EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a three-part series commemorating the 150-year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Second of three part series
When dawn broke on July 2, 1863, the Union Army was dug-in south of Gettysburg over several miles in a large fishhook formation. The eye of the hook was on two stony hills known as Big and Little Round Top. The spine of the hook ran along the ominously named Cemetery Ridge while the curve was just south of town on Cemetery Hill. Finally, the hook turned east with the “point” on Culp’s Hill. Reinforcements had poured in through the night and while the Union had lost the first day, their defensive position was now fortified. They enjoyed interior lines and their numbers swelled past the Confederates.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was spread thin all along the Union’s hook in the north and west and on lower ground. Though also reinforced, Lee’s army was still left blind by J.E.B. Stuart, his celebrated cavalry commander. Lee’s “old warhorse” James Longstreet had arrived but was not raring to fight. While Lee devised aggressive plans of attack, Longstreet, who preferred defensive tactics, suggested disengagement. Seeing an opportunity to end the war, Lee instead ordered assaults all along the Federal line. The crux of the plan focused on enveloping the Union’s southern end – the eye of the hook – in order to flank the Union and roll up the entire army.
Initially, Southern chances of taking this high ground on the Union’s left flank were outstanding because Dan Sickles, the Union general assigned there, had inexplicably left it. Sickles, who earned the dubious distinction before the war for being the first person in American history to successfully use a temporary insanity plea to be acquitted for murder, had ignored a direct order from General Meade and moved his troops far in front of the rest of the Union lines. His insubordinate decision proved disastrous for his men, but may actually have blunted the initial Confederate advance. For his efforts, Sickles lost his right leg to a cannonball. The two of which he ultimately donated to a museum where he visited them on an annual basis.
Despite the initial abandonment of Little Round Top, Longstreet petulantly delayed his attack, which allowed the Union Army to reinforce. Ultimately, Longstreet’s assault, which Lee had ordered for the morning, did not commence until late in the afternoon. At this point, John Bell Hood, commander of the famed Texas Brigade, pleaded with Longstreet to allow his troops to go around the occupied hills to strike the Union’s rear. Longstreet refused and thereby Hood, under protest, charged his exhausted Texans and Alabamians into the “Devil’s Den,” a grouping of gigantic boulders below Little Round Top. Hit almost immediately with an artillery shell, this attack cost Hood permanently the use of his left arm and many of his men their lives.
The 20th Maine, led by a rhetoric and language professor of Bowdoin College, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, now guarded the extreme Union left. Though not trained for the military, Chamberlain understood that if the Confederates overran him they would turn the Union flank. So, with his brother at his side, he steeled his men for the onslaught.
Enjoying the high ground, the 20th Maine valiantly defended Little Round Top as the Confederates charged again and again up the hill, each time nearly overtaking the line. With the Union’s ammunition supply spent, Chamberlain, in desperation, had his men fix bayonets and countercharge down the hill. Pulling off a rare textbook maneuver, Chamberlain’s “right wheel forward” sweep managed to capture the final Confederates on the hill, save the Union left, and perhaps the entire Union army.
All along the lines, nightfall eventually brought a small respite as both sides exhaustedly tended their wounded and waited for what further hell dawn would bring.
Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with The Center for Vision & Values and an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College. If you would like to reach Dr. Jason R. Edwards for comment, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.