Big Round Top
While the events of Little Round Top are oft disputed, Big Round Top has it’s own controversies both new and old.
Some confusion has been caused among modern historians by statements of A. M. Judson of the 83rd Pa. He suggest that during the 20th's charge down Little Round Top they also cleared the side of the hill on Big Round Top,
and not stopping to catch their breath, they climbed the heights of Round Top before returning back to their old position.
Some historians suggest (may I be so bold as to say wrongly suggest)
that this charge occurred later in the day in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Reserves and that both the 20th and the Reserves had cold feet and left the mountain.1
In the History of the Eighty-third Judson writes,
Their ranks had become so thinned by the battle that they had but a little more than a strong skirmish line with which to attack the faltering columns of the enemy.
But yet Col. Chamberlain determined to make the attempt. At the word of command the Twentieth rushed down upon the rebel host
with a yell, broke their lines, captured a number, and drove the rest from his front. As he was driving them, five regiments of the reserves, conducted by Lieut. Gifford, who had gone
for reinforcements, came up under the command of Col. Fisher, and joined in the battle cry. This was taken up by the rest of the brigade, and the enemy seeing that we were
reinforced, fell back in great disorder. The Twentieth continued the pursuit, their line swing [sic] around upon a moving pivot, like a great gate upon a post,
until its left had swept down through the valley and up the sides of Big Round Top." [...] "The Twentieth kept up the pursuit, followed and supported
on its right by a heavy line of skirmishers from the Eighty-Third and the rest of the brigade, until they had carried the heights of Round Top
and driven the fleeing rebels down the other side. But not deeming it prudent to remain longer without more support, Col. Chamberlain
ordered the regiment back again into their old position; for the rebel prisoners had already stated that but one brigade of their division had made the attack,
and that they were supported by two or three more brigades who where then forming for another attack, and that they wanted to be taken to the
rear as quickly as possible. But the expected attack never came, and about dark the Twentieth, with two regiments of the Reserves went up again, took position and threw up breastworks of the rocks.
About ten o'clock the Reserves moved out, and the Twentieth remained there alone about an hour, when Col. Chamberlain sent word to Col. Rice that he wanted the Eighty-Third.
We can see that Judson does suggest that the Reserves arrived in time to help in the attack on Little Round Top (another matter to be disputed), but we don't see him suggest they
went up Big Round Top in this initial move made by Chamberlain. We do see Judson say that the Reserves joined Chamberlain in an after dark charge up the mountain, but
we see that, "About ten o'clock the Reserves moved out, and the Twentieth remained there alone about an hour."
Somehow Longacre manages to misconstrue this account, and suggests Fisher's Reserves joined Chamberlain on the first charge up Round Top
and then left Chamberlain to fend for himself causing Chamberlain to return down the mountain. Longacre writing,
"Although some historians downplay or suppress the fact, Chamberlain, concerned about his ability to hold his position in the
dark against an unknown force, decided to clear out."2
The reason that these historians were downplaying it might be that it never happened.
If Chamberlain made any initial charge up Round Top it was merely a continuation of his momentum on Little Round Top.
When he went up later with Fisher, it was only Fisher who got the cold feet and moved out.
In an 1883 recreation of his official report Chamberlain is somewhat vague about this initial movement on Big Round Top, it could be interpreted as either, the Confederates fled up Big Round Top, or
Chamberlain chased them up. He states,
Having thus cleared the valley and driven the enemy up the western slope of the Great Round Top,
not wishing to press so far out as to hazard the ground I was to hold by leaving it exposed to a sudden rush of the enemy,
I succeeded (although with some effort to stop my men who declared they were "on the road to Richmond") in getting the regiment into good order and resuming our original position.
In the original version of his report Chamberlain mentions the enemy fleeing up the hill but does not mention the main part of the regiment pursuing them.
The click of the steel seemed to give new zeal to all. The men dashed forward with a shout. The two wings came into one line again, and extending to the left,
and at the same time wheeling to the right, the whole Regiment described nearly a half circle, the left passing over the space of half a mile, while the right
kept within the support of the 83d Penna. thus leaving no chance of escape to the enemy except to climb the steep side of the mountain or to pass by the whole front of the 83d Penna.3
Walter Morrill's report adds some clarification of where company B was after the 20th Maine's charge.
At which time they broke and run, going in the direction of Big Round Top. We immediately followed them part way up the hill until they began to stop and fire at us and having two men wounded and knowing my command
could not expect to make much of a fight with them, I ordered my men to cover themselves the best they could. In which position we remained until nine o'clock P.M. at which time you ordered me to report to you with my Co. for
duty with the Regt. 4
Apparently Morrill's company continued to act as a flank guard while the rest of the regiment returned to their original positions. At 9:00 they rejoined the regiment as it moved up Big Round Top.
On the Confederate side William Oates would state,
When the signal was given, we ran like a herd of wild cattle right through the line of dismounted cavalrymen.
Some of my men as they ran through, seized three or four of the cavalrymen by the collar and carried them out prisoners.
On the top of the mountain I made an attempt to halt and reform the regiment, but the men were helping wounded and disabled comrades,
and scattered in the woods and among the rocks, so that it could not be done. This was just about sunset, and the fighting all along our
line had pretty well ceased. At this time there were no Federals on Round Top. They never occupied the top of it until near dark.
The Pennsylvania Reserves under General Samuel Crawford made up the Third Division of the 5th Coprs.
Fisher commanded the third brigade of this division. Some explanation for why this division failed to give proper support may be
due to the fact that they were recently added to the 5th Corps, having previously been stationed arround Washinton.
Crawford, having been an army surgeon before the war had gained a higher rank with little experience in battle. In spite of this in their official reports seen in, Gettysburg Reports
pages 652 - 656 and 658 - 659,
Crawford and Fisher remarkably claim that it was the reserves who captured Big Round Top.
In 1863, a few months after these reports were submitted, a professor from Gettysburg published an account of the battle giving the credit of capturing both Little Round Top and
Big Round Top to the Pennsylvania Reserves. Surprised by the claim James C. Rice wrote the author a letter that was published in the New York Times November 28, 1863.
Describing his brigade's position Rice declared that for the author's account to be true, "They must have either been forced from their position by the enemy in front, or the Pennsylvania Reserves, in their zeal, must have charged over them. However,"
Rice declared, "nothing of this nature occurred. No troops save those of the enemy were in front of these four regiments, from the commencement of the second day's struggle till 10 o'clock the next morning, when they were relieved by the First brigade of Gen. BARNES' division."
This was the most critical moment of the day to the left of our line. Col. CHAMBERLAIN, commanding the Twentieth Maine, ordered his regiment to charge,
and, after a desperate struggle, he repulsed the enemy at every point. The importance of permanently dislodging the enemy from this mountain called Round-Top Hill,
induced the commanding officer to send to Gen. SYKES for reinforcements to support this brigade in this endeavor. The great value of this position history will not fall
to recognize. Gen. SYKES promptly sent a brigade of five regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserves, under the command of Col. FISHER, to act as this support. Three of these
regiments were formed in the rear of the Twentieth Maine and Eighty-third Pennsylvania. This line had scarcely been formed, when the Twentieth Maine was ordered to
charge and take the hill. As no time was to be lost, and as any change of position of the balance of the Third brigade might prove hazardous, the two remaining regiments
of the Reserves were ordered to support the Twentieth Maine. But so rapidly and gallantry did Col. CHAMBERLAIN lead his regiment to the charge, that he swept at the point of the bayonet the enemy from the hill,
and took permanent possession of the same before the supporting force could render him any material assistance.
In his responce dated Dec. 14 1863 Fisher makes a claim that he would continue in years to come, that it was he as the ranking officer who
deployed Chamberlain as his skirmishers because Chamberlain's men had the better guns. In this account he also gives
a reason for abandoning Chamberlain,
On my way up the hill I got an intimation, coming from some rebel prisoners, that a movement was about being made by the enemy
to send a brigade down the valley between Round Top and Little Round Top, for the purpose of cutting off and capturing the troops on
Round Top (They having heard us go up.). I at once hastened down the hill and moved the Ninth and Tenth upon the ground
previously occupied by the Fifth and Twelfth, so as to cover the valley and prevent such a movement, should it be attempted.
After reading the reports and the Newspaper clippings Sykes sent a letter to Crawford rebuking him for making false claims.
In my official report of the battle, credit is given to this portion of your command, (part of Fisher's brigade) for
assisting in taking forcible possession of Round Top Mountain, but the merit and result of that achievement, I have always thought due to Colonel, now General Rice, and
especially to Colonel Chamberlain and his regiment the Twentieth Maine Volunteers.
Despite the rebuke the debate between Fisher and Rice's men would continue long after Rice's death in 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania.
Fisher writing to the National Tribune in 1885 in responce to an article by Holman Melcher.5
Mr. President Melcher undertakes to give a history of the taking of "Round Top" in the following style: First, he goes on to give a history of the
gallantry of the 20th Me., which I shall not controvert, for the simple reason that I know nothing about it, not having arrived on the
battleground until late in the afternoon, and of course do not know what feats of valor were performed by that organization, and hence have nothing to say.
At least this first statment helps to clear up the matter on whether the Reserves assisted Chamberlain on Little Round top as Judson's history had claimed.
But Fisher contines,
After the enemy had fallen back, while Col. Rice and myself were engaged in conversation about the battle in which his (Rice's) brigade had taken
so conspicuous part, I called his attention to the hill now known as Round Top, and asked him whether he had not been annoyed by the
enemy's sharpshooters during the battle of the afternoon. He replied in the affirmative. I then said, "I will take that hill to night, as I regard it as a dangerous
position to be held by the enemy." Col. Rice remarked that the attempt to take that hill might prove a hazardous enterprise.
My reply to this was that all active warefare was more or less hazardous; to which the Colonel replied that if I was determined to take the hill
he would like to join me in the effort. I agreed to this, and said I would take two of my regiments and he could send one of his to report to me.
Col. Rice then called Col. Chamberlain and introduced him to me, and we all together talked the matter over. During this conversation I asked
Col. Chamberlain what guns his regiment was armed with, and he replied Springfield rifles, or muskets, I am not sure which.
I then said, "I will deploy your regiment as skirmishers, as my men are armed with Harper's Ferry altered muskets."
We at once started up the mountain, I being in command, and the 20th Me. deployed as skirmishers. We took the hill, and in doing so
captured a few prisoners and held the top of the hill until relieved on the next day by Gen. Wright, of the Sixth Corps.
Fisher's whole argument seems to be that he indeed deserves the credit for whatever Chamberlain did because
he outranked Chamberlain. Elisha Coan of the 20th Maine would take offence at Fisher's account and would write his own to the National Tribune.
After the prisoners were sent to the rear a staff officer came to Col. Chamberlain and said: "Troops are to be sent up Round Top, and as you
have repulsed the flaking movement of the enemy, you can have the privilege of planting your colors upon its summit."
A hint was as good as a command to Col. Chamberlain, and just as the shades of night were settling down upon the battle-worn troops of the contending armies,
the 20th Me. reached that positon, planted its colors there, formed in line of battle, and sent out a skirmish line.
After our skirmishers had advanced down the hill two regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserves came up behind us and rested on their arms.
Up to this moment not an enemy had been encountered on Round Top. As our skirmishers were about to halt and remain on picket
they were challenged by a foe that could not be seen in the darkness of the woods, and by a little ruse 34 men, claiming to belong to
the 15th Ala., were taken prisoners without firing a gun. But the Confederates refused to be escorted to the rear by the small squad that could be
spared from the line, and so another company of the 20th was sent to bring them in. They passed through our regimental line at the colors,
and consequently the writer, being a member of the color-guard, knows whereof he speaks. As soon as the enemy found that a part of his picket-line
had been captured he fired a volley, the bullets going into the tops of the trees over our heads. The remainder of this article
the writer would fain omit, but as the gauntlet has been thrown down by Col. (or General) Fisher, he will give it, and affirm its truth under
the sanctity of an oath and on his honor as a solder.
Immediately after the volley referred to the two regiments of Pennsylvania Reserves that had come up behind us, and not more than a rod or two in our rear,
moved by the about face down the hill, and it was with difficulty that their commander was persuaded to return them again to our support.
In 1883 Chamberlain, believing his original Gettysburg report to have been lost, had recreated one for the government printing of the official reports.
While very similar to the orignal, having to recreate it gave him the ability to add a line or two to address this Round Top debate.
At dusk, Colonel Rice informed me of the fall of Colonel Vincent, which had devolved the command of the brigade on him, and that Colonel Fisher had come up with a
brigade to our support. These troops were massed in our rear. It was the understanding as Colonel Rice informed me, that Colonel Fisher's brigade was to advance and
seize the western slope of Great Round Top, where the enemy had shortly before been driven. But, after considerable delay this intention for some reason was not carried into execution.
Chamberlain goes on to relate that after taking the hill with the 20th, he finally saw Fisher come up, but... "the enemy opened a brisk fire,
which disconcerted my efforts to form them and disheartened the supports themselves,
so that I saw no more of them that night.
In later years as monuments were being placed Fisher, still attempting to direct credit away from the 20th Maine and hide his own failures,
would boldly claim,
I soon discovered that Big Round Top was in possession of the enemy's sharp shooters,
and seeing the annoyance they were to us, and the great importance of the position,
as a key of our position, I said to Colonel Rice, 'I will take that hill to night.'
To this proposition he assented, and proposed joining in the undertaking.
Seeing that three regiments were all that could be conveniently employed, and having but two regiments that I could use without weakening Rice's
support Colonel Rice directed Colonel Chamberlain, with the Twentieth Maine, to report to me.
Learning that this regiment was armed with Springfield rifles, I directed Chamberlain to deploy it as skirmishers as my
regiments the Fifth, Lieutenant-Colonel Dare and the Twelfth, Colonel Hardin, were armed with altered Harper's Ferry muskets...
In 1889 at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument on Big Round Top Samuel Miller would state,
It was some time after the Twentieth returned from the bayonet charge and pursuit of the enemy,
and the shades of night were falling, when the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 5th Corps., commanded by
Col. Joseph W. Fisher, arrived in the rear of Litle Round Top. Col. Rice, who had assumed command
of our Brigade when Col. Vincent was wounded, asked Fisher to advance with his brigade and seize
the crest of Round Top. This movement Col. Fisher hesitated to make, giving as a reason that, on
account of the darkness and the nature of the ground, and his men newly arrived, being ignorant of
the situation, the attempt was extremely difficult and dangerous. Col. Rice then asked Col.
Chamberlain if he would take the heights, and our commander replied: "Yes, the 20th Maine will take
them!" Col. Fisher then agreed to support the Twentieth in this movement.
The casualties of battle, together with the details to bury the dead and bring up ammunition, had
reduced the ranks of the Twentieth to 200 muskets. The men had just passed through such an ordeal
as only those who have experienced the horror of war can comprehend; one man in every three had
been shot down; they were exhausted, hungry and thirsty; but they received the command with
enthusiasm. Leaving their dead comrades, who lay so thickly about them, to be buried by the detail,
the regiment advanced in line of battle across the vale, and were soon struggling over the boulders
which obstructed the ascent of the steep sides of Round Top. This advance was made just to the left
of the present path up the mountain. When the summit was reached it was intesely dark in the woods,
although the open ground was flooded with the light of a full moon.
The Twentieth was now occupying an extremely dangerous position, entirely isolated from the
main line and exposed to attack from the enemy, or to be cut off altogether from the brigade on Litle
Round Top. This was a period of much anxiety. While strengthening his position Col. Chamberlain
heard troops advancing on his right. Being challenged, they replied that they were sent to support
the 20th Maine which they were trying to find. These were the 5th and 12th Penn. Reserves. They
were conducted to the propoer position, but as they were marching by the "right flank," in fronting,
of course, they faced to the rear. The confusion and noise attending the efforts to have them "face
by the rear rank," drew the attention of the enemy, who fired a sharp volley in our direction. The
Reserves had been floundering around in the darkness for some time and it is not strange that they
began to think they had marched
"Into the jaws of death,
Into the mouth of hell."
Instead of facing by their rear rank our supports moved off in a direction opposite from the enemy
In 1911 Eugene Nash the historian for Rice's regiment, the 44th New York would write,
About 9 o'clock in the evening Col. Rice, who had succeeded to the command of the brigade, directed Col. Chamberlain to seize and hold Big Round Top.
This with much persistence and daring, he was able to do, his regiment suffering some loss in the movement but capturing a number of prisoners,
among them an officer on the staff of the Confederate General Law. It was understood that Col. Fisher, commanding a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves,
was to give support in this movement. His failure to do this, caused Col. Chamberlain to send for other support.
The 83d Penn and Forty Fourth NY were promptly sent to his aid.
It was understood at the time that the failure of Col Fisher to give adequate support in seizing and holding Big Round Top was not
This incident would not be the last dispute between the First and Third Divisions. See Warren Court of Inquiry part 2