There is a scene in the 1987 film Wall Street when the Charlie Sheen character (Bud Fox) is about to meet the formidable Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). He says to himself, “Well, life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them.”
The same could be said of military engagements. There are key battles; and within these battles, there are deciding moments. The Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War was one of those critical engagements; and within this battle, the struggle for a small patch of land called Little Round Top was arguably the deciding event of the entire battle.
Let us briefly review the military situation in 1863. By this time, it was clear that the long-term trend lines did not bode well for the Confederacy. Although it was possible that the war could still result in some sort of negotiated settlement, the Union’s advantages in men and industrial capacity would eventually become irresistible. From the Southern perspective, something dramatic needed to be done to force an end to the war.
At least this seems to have been the thinking of the Confederacy’s greatest military man, Robert E. Lee. Flush with confidence from his recent victory over Union forces at Chancellorsville, he apparently believed that a direct incursion into northern territory would frighten the Lincoln administration into suing for peace. He moved his large army into Pennsylvania and sought a pitched battle with whatever Union army might have the temerity to engage him.
Opposing him was Union general George G. Meade. He had a large numerical advantage over Lee: 110,000 men to Lee’s 76,000. The 3-day battle that took place at the small town of Gettysburg turned out to be the turning point of the war. It was also the bloodiest engagement of the conflict.
Within the battle itself, the struggle for a particular position assumed great significance. Little Round Top was a height that overlooked a good portion of the Gettysburg battlefield. I remember visiting this place in the 1980s as a boy; it was an impressive and commanding position. Why was this position so critical?
Because anyone holding it would be able to rain down artillery fire on General Meade’s left flank. It was the key to the Union’s entire position. Meade knew this. And he had ordered the local commander, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, to stand and fight there, no matter what. His exact words were, “This is the left of the Union line…You are to hold this ground at all costs.”
The Confederates, of course, also understood the significance of Big Round Top and Little Round Top. They initially encountered little resistance in occupying Big Round Top on July 2, 1863. Then they swiftly moved on to Little Round Top. But resistance there proved to be ferocious. Attempts by Confederate units under Evander Law and Jerome Robertson to flank the hill failed after they came under brutal fire from a rocky enclave called the Devil’s Den.
The commander of the 20th Maine, Col. Chamberlain, now began to fortify his position at Little Round Top and to prepare for the waves of attack that he knew were coming. He would not wait long. Soon a Confederate unit appeared, the 15th Alabama, led by Col. William Oates. The fighting that took place at Little Round Top was up-close, personal, and dramatic. It may in fact be the most famous infantry engagement in American military history.
Amazingly, Chamberlain was not even a career military man. He was actually a college professor; at the outbreak of war, he had resigned from the faculty at Bowdoin College to enlist in the Union Army. He never even bothered to tell his family: he just did it. But he was a man of strong convictions and great character, and that was enough.
Facing Chamberlain in the fight for Little Round Top were some experienced, skilled fighters. Especially formidable were the men of the Fifth Texas Infantry under the command of Col. R.M. Powell. They attacked Chamberlain’s defenders all day over and over again, but were repulsed every time.
But the Federal defenders were running out of ammunition, and were exhausted. As Chamberlain himself described it:
The losses in my regiment were very heavy. In the center of the apex of the angle, made by throwing back the left wing, the color-guard was shot away, and the color-company and that next to it lost nearly half their number, and more than a third of my regiment was disabled…
I saw a heavy force that had just come up over the opposite slopes of Great Round Top, coming to envelop our left. They were close to us, advancing rapidly, and firing as they came. We expended our last cartridges…every round was gone.
Knowing the supreme importance of holding this ground, which covered the flank of Hazlett’s Battery on the summit…I saw no other way to save it, or even ourselves, but to charge with the bayonet. The charge was successful beyond all my hopes.
The Union position seemed about to be overrun. All was lost. Chamberlain and his men were out of ammunition and facing death. But Chamberlain was not about to surrender. And just as the rebels were about to mount another attack on his position, he ordered the men of the 20th Maine to fix bayonets and charge.
It turned out to be a feat of legendary valor. The Confederates were thrown off guard, and taken aback by the ferocity of the charge. But the Union troops were out of options; and desperate men do not take half-measures.
And at this moment Fortune intervened to decide the matter. Just as the Confederates were falling back, they were hit by fire from behind; a unit called Berdan’s Sharpshooters had managed to position themselves to fire on the enemy. The Confederates had no choice but to withdraw. Little Round Top was saved, and the position held. So it was that the key position in the war’s key battle was saved.
When all seemed lost, Fortune intervened to tip the scales in the judgment of the fates of men, and the destinies of nations.