Little Round Top is the smaller of two rocky hills south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was the site of an unsuccessful assault by Confederate troops against the Union left flank on July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Considered by many historians to be the key point in the Union Army's defensive line that day, Little Round Top was defended successfully by the brigade of Colonel Strong Vincent. The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, fought the most famous engagement there, culminating in a dramatic downhill bayonet charge that is one of the most well-known actions at Gettysburg and in the American Civil War.
Little Round Top is approximately two miles (3 km) south of Gettysburg, with a rugged, steep slope rising 150 feet (46 m) above nearby Plum Run to the west (the peak is 650 feet (198 m) above sea level), strewn with large boulders. The western slope was generally free from vegetation, while the summit and eastern and southern slopes were lightly wooded. Directly to the south was its companion hill, [[Big Round Top|[Big] Round Top]], 130 feet (40 m) higher and densely wooded.
There is no evidence that the name "Little Round Top" was used by soldiers or civilians during the battle. Although the larger hill was known before the battle as Round Top, Round Top Mountain, and sometimes Round Hill, accounts written in 1863 referred to the smaller hill with a variety of names: Rock Hill, High Knob, Sugar Loaf Hill, Broad Top Summit, and granite spur of Round Top. Historian John B. Bachelder, who had an enormous influence on the preservation of the Gettysburg battlefield, personally favored the name "Weed's Hill," in honor of Brig. Gen. Stephen H. Weed, who was mortally wounded on Little Round Top. Bachelder abandoned that name by 1873. One of the first public uses of "Little Round Top" was by Edward Everett in his oration at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on November 19, 1863.
Historian Harry W. Pfanz described the tactical importance of Little Round Top:
In the meantime, Little Round Top was undefended by Union troops. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had ordered Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles's III Corps to defend the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, which would have just included Little Round Top. But Sickles, defying Meade's orders, moved his corps a few hundred yards west to the Emmitsburg Road and the Peach Orchard, causing a large salient in the line, which was also too long to defend properly. His left flank was anchored in Devil's Den. When Meade discovered this situation, he dispatched his chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, to attempt to deal with the situation south of Sickles's position. Climbing Little Round Top, Warren found only a small Signal Corps station there. He saw the glint of bayonets in the sun to the southwest and realized that a Confederate assault into the Union flank was imminent. He hurriedly sent staff officers, including Washington Roebling, to find help from any available units in the vicinity.
The response to this request for help came from Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commander of the Union V Corps. Sykes quickly dispatched a messenger to order his 1st Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. James Barnes, to Little Round Top. Before the messenger could reach Barnes, he encountered Col. Strong Vincent, commander of the third brigade, who seized the initiative and directed his four regiments to Little Round Top without waiting for permission from Barnes. He and Oliver W. Norton, the brigade bugler, galloped ahead to reconnoiter and guided his four regiments into position. Upon arrival on Little Round Top, Vincent and Norton received fire from Confederate batteries almost immediately. On the western slope he placed the 16th Michigan, and then proceeding counterclockwise were the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and finally, at the end of the line on the southern slope, the 20th Maine. Arriving only ten minutes before the Confederates, Vincent ordered his brigade to take cover and wait, and he ordered Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, to hold his position, the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac, at all costs. Chamberlain and his 385 men waited for what was to come.
The approaching Confederates were the Alabama Brigade of Hood's Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Evander Law. (As the battle progressed and Law realized he was in command of the division, Col. James L. Sheffield was eventually notified to assume brigade command.) Dispatching the 4th, 15th, and 47th Alabama, and the 4th and 5th Texas to Little Round Top, Law ordered his men to take the hill. The men were exhausted, having marched more than 20 miles (32 km) that day to reach this point. The day was hot and their canteens were empty; Law's order to move out reached them before they could refill their water. Approaching the Union line on the crest of the hill, Law's men were thrown back by the first Union volley and withdrew briefly to regroup. The 15th Alabama, commanded by Col. William C. Oates, repositioned further right and attempted to find the Union left flank.
The left flank consisted of the 20th Maine regiment and the 83rd Pennsylvania. Seeing the Confederates shifting around his flank, Chamberlain first stretched his line to the point where his men were in a single-file line, then ordered the southernmost half of his line to swing back during a lull following another Confederate charge. It was there that they "refused the line"—formed an angle to the main line in an attempt to prevent the Confederate flanking maneuver. Despite heavy losses, the 20th Maine held through two subsequent charges by the 15th Alabama and other Confederate regiments for a total of ninety minutes.
On the final charge, knowing that his men were out of ammunition, that his numbers were being depleted, and further knowing that another charge could not be repulsed, Chamberlain ordered a maneuver that was considered unusual for the day: He ordered his left flank, which had been pulled back, to advance with bayonets. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the regiment charged, akin to a door swinging shut. This simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver halted and captured a good portion of the 15th Alabama.
Recently published research has presented claims by Lieutenant Holman S. Melcher that he initiated the charge, although Chamberlain has been credited by most historians for ordering the advance. Chamberlain's version of the story is that he decided to order the charge before Lt. Melcher requested permission to advance the center of the line toward a boulder ledge where some of the men were wounded and unable to move. Admiring the lieutenant's bravery and compassion, Chamberlain agreed and sent him back to his company, telling him that he was about to order the entire regiment forward. As Melcher returned to his men, the shouts of "Bayonet!" were already working their way down the line.
During their retreat, the Confederates were subjected to a volley of rifle fire from Company B of the 20th Maine, commanded by Captain Walter Morrill, and a few of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, who had been placed by Chamberlain behind a stone wall 150 yards to the east, hoping to guard against an envelopment. This group, who had been hidden from sight, caused considerable confusion in the Confederate ranks.
Thirty years later, Chamberlain received a Medal of Honor for his conduct in the defense of Little Round Top. The citation read that it was awarded for "daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top.
Despite this victory, the rest of the Union regiments on the hill were in dire straits. While the Alabamans had pressed their attacks on the Union left, the 4th and 5th Texas were attacking Vincent's 16th Michigan, on the Union right. Rallying the crumbling regiment (the smallest in his brigade, with only 263 men) several times, Vincent was mortally wounded during one Texas charge. He died on July 7, but not before receiving a deathbed promotion to brigadier general.
Before the Michiganders could be demoralized, reinforcements summoned by Warren who had continued on to find more troops to defend the hill—had arrived in the form of the 140th New York and a battery of four guns Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery, commanded by Lt. Charles E. Hazlett. (Simply maneuvering these guns by hand up the steep and rocky slope of the hill was an amazing achievement. However, this effort had little effect on the action of July 2. The artillerymen were exposed to constant sniper fire and could not work effectively. More significantly, however, they could not depress their barrels sufficiently to defend against incoming infantry attacks.)
The 140th charged into the fray of the battle, driving the Texans back and securing victory for the Union forces on the hill. Col. Patrick "Paddy" O'Rorke, who personally led his regiment in the charge, was killed. Reinforced further by Stephen Weed's brigade of the V Corps, Union forces held the hill throughout the rest of the battle, enduring persistent fire from Confederate sharpshooters stationed around Devil's Den. General Weed was among the victims, and as his old friend Charles Hazlett leaned over to comfort Weed, the artilleryman was also shot dead.
Little Round Top was the starting point for a Union counterattack at dusk on July 2, conducted by the 3rd Division of the V Corps (the Pennsylvania Reserves) under Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford, launched to the west in the direction of the Wheatfield.
On July 3, Hazlett's battery (now under the command of Lt. Benjamin Rittenhouse) fired into the flank of the Confederate assault known as Pickett's Charge. Near the end of that engagement, General Meade observed from Little Round Top and contemplated his options for a possible counterattack against Lee.
The battle on July 2 was not as bloody as some Civil War battles. Of the 2,996 Union troops engaged, there were 565 casualties (134 killed, 402 wounded, 29 missing); Confederate losses of 4,864 engaged were 1,185 (279, 868, 219).
While agreeing that the fighting on Little Round Top was extremely fierce and soldiers on both sides fought valiantly, historians disagree as to the impact of this particular engagement on the overall outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. The prevailing view is that the left flank of the Union army was a crucial position. An alternative view is that the hill had little strategic value, that the hill's terrain offered a poor platform for artillery, and that had Longstreet secured the hill, the Union army would have been forced back to a better defensive position, making the attack on the hill a distraction from the Confederates' true objective.
The latter theory is supported by General Lee's writings, in which he appears to have considered Little Round Top irrelevant. In Lee's report after the Gettysburg Campaign, he stated in part, "General Longstreet was delayed by a force occupying the high, rocky hills on the enemy's extreme left," suggesting Longstreet was ordered on a course intended to bypass Little Round Top—had the hill been a key objective of the assault, Lee would not have used the phrase "delayed by" in describing the effects of the engagement.
The impact of the battle on the career of Chamberlain was immense. He received life-long fame and launched a political career as Governor of Maine based on his accounts of the battle. The publication of Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels in 1974 (and the 1993 movie based thereon Gettysburg in which Chamberlain was portrayed by Jeff Daniels) caused an increase in public interest and awareness of this engagement. In the Gettysburg National Military Park, the most popular monument that visitors request to see is that of the 20th Maine.
While Chamberlain and the 20th Maine have gained popularity in the American national consciousness, other historical figures such as Strong Vincent, Patrick O'Rourke, and Charles Hazlett arguably played equal roles in the Union success at Little Round Top. Their deaths at the scene, however, did not allow their personal stories to be told.