably few "heavily" wooded areas anywhere east of the Appalachians from the early 19th to early 20th Centuries (think about it - fuel, construction, shipping, etc.).
Contemporary photos show a remarkable lack of trees along the south side of LRT and between the Devil's Den & the crest.
A casual observer today will wonder how the battle sorted out w/such limited visiblility...

Posted by Jess1 at July 3, 2013 5:23 AM

It is interesting to ponder what would have happened next had Gen. Lee taken Gen. Longstreet's advice to not engage the Union forces on this ground but to march south and east around town to more favorable terrain.

Posted by Dave J at July 3, 2013 6:31 AM

Mr. Sensing,

There is apparently some significant level of dispute regarding whether or not the Little Round Top was "heavily wooded". There are photos and paintings that suggest it was anything but. Big Round Top seems to have been considerably more wooded.

Just sayin'.

Posted by Knucklehead at July 3, 2013 7:14 AM

Some of the comments here illustrate a small ignorance of one of the most decisive factor in both Lee's brilliant victories and his defeat at Gettysburg. The home field advantage; the local yokel advantage.

When Union troops were in the South, they had no intimate understanding of the local terrain, whereas the South could tap the knowledge of some local. Moreover, these locals were also eyes and ears for the South. The Union could not make any move without some local spotting it and reporting it. On the other hand, Lee could make any daring move he needed like splitting his forces 15 separate times at Chancellorville

Same thing happened to the South in reverse at Gettysburg. Lee was constantly being surprised by the numbers of Union troops in the theater at any given time -- because he doesn't fully understand the terrain and he has no local yokel intel; it's working for the Union.

That's why Lee was flying blind. That's why suggestions that Lee would have won if he had redeployed elsewhere are flawed. No, he wouldn't, because any move would have been seen by the locals and reported to Meade's staff. The home turf advantage was crucial.

Posted by Callmelennie at July 3, 2013 7:42 AM

My brother and I, two Army Colonels (I'm retired, my brother still serves) walked the Little Round Top last week and focused on the defensive position of the 20th Maine. We've both seen the field individually on many occasions being Pennsylvanians but this was our first joint visit. We read Chamberlain's after action report from the Army War College guide. Then spent 10 or so minutes of quiet contemplation putting ourselves on the ground and in the battle. Almost simultaneously, our first words to each other were courage. How did these men, both Union and Confederate, gain the courage to persist in the face of overwhelming carnage of the Civil War battlefield? Most were not professional soldiers but civilians yet they had an abundance of courage. We also wondered why this important virtue had atrophied in modern day America.

Posted by Tom at July 3, 2013 8:43 AM

Crazy thing, war: Man at his best and at his worst all rolled into one. A pacifist only sees with one eye.

Posted by Don Rodrigo at July 3, 2013 10:21 AM

There was an additional element to Pickett's Charge. Take a look at the Battle of East Cavalry Field. Three brigades of Confederate cavalry coming up in the rear of Pickett's 'clump of trees' center point of attack may or may not've broken the Federal line, temporarily or permanently, but in any case the reb cavalry was stopped three miles distant, in a battle which commenced at the same hour of Lee's artillary bombardment preparatory to Pickett's jump off.

They were stopped by the skin of the teeth, and the confusion of the rebs caused by the brand new Spencer repeating rifle, in the hands of two Michigan cavalry regiments under none other than 23 year-old BG George Armstrong Custer.


Stuart tried again for a breakthrough by sending in the bulk of Wade Hampton's brigade, accelerating in formation from a walk to a gallop, sabers flashing, calling forth "murmurs of admiration" from their Union targets. Union horse artillery batteries attempted to block the advance with shell and canister, but the Confederates moved too quickly and were able to fill in for lost men, maintaining their momentum. Once again the cry "Come on, you Wolverines!" was heard as Custer and Col. Charles H. Town led the 1st Michigan Cavalry into the fray, also at a gallop.[10] A trooper from one of Gregg's Pennsylvania regiments observed,

"As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.[11]"

As the horsemen fought desperately in the center, McIntosh personally led his brigade against Hampton's right flank and the 3rd Pennsylvania and 1st New Jersey hit Hampton's left from north of the Lott house. Hampton received a serious saber wound to the head; Custer lost his second horse of the day. Assaulted from three sides, the Confederates withdrew. The Union troopers were in no condition to pursue beyond the Rummel farmhouse.[12]



Posted by buddy larsen at July 3, 2013 11:25 AM

Still hard to watch that scene and not get choked up a little, thinking over the raw, selfless courage it must have required. Takes one's breath away a bit, especially having walked the ground.

I worry though that the victors' unchallenged rendition of the Civil War's events & motivations - 150 years of manufactured consensus - causes us to glorify those heroes' sacrifice to the extent that we remain blinded, and may never recognize, as a nation, how utterly unnecessary was Lincoln's choice to wage war on a region and a people that gave him no just cause whatever to do so, and how much it cost in lives, treasure and a seemingly irreparable regional and racial resentment.

Thinking on the events at Gettysburg, that worry is especially heavy now, acknowledging as one must the total absence in this nation of leadership even remotely approaching the likes of a Chamberlain. Or a Lee. And harder still to consider their unlikely legacy - a Republic once comprised of free, sovereign States, traded for a centrally-planned empire, a "union" in name only, ruled through military force by an unaccountable oligarchy in Washington, D.C. - as it slowly matures into a genuine nightmare.

The direct line from Lincoln's extra-constitutional overreach to Obama's runs unbroken. And I wonder - when our generation reaches the end of that unbroken line and we're tossed into the conflict history guarantees we'll find there - whether we still have among us the likes of those who charged down Little Round Top with only a bayonet and the Lord's Prayer to protect them.

Posted by AGoyAndHisBLog at July 3, 2013 4:26 PM

...How did these men, both Union and Confederate, gain the courage to persist in the face of overwhelming carnage of the Civil War battlefield? Most were not professional soldiers but civilians yet they had an abundance of courage.

European observers of the Civil War--many of whom were professional soldiers--were shocked at the casualties both Union and Confederate armies would suffer, but yet keep fighting. The European staff college assumption at the time was that if a unit sustained 10% casualties (dead, wounded, missing, captured), it would become combat ineffective and would have to be withdrawn from the line. Civil War units often suffered 30% casualties--sometimes higher--in the larger battles, but stayed in the fight as long as they were physically able to do so. One example from Gettysburg--the 1st Minnesota Regiment, 268 men, ordered by Gen. Hancock on July 2 to buy the Army of the Potomac five minutes to reinforce its lines. Attacking a Confederate brigade five times its size, the 1st Minnesota bought Hancock 15 minutes, by which time he had brought up enough troops to blunt the Confederate onslaught. But the 1st Minnesota paid in blood--out of 268, only 47 men were fit for duty after the engagement, an 82% casualty rate.

Posted by waltj at July 3, 2013 11:10 PM