On today’s date, July 2 in 1863, 150 years ago, the second day of battle around Gettys- burg, in the farm country of Pennsylvania took place. The first day, on July 1 had been a bloody day with the two armies showing up and battling for position. But now they were on the spot with the union digging into strong defensive positions, and the Confederates preparing to attack them in these positions at the two ends of their line. On the Union left was the Little Round Top (above). On their right was Culp’s Hill. But would they hold? Colonel Chamberlain’s 20’th Maine Regiment would provide an unlikely answer to that question on the left, and General Greene’s regiment would pay the price on the Union right.
The Attack on the Little Round Top
As can be seen from the map above, the Union line resembled a fish hook anchored at both of it’s extreme ends by the high ground that would have made them ideal positions from which to squeeze the Union Army between them, if Lee’s Second Day Plans worked. But General Longstreet’s’ Corp required most of the day to get in position for it’s attack on the Union left, not commencing until nearly 4:00 in the afternoon with an artillery barrage upon the Union troops in the Peach Orchard, and Devil’s Den which stood in front of the two Round Tops. General Hood’s division lead the way with Hood himself in his saddle shouting “Fix bayonets, my brave Texans! Forward and take those heights!” Hood was soon after knocked out by a serious wound. After overrunning Devil’s Den, the troops including the 15’th Alabama Regiment began to climb the steep hill of the Little Round Top.
Chamberlain’s 20’th Maine Holds the Union Left
It was only then the Union command realized the importance of the position, and rushed in men at the last minute to defend it. Col. Strong Vincent’s brigade was sent in to cover the position. At the extreme end of the line stood the 20’th Maine Regiment under the command of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (above), a former teacher at Bowdoin College in Maine. Chamberlain’s men took cover behind boulders and took the brunt of several vicious Rebel attacks. He sent out his Company B his own left but amid the subsequent gunfire he assumed that it had been wiped out. With his troops nearly out of ammunition, he realized that his men could not withstand another Rebel attack. Later, Chamberlain wrote of his thoughts, knowing that his position, if left to the Rebels could be used to bombard the entire Union Army: “The critical moment has arrived and we can remain as we are no longer. We must advance or retreat. It must not be the latter. But how can it be the former?”
His only alternative was with his men down to 200, and almost no ammo was….. to ATTACK!! He then came up with an obscure text book maneuver wherein the men on his left would fix bayonets and with the right of his line holding straight, he had the left of his line move down the slope moving toward his right, “Like a great gate upon a post” in the words of one witness. The Rebels were taken by surprise!
As Chamberlain would write in his After Action Report:
“As a last desperate resort, I ordered a charge. The word “fix bayonets” flew from man to man. The click of the steel seemed to give new zeal to all. The men dashed forward with a shout. The two wings came into one line again, and extending to the left, and at the same time wheeling to the right, the whole Regiment described nearly a half circle… The enemy’s first line scarcely tried to run – they stood amazed, threw down their loaded arms and surrendered in whole companies. Those in their rear had more trouble.. My skirmishing company (Company “B”) threw itself upon the enemy’s flank behind a stone wall, and their effective fire added to the enemy’s confusion.”
Chamberlains decimated force captured over 400 Rebels. Little Round Top was held. Chamberlain, whose maneuver had saved the Union Army, and perhaps the Union itself, was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day, and would be promoted to General before the war was ended.
Culp’s Hill: “Moments passed which were years of agony..”
Meanwhile on the extreme right of the Union line, Confederate General Ewell launched an attack on the Union positions on Culp’s Hill. But his attack didn’t get under way until nearly 7:00 p.m., following another artillery duel. General Edward Johnson’s division lead the attack from the east. Men had been moved from Culp’s to defend other sectors leaving Greene to stretch his troops to defend the line. By now it was dark outside. Recalled one Union veteran of the moments when the rebels crept upon them out of the dark: “Moments passed which were years of agony… nervous hands grasping loaded muskets told how terrible were those moments of suspense.” But the Union troops stationed on Culp’s Hill dealt a mortal blow to the attacking Rebels. “Men fell like Autumn leaves;… the enemies fire was returned though with little effect, as they were protected by their breastworks. No command could be heard above the infernal din.” as one of the Confederates would remember of this moment of the Union gunfire. Culp’s Hill was also held in an action which in many ways was as important as that on Little Round Top. Had Culp’s Hill fallen, the Confederates would have been able to attack the Union Army from behind.
So ended the second day’s fighting on July 2, 1863… 150 years ago today. Lee’s men had attacked the Union Army on both flanks, and had come to within an inch of victory in both actions. Lee was now convinced that having reinforced both of his flanks, Meade would therefore be weak in the center of his line. Meade had a council of war that night with his officers and they decided to stay in their strong positions. And Meade, having guessed correctly what Lee’s next move would be, was ready for him.
Tomorrow = Gettysburg: the Third Day
One Little personal note…. while I have ever so solemnly that Gettysburg’s second day was the most important historical event to have occurred on this day of July 2, I wish to note something almost as important as this clash of armies that happened on this day in 19**: that was the birth of my sister Jennifer Lee Bolten McDunough, the artist, whom her brother loves very much, even if she has tried to choke him on occasion….
The “Little Round Top” =
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain =
20’th Maine at Little Round Top =
Culp’s Hill =
“The Civil War” Dir. by Ken Burns, 1989 PBS Home Video, Episode Five: “The Universe of Battle”
“The Battle of Gettysburg” by Harry Pfanz National Parks Civil War Series, 1994
“The Civil War” by Bruce Catton,, American Heritage Publ., New York, 1960
“The Maryland Line in the Confederate States Army” by W.W. Goldsborough, 1869.
“After Action Report On the Actions of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg” By Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, praetorian.press.com. Kindle Edition.