Defending Little Round

The Battle of Gettysburg resumed on July 2, as Lee continued with his efforts to push Meade out of the area. But the Confederates were slow to reach the Union's left flanks. A Federal (Union) officer eventually realized that Little Round Top had been left unprotected, and the North scrambled to send troops to defend it before the rebel (Confederate) soldiers reached the area. The last of four regiments sent to defend the hill from the Confederates was the Twentieth Maine. Chamberlain and his men set up defensive positions on the top of Little Round Top, at the very end of the Union line of defenses. "It was a critical moment," remembered one soldier in Chamberlain's regiment. He noted that if the advancing Confederate line "was permitted to turn the Federal flank, Little Round Top was untenable [not capable of being defended], and with this little mountain in the Confederates' possession, the whole [Union] position would be untenable. It was a most fortunate fact for the Union cause that in command of the Twentieth Maine was Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain."

Once the Twentieth Maine arrived at Little Round Top, Chamberlain rushed to arrange the 350 men under his command behind trees and boulders. Ten minutes later, Confederate troops came charging up the hill in a furious attack. Chamberlain's troops pushed back the first assault, only to be hit with another one a few minutes later. The fight for possession of the hill became vicious and desperate, as Chamberlain's men pushed back wave after wave of attack, despite being badly outnumbered. "The edge of the conflict swayed to and fro, with wild whirlpools and eddies," Chamberlain recalled. "At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men; gaps opening, swallowing, closing again. . . . All around, a strange, mingled roar."

The center of the Federal position viewed from Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

By mid-afternoon, Chamberlain's regiment had lost nearly half of its men and was nearly out of ammunition. Chamberlain himself had been wounded. But the former professor refused to give up control of the hill. Instead, he ordered his troops to prepare for a bayonet charge into the midst of their Confederate attackers (bayonets were long blades that could be attached to the ends of rifles). Chamberlain's daring strategy worked. As his battered soldiers charged down the hill, hundreds of stunned rebel soldiers surrendered. The rest of the Confederate troops fled, but many of them fell under a final deadly burst of gunfire from one of Chamberlain's companies. "We ran like a herd of wild cattle," admitted the Confederate commander at Little Round Top. "The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with blood."

Chamberlain's brave and daring stand at Little Round Top enabled the Union Army to withstand the Confederate offensive. A day later, Lee mounted one final attempt to break the Union Army. When it failed, however, he was forced to retreat to Virginia. The South never invaded the North again. Chamberlain, meanwhile, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits. He and the other members of the Twentieth Maine were praised throughout the North for their bravery and fighting spirit.

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