The Battle of Gettysburg: Day 2; July 2, 1863
Overnight, General Robert E. Lee determined to take Cemetery Hill (not to be confused with Cemetery Ridge) and Culp’s Hill, both of which dominate Gettysburg, that Lieutenant General Ewell had failed to take the day before.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, on the other hand, wanted to abandon their current positions, and swing around the Union left flank (to the south) and place the army astride Meade’s line of communication, forcing him to attack. Lee’s entire doctrine for invading Pennsylvania was to move strategically, and only fight defensive battles. Lee abandoned this plan because he did not want to hurt morale by asking his men to give up their gains from the day before, and he believed, based on their success at Chancellorsville and the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, that they had the momentum and the ability to carry this battle.
Lee ordered Ewell to make demonstrative attacks on Culp’s Hill to distract the Federals and prevent them from reinforcing the left flank near Little Round Top, where the main attack was coming from. Longstreet was worried that the division commanded by Major General John Hood had not completely arrived, and the division commanded by Major General George Pickett had not arrived at all.
Still, Lee expected Longstreet to launch an early morning attack.
So, if Lee wanted Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, why attack to the south? If Lee could envelop the southern flank, the Union army had to budge or risk being completely surrounded.
Longstreet’s attack was late in starting, because he was waiting for Brigadier General Law’s Brigade to arrive, then had to make a long march to remain undetected by Union signalers on Little Round Top.
Hood didn’t like the plan, because the area that would become known as the Devil’s Den was uneven and strewn with boulders, and was hard to move units around in. He wanted to flank the Federals around Big Round Top. Longstreet denied him permission to make that movement, citing Lee’s orders. Hood launched the attack at 4 PM.
After a 30 minute artillery barrage that severely impacted Union troops stationed in a peach orchard, Hood signaled for the attack to start.
As Hood advanced with his troops, a shell exploded overhead, severely wounding Hood and taking him out of the fight.
The division continued to march east, no longer under central control, because Brigadier General Evander Law never knew of Hood’s injury, nor that he was now in command of the division.
Hood would survive the wound.
Law would direct his men around the Union flank, heading towards the two Round Tops. The 3rd Arkansas regiment and 1st Texas regiment pushed into the Devil’s Den. The fighting was ferocious, as both sides fought for over an hour, slugging it out. In the meantime, Law and five regiments from Alabama swept around the flank, overrunning Big Round Top and moving up the Plum Run, a creek that ran between the Round Tops and the Devil’s Den.
The pressure exerted by by Laws became so great that Union Brigadier General J.H. Hobart Ward had to move the Pennsylvanians from his right flank down to his left.
The movement of the 99th Pennsylvania regiment to the Union left opened a gap in the Union lines, one that the Confederates attempted to exploit. Union general Régis de Trobriand later wrote, “[The confederates] converged on me like an avalanche, but we piled all the dead and wounded men in our front.” Union forces put up stiff resistance, and refused to allow the rebels to exploit the gap, and eventually pushed them back.
The fighting was so fierce that most of the regiments involved lost half their men, and many of their commanders that day.
The Union engaged 2400 men, 800 of them fell.
The Confederates engaged 5500 men. 1800 were carried out.
Ward was forced to retreat at the end of the fight, the Plum Run became known as the “Valley of Death” and “Bloody Run”, but the heaviest fighting was yet to come.
Little Round Top had been occupied only by Union signalers, and five Alabama and two Texas regiments were heading straight for it.
Union Major General Daniel Sickles was supposed to be defending the south end of Cemetery Ridge, which would have included Little Round Top, but he disobeyed orders and moved his troops to defend the Emmitsburg Road, anchoring his flank at the Devil’s Den.
When Meade discovered this, he sent Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren to Little Round Top to deal with the situation.
Warren found only the signal corps atop Little Round Top, and in the distance, he saw the gleam of bayonets approaching. Messages were dispatched for help from any available units. Major General George Sykes, commander of the V Corps, immediate dispatched orders to his First Division to rush to Little Round Top. However, before these messages reached Brigadier General James Barnes, commander of 1st Division, the messenger ran into Colonel Strong Vincent. Vincent immediately ordered his entire brigade up to Little Round Top without waiting for orders from above. His brigade consisted of:
- 16th Michigan regiment
- 44th New York Regiment
- 83rd Pennsylvania regiment
- 20 Maine regiment
Vincent arrived only about 10 minutes before the confederates did.
The 20th Maine is famous because it was on the extreme left of the Union position. It was highlighted in the movie Gettysburg. As the confederates continued to try to find a way around his flank, Colonel Joshua Chaimberlain kept shifting positions to hold them off. He formed his line at an angle, holding off confederate charge after confederate charge. The fighting lasted for more than 90 minutes, ending with a charge down the hill, sweeping up the exhausted confederates.
While the movie shows the charge and the rebels giving up, it doesn’t tell us why they were exhausted.
On their way to Little Round Top, they had just marched 20 miles in the heat, and their canteens were empty. The order to attack came before they could refill their canteens.
Then they had to charge up a steep hillside.
Chaimberlain and the 20th Maine are the most famous, but they were not the only ones making names for themselves that day.
Further north on the hill, Colonel Patrick “Paddy” O’Rourke, commander of the 140th New York regiment was ordered to get up the hill as quickly as possible, and not to worry about formation. O’Rourke rushed his men up the hill, but didn’t stop. His regiment crested the hill, and kept going down the other side, sweeping the rebels off the hill. O’Rourke came across his flag bearer who had fallen, and taking up the colors, he climbed onto a rock and started waving the flag, urging his men on. He was shot in the neck and killed.
First Lieutenant Charles Hazlett was an artillery officer who was ordered to get his battery up to the top of Little Round Top. Getting the ten inch guns up the rocky slope was not easy, but he did it, and while his battery was exposed to constant confederate sniper fire, his battery readied their guns and started firing. The sniper fire made it difficult to work the guns, and ultimately had little effect on the battle, but he did his duty as ordered.
Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed, commander of the brigade, was mortally wounded by a bullet to the head. His last words were reported to be “I would rather die here than that the rebels should gain an inch of this ground.” Hazlett was reportedly killed trying to hear Weed’s last words.
And Colonel Strong Vincent, the man who took the initiative to get his brigade up on Little Round Top to defend it?
He was struck fatally by a bullet early as the battle started. His last command was “Don’t give an inch.”
By the end of the day, the confederates withdrew, both sides exhausted. The quick thinking and heroic actions of General Sykes, Colonel Strong Vincent and their men saved the Union army that day, along with confederate delays and premature attacks.
But the battle was not over.