Case Study: Battle of Little Round Top

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Battle of Little Round Top

Little Round Top sits south of Gettysburg, PA. On 2 July 1863 it served as the site of a Confederate assault on the Union Army's defensive left flank. The Union soldiers, under the command of a university professor, held their ground that day in what turned out to be a decisive victory for the North in the much larger Battle of Gettysburg. This paper will analyze the Battle of Little Round Top from the perspective of situation, units involved, mission, and objectives: it will provide a historical perspective that includes events leading up to the battle (socially, politically and militarily) as well as an indication of the preparation of all parties, troop deployment, the use of equipment, and the execution of strategy. This paper will conclude with an overview of the lessons learned from the battle -- the good and bad points of each section of the mission, and suggestions on what might have improved the operation.

Situational Background

Historical Perspective: Society, Politics, and War

Socially speaking, the Civil War was in its second year, and the effects were felt all over the heavily strained South. When Confederates had taken Fort Sumter in 1861, the Union had responded with a naval blockade that curtailed the South's transport of cotton -- a debilitating tactic that hurt the seceding states economically. However, Robert E. Lee had kept the South in the fight even after losing to McClellan at Antietam in 1862 (stalling the South's northward advance). Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had followed this defeat with its disruption of the Southern social code by announcing that slavery was ended. However, hope for the South was not lost. As David Cross suggests, "Confederate military fortunes in the East were at their zenith. The Union Army of the Potomac had just been defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville; flushed with victory, the Army of Northern Virginia began an invasion of the North."

The stage was set for a decisive battle between North and South as Lee and his troops again attempted to push northward into Pennsylvania in an effort to keep the war out of the southern states and bring Lincoln to talks of treaty and peace.

Militarily and industrially speaking, the Civil War did much to establish the military industrial complex that Eisenhower would lament following WWII. Industry played an immense role in the conducting of the war, as railroads, telegraphs, ships, and weapons all served to assist both sides of the War -- perfectly cinematically reenacted in Buster Keaton's Civil War homage The General.

However, by 1863, as controlling resources continued to prove problematic for the South, establishing a foothold in the northern states became essential. Lincoln had done his best to destroy Southern concord -- and if society was to be re-established in the South on its own terms, a successful stand would have to be made at Gettysburg -- and the Battle of Little Round Top was that attempt.

The outcome of the Battle may be surmised by Lee's letter to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy: "On the 2d July, Longstreet's corps, with the exception of one division, having arrived, we attempted to dislodge the enemy, and though we gained some ground, we were unable to get possession of his position."

The tone of sorrow and manifest defeat is apparent, and one gleans from Lee's letter that the end is near. But for now we will confine our attention to the units involved in the battle, troop deployment, mission, objective, equipment, strategy, and execution.

Preparation

As Lee's letter to Davis stated, the Battle of Little Round Top had seen the South throw everything it had into the fray (minus one division). That "everything" included a number of important figures.

Gen. George Gordon Meade was in control of the Army of the Potomac (having replaced Hooker) -- and the day before the Battle of Little Round Top saw Meade being manhandled by Lee's Northern Virginia Army. The Army of the Potomac retreated to Cemetery Ridge, where Meade regained himself and began to receive "superior tactical decisions by his field officers and, most important, stubborn fighting by Federal troops."

Lee's troops were routed and pushed back to their southern state -- but they might not have been had they taken Cemetery Ridge.

Objective

As James Brann states, "Lee's main objective was to move across the Potomac River and try to separate the Union forces from Washington."

However, when Maj. Gen. Hooker realized what Lee was doing, "he began to force-march his army north, trying to keep Lee to the west and screen Washington from the Rebel troops."

Hooker was then replaced by Meade.

Lee had at his disposal the corps commanders James Longstreet and Ambrose hill. Also supposed to be with him was Gen. Stuart -- but a screening mission prevented him from joining Lee's forces in time.

What Lee lacked in general support was matched by what he lacked in scouting intelligence. His Army had regrouped at Gettysburg. Not intending for this to be the place of battle, Lee was unprepared logistically. But the Union horsemen were aware of Lee's position and now determined to block him head-on.

Deployment

Confederate Brig. Gen. Pettigrew approached Gettysburg with a division of Gen. Heth's troops: Pettigrew realized that the Union was dug in. He reported to Heth, and Heth deployed four infantry brigades to take Gettysburg from the Union. This would prove difficult because in the meantime, the Union had deployed Brig. Gen. Buford and cavalry on McPherson's Ridge. From this ridge the Union was able to harm the Confederates' advance. Although the Confederates finally secured the town, they lost an opportunity to do damage to the Union when Gen. Ewell failed to take Cemetery Hill on the first of July.

The next day saw Little Round Top being held by only a small number of Union soldiers. The hill was essentially unprotected for a good amount of time before Meade realized this mistake. Lee, having trouble getting his troops in order, missed another opportunity to seriously put the Union in a bad spot. While Lee worked to align his men, Chamberlain and Col. Vincent got to Little Round Top and secured the Union's left flank.

Lee's men, meanwhile, positioned themselves on Round Top, aiming their guns at Little Round Top across the valley and at Houck's Ridge across from Devil's Den. These men consisted of the Alabama Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Law. The professor, Chamberlain, and his 20th Maine opposed them on Little Round Top until out of ammunition. Chamberlain then ordered a bayonet charged that acted as both a frontal assault and a flanking maneuver.

Strategy

Part of the defense of Little Round Top consisted in Maj. Stoughtons' sharpshooters, who were "armed with .52 caliber breechloading rifles."

But the strategy of defending the position through ammunition alone would have proved futile if the Confederates had advanced for a third charge against Chamberlain's men. Realizing that there was only one way to keep the hill, Chamberlain devised a kind of swinging-door strategy -- a bayonet charge that eliminated the Confederate threat and turned Chamberlain into a hero.

The Confederates meanwhile under Hood's direction were faced on the other side by sharpshooters dug in at Devil's Den. The situation was altogether chaotic for the Confederates, whose open window of opportunity had drawn shut before their very eyes.

Lessons

As Jeff Henning points out, there are several lessons one can learn from the Battle of Little Round Top. First and foremost is: "Never cede the high ground." The second to follow is almost as equally important: "Sometimes, the margin between victory and defeat is one more try." Had the Confederates given one more charge up the hill, they would have taken it -- as Chamberlain's men were out of ammunition. It was only Chamberlain's quick thinking that allowed a good portion of the Alabama brigade to be captured.

Third, Henning puts on his list of lessons that, had it been effected, might have changed the outcome of the Battle is this: don't sit there until you die. Chamberlain put that maxim into practice. The Confederates did not.

Had Lee and the Confederate commanders performed better surveillance, they might have secured Little Round Top without any battle at all. However, because of delays due to ill-organized lines, the Union was able to reinforce an otherwise up-for-grabs stronghold.

Conclusion

The good points of the battle on the side of the South were in Lee's determination to push northward. However, because of lack of support and poor scouting, Lee missed a golden opportunity to effect real damage. The bad point on the Confederate side at the Battle of Little Round Top was to execute one final charge uphill.

The bad point on the side of the Union was to leave Little Round Top unprotected in the first place. Although the Union had stopped the advance of Lee, it had made a crucial mistake in allowing their position to be threatened.

The Union Army,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Battle of Little Round Top.  (2011, August 5).  Retrieved July 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/battle-little-round-top/861543

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"Battle of Little Round Top."  Essaytown.com.  August 5, 2011.  Accessed July 20, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/battle-little-round-top/861543.