The Fight for Little Round Top at Gettysburg

The Battle's Critical Second Day Hinged on Heroics on a Bloody Hill

The fight for Little Round Top was an intense conflict within the larger Battle of Gettysburg. The struggle to control a strategic hill on the battle’s second day became legendary for dramatic feats of bravery conducted under withering fire.

Despite repeated assaults by seasoned Confederate troops, the Union soldiers who arrived at the top of the hill just in time to defend it managed to throw together a stout defense. The Union troops, facing repeated assaults, succeeded in keeping the high ground.

Had the Confederates been able to seize Little Round Top, they could have overrun the left flank of the entire Union Army, and possibly won the battle. The fate of the entire Civil War may have been decided by the brutal fighting for one hill overlooking Pennsylvania farmland.

Thanks to a popular novel and an often-televised 1993 film based upon it, the perception of the fighting on Little Round Top often focuses exclusively on the role played by the 20th Maine Regiment and its commander, Col. Joshua Chamberlain. While the 20th Maine did perform heroically, the battle contained other elements which are, in some ways, even more dramatic.

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Why the Hill Called Little Round Top Mattered

Union positions on Little Round Top depicted in wartime sketch by artist Edwin Forbes
Library of Congress

As the Battle of Gettysburg developed during the first day, the Union troops held a series of high ridges running southward from the town. At the southern end of that ridge were two distinct hills, known locally for years as Big Round Top and Little Round Top.

The geographic importance of Little Round Top is obvious: whoever controlled that ground could dominate the countryside to the west for miles. And, with most of the Union Army arranged to the north of the hill, the hill represented the extreme left flank of the Union lines. Losing that position would be disastrous.

And despite that, as vast numbers of troops took up positions during the night of July 1, Little Round Top was somehow overlooked by Union commanders. On the morning of July 2, 1863, the strategic hilltop was barely occupied. A small detachment of signalmen, troops who passed orders via flag signals, had reached the top of the hill. But no major fighting detachment had arrived.

The Union commander, General George Meade, had dispatched his chief of engineers, General Governeur K. Warren, to inspect the federal positions along the hills south of Gettysburg. When Warren arrived at Little Round Top he immediately realized its importance.

Warren suspected Confederate troops were massing for an assault on the position. He was able to get a nearby gun crew to fire a cannonball into the woods to the west of Little Round Top. And what he saw confirmed his fears: hundreds of Confederate soldiers moved in the woods as the cannonball sailed over their heads. Warren later claimed he could see sunlight glinting off their bayonets and rifle barrels.

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The Race to Defend Little Round Top

photographs of dead Confederates near Little Round Top
Dead Confederate soldiers near Little Round Top. Library of Congress

General Warren immediately sent orders for troops to come and defend the top of the hill. The courier with the order encountered Col. Strong Vincent, a Harvard graduate who had enlisted in the Army at the beginning of the war. He immediately began directing the regiments in his command to begin climbing Little Round Top.

Reaching the top, Col. Vincent placed troops in defensive lines. The 20th Maine, commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, was at the extreme end of the line. Other regiments arriving on the hill were from Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts.

Below the western slope of Little Round Top, Confederate regiments from Alabama and Texas began their attack. As the Confederates fought their way up the hill, they were supported by sharpshooters taking cover in a natural formation of enormous boulders known locally as the Devil’s Den.

Union artillerymen struggled to carry their heavy weapons up to the top of the hill. One of the officers involved in the effort was Lieutenant Washington Roebling, son of John Roebling, the noted designer of suspension bridges. Washington Roebling, after the war, would become the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge during its construction.

To suppress the fire of Confederate sharpshooters, platoons of the Union’s own elite sharpshooters began arriving on Little Round Top. As combat continued in close quarters, a deadly long-range battle between snipers broke out.

Col. Strong Vincent, who had placed the defenders, was badly wounded, and would die in a field hospital a few days later.

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The Heroics of Col. Patrick O'Rorke

One of the Union regiments which arrived on the top of Little Round Top just in the nick of time was the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Col. Patrick O’Rorke, a young West Point graduate.

O’Rorke’s men climbed up the hill, and as they came over the top, a surging Confederate advance was reaching the top of the western slope. With no time to stop and load rifles, O’Rorke, wielding his saber, led the 140th New York in a bayonet charge across the top of the hill and into the Confederate line.

The heroic charge of O’Rorke broke the Confederate attack, but it cost O’Rorke his life. He fell dead, shot through the neck.

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The 20th Maine at Little Round Top

photograph of Col. Joshua Chamberlain
Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. Library of Congress

On the extreme left end of the federal line, the 20th Maine had been ordered to hold its ground at all costs. After several charges by Confederates had been repulsed, the men from Maine were nearly out of ammunition.

As the Confederates came in a final attack, Col. Joshua Chamberlain bellowed the order, “Bayonets!” His men fixed bayonets, and without ammunition, charged down the slope toward the Confederates.

Stunned by the ferocity of the 20th Maine’s assault, and exhausted by the day’s fighting, many of the Confederates surrendered. The Union line had held, and Little Round Top was secure.

The heroism of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine was featured in the historical novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which was published in 1974. The novel was the basis for the movie "Gettysburg," which appeared in 1993. Between the popular novel and the film, the story of Little Round Top has often appeared in the public mind as solely the story of the 20th Maine.

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Importance of Little Round Top

By holding the high ground at the southern end of the line, the federal troops were able to deny the Confederates the opportunity to completely turn the tide of the battle on the second day.

That night Robert E. Lee, frustrated by the day’s events, gave the orders for the assault that would happen on the third day. That attack, which would become known as Pickett’s Charge, would become a disaster for Lee’s army, and would provide a decisive end to the battle and a clear Union victory.

Had the Confederate troops managed to seize the high ground of Little Round Top, the entire battle would have changed dramatically. It is even conceivable that Lee's army might have cut the Union Army off from the roads to Washington, D.C., leaving the federal capital open to great danger.

Gettysburg can be viewed as the turning point of the Civil War, and the fierce combat at Little Round Top was the turning point of the battle.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Fight for Little Round Top at Gettysburg." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Fight for Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Fight for Little Round Top at Gettysburg." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).