The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top

This book by Oliver Wilcox Norton is one of, of not the earliest systematic gathering and synthesis of accounts of the action at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. Norton was present for the battle, being the brigade bugler for Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade of the Fifth Corps. He witnessed much of the battle firsthand.

You can download a free copy of the book here.

The book was written in 1913 and takes advantage of several published memoirs as well as the Official Records and letters to and from veterans of the battle to tell the story. He also evaluates the published material and provides corrections to it.

After quoting from William Swinton’s account in Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, Norton tells us, “Swinton appears to have obtained his account of this part of the battle from various sources. He has confused the time and order of events and the movements of troops, so much as to give a wrong impression. He attributes to Vincent’s brigade the timely arrival on the crest of the hill and the charge down the western slope which drove the Confederates from this part of the line. This was the work of Colonel O’Rorke and his regiment, the One Hundred and Fortieth New York. This was not the first attack on the Union position, but was the last. The first attack was made by the Fourth and Forty-eighth Alabama of Law’s brigade and the Fourth and Fifth Texas of Robertson’s brigade, which came up the swale on the north side of Big Round Top and attacked the center of Vincent’s brigade posted on the southern slope of the hill. A desperate fight had taken place there, lasting half an hour. During this time the other brigades of Hood’s division had been assaulting Ward’s brigade and Smith’s battery at the Devil’s Den. Ward maintained his position for some time, and it was not until he had been forced back that the way was open for the Confederates, who had been driven back by Vincent, to make their way northward along the Plum Run valley east of the Devil’s Den to a point from which they could ascend the west front of Little Round Top, outflanking the Sixteenth Michigan on Vincent’s right and driving it in. The timely arrival of O’Rorke and his men repelled this attack and saved the day on that part of our line. Meantime the Fifteenth and Forty-seventh Alabama, which had come over the top of Big Round Top, attacked Vincent’s left flank, held by the Twentieth Maine under Chamberlain.” [pp. 18-19]

Swinton, in his account, claims Warren got to Little Round Top just as Hood’s charge began. Norton says, “Warren did not arrive on Little Round Top at the time Hood’s division made this attack. He arrived at least an hour before this. When he arrived the enemy was not in sight. Warren, having been informed by the signal officer that he thought he had seen the enemy in the woods between Plum Run and the Emmittsburg road, directed Smith’s battery to fire a shot in that direction. The involuntary movement of the men concealed in the woods as this shot whistled over them, and the reflection of the sunlight on their bright bayonets and gun barrels, revealed to Warren a long line of the enemy in position far outflanking Birney’s line.” [p. 19] He tells us, “Warren did not leave the hill [to get a brigade from the Fifth Corps, as Swinton asserted], but sent Lieutenant [Ranald] Mackenzie, one of the three young engineer officers on his staff, asking for a brigade to occupy Little Round Top. Sickles replied that he could not spare any, but Sykes promised to send a brigade. A long time after Barnes’ division went to the front Weed’s brigade of Ayres’ division came along. Seeing the immediate danger, Warren left the hill and, detaching the One Hundred and Fortieth New York from the rear of this brigade, sent it to the crest of Little Round Top under the guidance of Lieutenant [Washington] Roebling, another one of his staff. Warren did not return to the hill, but rode away to report to General Meade.” [p. 20] The other young engineer with Warren was Capt. Chauncey B. Reese.

Norton tells us, “Vincent had been fighting in his position at least half an hour before the Confederates drove Ward back and opened the way for their advance to the summit. After Vincent left the division, Sykes spent some time in posting the other two brigades in the position which he had selected for them, and then rode back to the vicinity of Rock Creek to bring up the other two divisions of the corps. On the way he met Weed’s brigade, and ordered Weed to place it on Little Round Top. It must have been at least half an hour after Vincent got into position before Weed’s brigade arrived where Warren could see them. During this half hour Vincent had been fighting Law’s brigade and the Fourth and Fifth Texas regiments. These troops did not abandon their attempt to break the center of Vincent’s brigade without a desperate struggle. They did not make the movement to turn Vincent’s flank until their assaults on the center seemed hopeless. So long as Ward held his position at the Devil’s Den they could not have made this flank movement by the Plum Run valley; but when Ward was driven back the way was open and they took advantage of it. Then, Warren, seeing the danger, left the hill for the first time and, detaching O’Rorke’s regiment from Weed’s brigade, sent his aide–Lieutenant Roebling–to conduct it to the crest of the hill, where it arrived just in time to drive back the Confederates.” [pp. 35-36]

Providing lengthy quotes from early writers, Norton gives us corrected versions and at the end of the book provides letters from the participants to bolster his argument. He also provides some clarity to events, such as Strong Vincent’s wounding and Patrick O’Rorke’s death. “The Confederates who made the flank movement against the right of the Sixteenth Michigan, and succeeded in driving back the greater part of three companies on the right of this regiment, with the regimental colors, were right among the Union men. Vincent fell while endeavoring to rally the men of the Sixteenth. Just at this moment O’Rorke with his men came over the crest of the hill and, charging down the hill, drove back the enemy, capturing some and killing and wounding many others. They formed on the right of the remainder of the Michigan regiment, and remained there, sheltering themselves as well as they could among the rocks on the western slope, and no further advance was made by the Confederates against this position. Weed did not arrive with the other regiments of his brigade until some time after Vincent fell, and after the Confederate assault had been repulsed. … Vincent had fallen, and the Confederates, who had been baffled in all their previous attempts to break his line, had succeeded at last in driving in the right flank. Those of the enemy who had already entered our line were followed closely by a crowd of their comrades swarming up the hill. Nothing could have stopped them from doubling up our broken line except the timely arrival of O’Rorke and his men. It was a hand-to-hand conflict, but the Confederates were forced to yield. It lasted only a short time, but in that time more than a hundred men of the One Hundred and Fortieth had fallen. This regiment alone bore the brunt of the attack. Their gallant young colonel was instantly killed, within a few feet of where Vincent lay. The other regiments of Weed’s brigade did not arrive until the close fighting at that point was finished.” [pp. 37-38]

Norton does great service in correcting the early writers on the battle and in busting many myths, some of which have grown up after his writing. His book should be considered required reading for anyone who is studying the Battle of Gettysburg. I highly recommend it.

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2 comments

  1. jason perez · · Reply

    Al, someday you should do a post on the claim that the reason the south lost was because of superior numbers. I keep hearing this in every discussion.

    1. That’s a basic tenet of the lost cause. It’s a way to use superficial thinking to avoid facing the fact that the confederates were defeated on the battlefield.

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