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July 2, 1863

The climax of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels comes in the epic defense of the Little Round Top by professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. His chapter is long and devoted and filled with the action and tension necessary to recount the struggle.

Understandably, Shaara bypasses the intrigues of the higher chains of command that occurred just prior to Chamberlain’s part in the battle. Yet they are most interesting and worth mentioning alongside Shaara’s spirited recounting. After a frazzled General Meade recovered from Sickles’ ungainly move westward of his assigned ridge, he made two important decisions: to command Sykes with his Fifth Corps to hasten from the east, and to dispatch Chief of Engineers General Gouverneur Warren to the Little Round Top to ascertain Sickles’ assigned defenses of the hill. Warren soon discovered that Sickles not only disobeyed orders by leaving his own post at the south of Cemetery Ridge, but he disobeyed orders by leaving no anchored defense on Little Round Top. General Warren saw quickly that, though the Federals could not be beaten, they could most easily be turned at the Little Round Top (Sears, 2003, p. 269). A battery of Charles Hazlett’s artillery, which Warren had hastily called to the hill, threw out a shot which, when the Confederates turned to look, revealed their position dangerously near the Little Round Top. Warren messaged Meade for troops to avail the crisis and, for quicker action, ordered Lieutenant Mackenzie of his staff to seek out Sickles and tell him to post a defense there, like he was supposed to. But Sickles was in such an irreparable jam and could not spare a brigade.

Mackenzie hurries to Cemetery Ridge to find someone to enact the order and finds General Sykes coming up, as per Meade’s orders, General Sykes himself on reconnoiter for orders for his formation in the coming battle. On his fifth day of corps command, Sykes, without hesitation, obeys the order by dispatching a courier to General James Barnes, head of his lead division. But Sykes’ courier first meets Colonel Vincent Strong of Barnes’ Third Brigade, the lead brigade in the advance of Sykes corps. Vincent, fresh from Harvard and also without previous military experience, felt the crisis at hand and bypassed hierarchy by taking the order himself and moving to the Little Round Top without waiting for a nod from Barnes. He moved off and scouted the Little Round Top quickly, and ascertained the position for placement of his brigade, the location that would best “guard the valley between the hills, allow space for reinforcements, leave the crest free for artillery, and give his regiments maneuvering room if they needed it” (Trulock, 1992, p. 132). From the regiments of his brigade, the great stand at Gettysburg would be enacted.

Structure of Gen Sykes’ Corps, with highlighted names of people discussed in this essay (click to enlarge)

Shaara begins his narrative with the sound of McLaw’s cannon in the west. Chamberlain awakens and forms his regiment, per the command of Colonel Vincent, and follows him up the slope of southern Cemetery Hill. Vincent informs him of General Sickles’ foolhardy move to the west of the Federal line. They gallop up past a bridge, creek, and farm road, where a shell lands near Chamberlain and his brother Tom. Chamberlain tells Tom to move to the back of the line, lest it be “a hard day for Mother” (Shaara, 2004, p. 198). (In reality, Chamberlain was accompanied by two brothers, Tom and John, both of which he sent to different parts of the regiment.)

On the hill, Vincent explains in detail how Sickles moved down the ridge in perfect review fashion because “he didn’t like the ground” (ibid, p. 199). Oddly, Colonel Vincent could not have actually seen Sickles move to the west, since the former’s corps under Sykes was only ordered westward in reaction to the latter’s misbegotten move.

In Shaara’s narrative, Vincent observes Sickles’ already being flanked by the Confederates. Indeed, Longstreet’s en echelon attack (from right to left) reached Sickles’ position just as the latter got himself settled in the fated locale. His salient was to be the site of sad and unnecessary bloodshed.

"Rush to the Summit" by Mort Kunstler, depicting Chamberlain on July 2, 1863

Chamberlain is led south from Cemetery Hill and up into the eastern side of Little Round Top, where Vincent places Chamberlain’s 20th Maine to the extreme left of the Federal line, left of the 83rd Pennsylvania. Vincent tries to drill it into Chamberlain that this is the very end of the line, the very end that must be defended at all costs, “to the last” (Shaara, 2004, p. 201), but Chamberlain doesn’t get the significance until a bit later, where he ponders the meaning of “to the last.” His men are building stone blockades facing west, and he places the regimental colors next to a huge boulder on the eastward-facing spur of the hill. He tells Captain Walter Morrill to place his B Company (of about 40 men [Trulock, 1992, p. 133]) on the far left a ways as skirmishers to inform the 20th Maine of any Confederate flanking maneuver. He is sorry to send Morrill’s men away from the rest of the regiment, but resigns its “messy detail” to the chances of war.1 Chamberlain worries if he has done all he can for his men.

He moves up the hill to see what is happening. He, with Colonel Rice of the 44th New York, observe the smoke and gunfire of Sickles’ flanking. Chamberlain moves back to this regiment, knowing that the Confederates are coming towards them next. He hopes that sixty rounds per man is enough to stay the advance.

A subordinate arrives and makes him aware of the last six prisoners from the 2nd Maine. Three decide to join the upcoming fight; three choose to remain. Chamberlain doesn’t understand how the latter could turn away from the fight today. No doubt, the great goal of the adventure hung prominent in Chamberlain’s mind, the theme of freedom for all people, as he had preached earlier. How the three 2nd Maine men could pass up the defense of such a worthwhile cause was beyond him. This little incident is also thematic for the reader, who learns that not all Northerners fought for the great cause, or fought at all. The North, too, cannot be generalized.

Positions of the 20th Maine, from Alice Trulock's biography of Chamberlain

Fight for the Little Round Top, from Stephen Sears' Gettysburg (map by George Skoch)

The Confederates are now bearing down upon the Federals. They pass the 83rd Pennsylvania at Chamberlain’s right. The men prepare. Chamberlain walks down his line, aware of his men, giving encouragement, just being there, and then – the Rebel yell, far off. Present, but not yet. The wait is nerve-wracking. Men may load bullets again and again and never fire. Chamberlain’s mind rambles on and on and he suddenly realizes that he may never emerge from this spot alive. Never to withdraw.

And finally they come, rolling in waves, scores of men. A vivid battle ensues, until the charge fades. Chamberlain, finally able to communicate in the quieter atmosphere, tells his brother, in a moment of tenderness, to keep down. He notices, by name, the first casualties. He finds out he’s not heard from Morrill and wonders if he has been wiped out. He hopes he has enough men without Morrill’s company if he gets flanked.

And then comes the second wave. All across the line, they attack. One of the recent 2nd Maine volunteers is killed. Chamberlain wants to remember him. Buster Kilrain is injured; Chamberlain, concerned; but the wound is nothing serious. Lieutenant James Nichols from K Company brings Chamberlain up front and they both observe the wave of organized Confederates, two flags within, running down the line to their left to flank them and strike their rear. Most commanders faced with this change of direction by the enemy would order a change of direction from their own whole line, but Chamberlain knew that this move would sacrifice too much of the defensive ground that was so precious (Trulock, 1992, p. 143). Therefore, he orders the line to thin out to right angles at a boulder.

In Shaara’s book, Chamberlain orders a meeting of his commanders. He tells Captain Clark, closest to the 83rd Pennsylvania, to keep the line unbroken. He orders a textbook maneuver: to re-fuse the line, sidestepping his men to the left, forming a right angle at a boulder on the left. The Confederates come forward and are repulsed. Chamberlain is thankful for the makeshift stone wall that was formed, yet pities the “very good men” (Shaara, 2004, p. 211) who will die on the other side.

Chamberlain at Little Round Top, artist unknown

The next charge hits the angle, with the boulder and colors. Tom runs through the scene and Chamberlain realizes what a weakening effect it is to have a brother nearby. He sends messages for help and ammunition from the 83rd and from his commander Colonel Vincent. He meets briefly with Kilrain and watches a boy, tears streaming down his face, ram balls down his gun and fire. It is a sobering sight.

The Confederates charge again and Chamberlain checks his left flank, shoots a Confederate with his pistol, sees the smoke clear in places to scenes of bloodshed. Yet his line is unbroken. Tom reports that the 83rd cannot help them with manpower, except to extend their line to the left a little. (This help from the 83rd from Captain Woodward was vital help in preventing Chamberlain’s right flank from being threatened, and Chamberlain later deflected personal praise to highlight Woodward’s contribution to the victory [Karle, 1998; Trulock, 1992, p. 146])

But another charge threatens. Chamberlain orders his line into a tight U, and the attack comes at both flanks and center. The line tightens organically until only a few yards space the middle. Then Chamberlain gets news that Colonel Vincent and several other officers are dead. They cannot get ammunition and yet Spear reports another Confederate charge is coming. Chamberlain sends Tom to tell everyone to take ammunition from the wounded. There are tremendous casualties, the left flank suffering more than the right.

Continue reading: Climax at Gettysburg, Part 2


The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.

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