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Gettysburg Online




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Copse of Trees
7/3/02

 
Big Round Top


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Devil's Den

View from top of Big Round Top


Sketch of Lincoln Assassination

They say the noise was incessant as the sound Of all wolves howling, when that attack came on. They say, when the guns all spoke, that the solid ground Of the rocky ridges trembled like a sick child.

On July 2, 1863, the lines of the Battle of Gettysburg, now in its second day, were drawn in two sweeping parallel arcs. The Confederate and Union armies faced each other a mile apart. The Union forces extending along Cemetery Ridge to Culp's Hill, formed the shape of a fish-hook, and the Confederate forces were spread along Seminary Ridge.

"The men who fought there Were the tired fighters, the hammered, the weather-beaten, The very hard-dying men. They came and died And came again and died and stood there and died, Till at last the angle was crumpled and broken in . . . Wheatfield and orchard bloody and trampled and taken, And Hood's tall Texans sweeping on toward the Round Tops . . . " Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown's Body, Book Seven

General Robert E. Lee ordered General James Longstreet to attack the Union's southern flank, aiming for the hills at the southernmost end of Cemetery Ridge. These hills, known as the Little Round Top and Big Round Top had been left unoccupied, and would have afforded the Confederates a good vantage point from which to ravage the Union line.

General Longstreet, disagreeing with Lee's orders, and hoping that the cavalry under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart would soon come up with the army to participate in the attack, was slow to advance on the hills.

Although Longstreet's soldiers broke through to the base of the Little Round Top, Union General G. K. Warren perceived the Confederate plan in time to rouse his men to take the strategic hill, fending off the Confederate attack.

General Lee had also commanded General R.S. Ewell to attack the northernmost flank of the Union Army. On one occasion Ewell's troops took possession of a slope of Culp's Hill, but the Union remained entrenched both there and on Cemetery Ridge, where General Meade was headquartered. The following day this battle, tragic for both sides, ended with a Union victory.

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Big round Top was used for its extreme heights to give a view of the battles that would be fought at its base as well as a safe place for union soldiers to rest.

On July 2nd, At approximately 6 PM, Colonel William Oates led his 15th Alabama Regiment up the southwest face of this hill, his progress contested by a company of Colonel Hiram Berdan’s US Sharpshooters using repeating rifles. Because of their rate of fire, Oates was convinced he was facing a regiment. Just before gaining the summit, Oates “phantom regiment” disappeared. From the summit, Oates could peer out a bit to the northeast, and see a rather large wagon train sitting just off the Taneytown Road, about three quarters of a mile away. He moved his regiment down the hill, in an attempt to get to the wagons. Before he could reach them, however, his men came under fire on their left from the 20th Maine under Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. After a desperate battle, the 15th Alabama retired back up the hill and over the summit of Big Round Top. The hour was late, and darkness was starting to set in. Some of the men of the 15th went down the southwest face of the hill they had scaled hours earlier, and reaching a point of exhaustion, stopped on the lower slope and set up a “cold bivouac” in the darkness. Meanwhile, after fending off the final assault of the 15th Alabama with a bayonet charge, the 20th Maine was ordered to occupy the peak of Big Round Top. Arriving after dark, Chamberlain still threw out his skirmishers and pickets. Some of them, being challenged by the members of the 15th Alaabam in the dark, responded that they were members of the 15th Alabama, stragglers. They were invited into the camp, where they took the Confederates prisoner. The 20th Maine was relieved the morning of the 3rd, and sent to the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge….for rest!

Several Union regiments occupied the summit of the hill for the balance of the battle, but there was no more action here.

The terrain features of Big Round Top are such that it’s steep, rocky slopes prohibited the scaling of the hill by artillery or horse, though there is a report of a mounted messenger reaching Colonel Oates on the peak of Big Round Top before he descended to his meeting with the 20th Maine. It is hard to imagine a horse making the climb, as it is difficult for a person to do it. The paved paths which exist today we certainly not present during the battle. As the viewer can see by scanning around there is simply not much room on top of the hill for much more than a regiment or two, and they would be spread down the slope a distance.

While coveted by both sides during the battle, it turned out that it was more to keep the other side from using the hill, than to mount much in the way of operations from it. It became, simply, a terrain feature to cross.

 

What many visitors dont know about Big Round Top is that it was just as much of a tourist attraction in the years after the battle as was Little Round Top or Devils Den! First off there was and still is remnants of the original walking path going up the Northern slope of the hill. This slope followed along the breatworks and several monuments which today are rarely seen or visited since the path was taken out in 1948. At the top of the hill used to stand a man made tower like the one that still exists on Culp's Hill. Early Visitors used to get a birds eye view above the treeline.Today little can be seen from the top during the spring,summer and Fall due to the tree growth. This Tower was also taken out and the base of the tower still exists today. There are several Rock Carvings near the summit on the rocks. Most of these carvings are from the late 1800's and done by locals and visitors.

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