Lee orders an attack to roll up Union flank At Little Round Top, Union holds its position, but at appalling cost; Revisiting Gettysburg


If the furious Southern charge on Little Round Top had happened early in the morning, rather than late in the day after more Union forces arrived in Gettysburg, it might well have worked. In war, as in comedy and love, timing is everything.

As it was, the uphill battle was a close call. After the Peach Orchard debacle caused by Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles moving his 3rd Corps "too far out," as Union commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade put it, the Union soldiers' position was precarious with a hole near the end of their line.

So the rocky slope overlooking the orchard on the extreme left 3rd Corps flank looked vulnerable and there for the taking on the second day of July -- to Gen. Robert E. Lee, at least, if not to his corps commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. It was plain the slope afforded "those people" (as Lee referred to the opposing side) a tremendous tactical advantage. Little Round Top does not dominate its surrounding terrain much more than Federal Hill does, but still, a hill was a hill.

Longstreet carried out an order against his wishes. Such was his lot more than once at Gettysburg. That day, some say, he took too long -- time was not on his side -- to maneuver his troops into position.

But for the quick thinking and bravery of a few good men, Longstreet's assault on the strategically situated hilltop -- where the Union's signal corps was ensconced -- might have broken through.

The quick thinking came from Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, the Union army's topographical engineer, who saw that there was nobody -- save the signal corps -- to defend Little Round Top from a charge that was clearly coming.

On his own authority, Warren immediately summoned a brigade. Like lightning, its regiments -- from Maine, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan -- took their places side by side, all commanded by Col. Strong Vincent.

The fact that regiments were divided by state shows how much one's state mattered first and foremost, even to those who were fighting to preserve the country's unity.

Civil War buffs know the classic story of the desperate struggle, bayonets and all, between the 20th Maine Regiment commanded by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 15th Alabama Regiment commanded by Col. William Colvin Oates.

After it was over, Oates told his tale: "We drove the Federals from their strong defensive position; [but] five times they rallied."

From the Maine men's point of view, Capt. Howard Prince wrote, "Again and again was this mad rush repeated, each time to be beaten off by the ever-thinning line that desperately clung to its ledge of rock."

Eventually, the exhausted Alabamians turned around: "With a withering and deadly fire pouring in upon us from every direction, it seemed the regiment was doomed to destruction ... the ground was soaked with the blood. ...When the [retreat] signal was given we ran like a herd of wild cattle, right through the line of dismounted cavalrymen," recorded Oates.

Clinging to the edge of Little Round Top, the Maine regiment, including Chamberlain and his two brothers, barely survived the onslaught.

Less known is the story of an unsung Union hero who died that day: Irish-born Patrick O'Rorke, who graduated first in his Class of 1861 at West Point and commanded a volunteer regiment of New Yorkers. He, like every cadet in that class, was asked to take a loyalty oath to the Union in the West Point chapel. (Those who didn't headed South.)

"He saved the day as much as Chamberlain," said Col. Dolf Carlson, a Civil War expert at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

The 16th Michigan Regiment had collapsed and suffered casualties of more than 60 percent, including the brigade commander Vincent, who responded so readily to Warren's call.

One witness, Ziba B. Graham, wrote: "The memory of what I saw, the bravery, heroism and fearful grandeur of it all, I shall never forget. The fighting was sharp and did not quiet until after dark."

With the defeated Michigan regiment beaten back, the Confederate forces had a clear path up Little Round Top. But O'Rorke played his part in the history of his country. Seeing how critical the situation was, he commanded the charge of the 140th New York Regiment. It broke the advance of the Southern soldiers, but the price was his life.

Graham, the Michigan man, mourned the sight: "O'Rorke, the dashing and brave commander of the One Hundred and Fortieth, just fresh from West Point, also lay dead among the rocks." How many prices the country paid that second day of Gettysburg.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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