Although the battle of Little Round Top is one of the most famous events at the battle of Gettysburg, it was in many ways an accident.
The commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee, ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, commander of the army's 1st Corps, to attack the exposed southern flank of the 3rd Corps of the Union Army, which had advanced beyond the Union line on Cemetery Ridge to a position in the Peach Orchard along the Emmitsburg Road.
The only reason Little Round Top ever became involved in the attack was that by the time the attack was initiated, the 3rd Corps of the Union army was lined up from the Peach Orchard to the Round Tops, and the Southern effort to turn the flank of this position lapped up against the base of Little Round Top.
The attack that would take place on July 2, 1863, was the source of a disagreement between Lee and Longstreet on the morning of the battle.
According to Jeffry Wert in James M. McPherson's Battle Chronicles of the Civil War: 1863, which was published in 1989, Lee was committed to resume an offensive battle on the second day at Gettysburg. Longstreet disapproved of this type of attack, but Lee was adamant.
"Longstreet is a defensive general," said John Heiser, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. "He will not go to war unless favor is on his side."
However, at Gettysburg, this decision was not in the hands of Longstreet, but of Lee, who wished to fight offensively.
Calling for McLaws
Lee and Longstreet also disagreed on the path the battle would take. According to William Garrett Piston in his Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History, which was published in 1987, Lee called for Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws at 8 a.m. July 2. After doing so, he gave McLaws instructions for how the battle would play out.
Lee instructed McLaws, along with Maj. Gen. John B. Hood, to move their troops toward Emmitsburg Road, Piston says. Upon arriving there, Lee wanted them to form a battle line perpendicular to the road. After they had done this, the two divisions would sweep north and roll up the exposed flank of the 3rd Corps, which Lee incorrectly believed represented the southern flank of the Union Army.
Upon hearing this plan, Longstreet was immediately against it. According to Wert in his General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography, which was published in 1993, Longstreet suggested instead a broad turning movement around the Union's left flank. He believed this would entrench the Confederate army in a way that would make it necessary for the Union to attack the Confederate position. Thus, the Confederates would be fighting a defensive battle, as Longstreet had hoped.
'Irritated and annoyed'
Lee, however, was once again in disagreement with Longstreet, and rejected the general's suggestion immediately.
At this time, McLaws noted that Longstreet appeared "irritated and annoyed." Piston believes that it may have been pure frustration in the fact that Lee was not going to use his defense tactics, or an annoyance that Lee had ignored the chain of command and given vital orders to McLaws.
Despite disagreeing with Lee's orders, Longstreet obeyed them. These actions, though, ended up developing very slowly.
According to Wert, Lee returned to Seminary Ridge at 11 a.m. after visiting Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's headquarters on the northern flank of the Confederate position. When he returned, Lee discovered that Longstreet had not left.
Longstreet, according to his memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, published in 1896, wanted to wait for Brig. Gen. Evander Law to arrive with his men before taking action. Longstreet recalled that the wait for Law lasted about 30 minutes.
In his memoirs, Longstreet also recalls that on the march toward the intended target, Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson, whose troops were marching near the Union line, was spotted by Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, commander of the 3rd Corps. Longstreet reported that Sickles, seemingly uncomfortable with the position of his corps at its assigned position on Cemetery Ridge, had moved his men forward as far as the Peach Orchard.
It was not until almost 3 p.m. when Longstreet's infantry began filing into attack formation. When Confederate officers reached the target area at this time, according to Wert, they saw Sickles' troops lined up from the Peach Orchard to the Round Tops. This, however, was a move that was completed just in time for the Union army to save the previously abandoned position.
About 4 p.m., Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren was shocked to see Sickles' troops occupying the Peach Orchard, leaving Little Round Top uncovered.
Recognizing that the Confederates would dominate the entire Union line if they seized the high ground of Little Round Top and placed artillery there, Warren ordered troops sent troops there immediately.
According to the Gettysburg National Military Park Web site, Union Col. Strong Vincent was approached at this time by a staff officer sent by Warren.
After hearing of the situation, Vincent led his infantrymen toward Little Round Top. After arriving there, Vincent's left regiment, the 20th Maine, under the command of Col. Joshua Chamberlain, curled a line around the hill's southern face.
Almost immediately after the Union position was established, the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments advanced against it. According to the Web site, the 15th Alabama Regiment, under Col. William Oates, became engaged in an intense battle with Chamberlain's 20th Maine.
Chamberlain's men were able to hold their own, but their position was becoming more threatened by the minute.
According to the Web site, Chamberlain, in a daring move, ordered one last charge on the 15th Alabama Regiment. This charge surprised the Confederates and eventually scattered them.
Things were going differently on the right side of Vincent's line. According to the Web site, the 4th and 5th Texas regiments were advancing on the Union line. Upon seeing this, Vincent went to rally his men and was struck and killed by an enemy bullet. It was not until reinforcements arrived in the form of the 140th New York Infantry that the last Confederate drive was finally stopped.
Taking the blame
In the end, the battle shifted the momentum at Gettysburg in favor of the Union, and much of the blame for this was shouldered by Longstreet.
After the war, according to the Web site, people believed that Longstreet's questioning of orders and his delays in movement helped lead to the ultimate Confederate defeat at Little Round Top. Lee received no blame for the defeat.
"In the postwar South, a place looking for good news, all they had was Lee," says Heiser. "It would be blasphemy for them to think he was at fault."
Along with this sentiment, Longstreet was not helped by his life after the war. According to the Web site, after the war, Longstreet joined the Republican Party and even became friends with Union general and later President Ulysses S. Grant. This was something that horrified Southerners and caused many to accuse Longstreet of being a traitor.
However, despite these animosities, Longstreet, whom Lee fondly referred to as his "Old War Horse," is remembered as a great general and is honored by a monument at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Gregory Romano is a junior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.