Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Fight for Houck's Ridge

[Reprinted with permission from GettysBLOG]

Late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the members of Brigadier General J. H. Hobart Ward’s Brigade of 6 regiments from Maine, Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania, plus elements of the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters, prepared to receive the assault of Confederate General John Bell Hood. Perched atop the south end of Houck’s Ridge, the southern terminus of which is Devil’s Den, Ward placed his men in a line stretching generally north, almost to the Wheatfield. Behind him lay Plum Run Valley, soon to become known as the Valley of Death, and several hundred yards farther east lay the two Round Tops, “Big” on the south, “Little” to the north. There was slender Union presence in between Ward and Little Round Top.

Facing Ward were two Brigades of Hood’s shock troops, under Brigadier General Jerome Bonaparte Robertson [Texas and Arkansas], and Brigadier General Henry L. Benning [Georgia], on Robertson’s left. The terrain was difficult for the Confederates, but what Benning’s men had to go over was so impassable that his men split Robertson’s Brigade with the 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas moving to the left of Benning’s men, while the 4th and 5th Texas got mixed in with Brigadier General Evander Law’s Alabama brigade assaulting Little Round Top.

Anchoring the left end of Ward’s line [at the south end of Houck’s Ridge, with the worst of the Devil’s Den Boulders at his back] was Smith’s 4th New York Light Battery, with Captain James Smith commanding the six 10 pounder Parrot guns. Union artillery batteries were comprised of 6 guns, divided into three sections of two guns each. Smith had posted one section of his guns to his right rear about two hundred yards, on the floor of Plum Run Valley. They were pointed south, across the stream at a tree line at the base of Big Round Top. The area was littered with large and small boulders. When the Alabama troops emerged from the tree line, Smith’s two guns roared into action, firing explosive shells over the rocks, which in many cases added rock splinters to the shrapnel from the exploding shells. As the Confederates withdrew back into the tree line, Smith’s two guns elevated their muzzles and opened fire on the treetops of the wood line. This created hundreds of wood splinters raining down on the Alabamians sheltering there. The area became known as The Slaughter Pen. Below is a photo of the two gun section of Smith’s Battery which has been missing for some time due to repair and restoration of the guns. Its location is on the west side of today’s Crawford Avenue at the spot where Smith had posted them.  Houck's Ridge is in the background.



In the meantime, Smith’s other two sections [four guns] were on top of the south end of Houck’s Ridge covering the left flank of Ward’s brigade line. To Smith’s right was the 4th Maine and 99th Pennsylvania Infantry [both moved there during the battle], and on their right, the 124th New York. Farther to the right was the 20th Indiana in the edge of the Rose Woods. Other regiments from Ward’s brigade were posted down on the floor of Plum Run Valley, facing the elements of Evander Law’s Alabamians coming up through the boulders of Plum Run Gorge.

As Benning’s Brigade approached Ward’s position, they found the 1st Texas Infantry and the 4th Arkansas Infantry in front of them, entering a triangular shaped field on the western slope of Houck’s Ridge. At the top, along the base of the triangle, was a stone wall, behind which were Colonel VanHorn Ellis’s 124th New York Infantry, his “Orange Blossoms” from Orange County, New York. As the Texans began their assault up the ridge, the Orange Blossoms poured a deadly fire into them, causing them to fall back. Ellis’s men, encouraged by this, and led by the Colonel who jumped his horse over the wall, began to march in line abreast down the Triangular Field toward the Texans. While withdrawing down the hill, the Texans reloaded, and at the bottom, on a small knoll, they turned and fired a volley into the approaching New Yorkers. The regiment was decimated. Major Cromwell, the second in command was down, and many others were dead or wounded. The New Yorkers began to withdraw. In the ensuing fight, the Orange Blossoms drove off the Texans, but not without a great price. Cromwell and Ellis were both dead, and many of their compatriots were as well. It was a sad day for Orange County, New York.

Benning continued to press forward, and the fight became hand to hand, lasting for almost an hour, before the 99th Pennsylvania, fighting from a circle of large boulders, was forced to withdraw. The rest of Ward’s Brigade had already done so, heading to a spot north of Little Round Top.

Below is a photograph of the Artillerist statue, which marks the spot of Smith’s 4th New York Light Artillery Batter [2 sections] on the south end of Houck’s Ridge. Anyone who has ever driven or walked up from Devil’s Den will recognize the four cannons of Smith’s Battery represented atop Houck’s Ridge. Several years ago, the Artillerist’s statue was pulled down and decapitated, with the head stolen, during a pre-dawn attack of vandalism on the Battlefield. [Two other monuments were damaged along Emmitsburg Road]. The statue has been repaired and restored as you can see.  Little Round Top is in the background.


Of Smith's guns on Houck’s Ridge during the battle, all four were captured, one of which was damaged or spiked, and three were carried off by the Confederates.

Novus Livy

”Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."-- Abraham Lincoln

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Battle for Little Round Top

 [Reprinted with permission from GettysBLOG]

On July 2nd, 1863, General Gouveneur Kemble Warren stood on the rocks of Little Round Top and gazed upon a disaster about to befall his army. As the Chief Topographical Engineer for the Army of the Potomac, it was his job to look at terrain, decide what could be attacked, what could be defended and how best to arrange troops in order to do either one - or both.

This day had been quiet so far, but by late morning a dangerous gap in the lines had been discovered. Major General Daniel Sickles, a politically appointed General who commanded the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac, had dislodged his men and guns from the knoll just to the north of Little Round Top, moving them forward and up the elevation to the Emmitsburg Road, over a half mile forward. Sickles placed one brigade in the Peach Orchard next to the Sherfy House, and then sent a whole division to stretch up along the road almost to the Codori farm. Sickles had also left a Brigade behind and to the south along a ridge that ended in a jumble of enormous boulders. When the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George Gordon Meade, was alerted to Sickles’ move, the two rode out to look at Sickles lines. Meade explained the problems with being so far in front of the Union lines, and that enormous gap left in his own lines between the men in the Peach Orchard and the men on that rocky ridge a half mile to the southwest. Sickles offered to return his men to the assigned position just as the Confederate artillery opened up on his troops. Meade remarked that he didn’t think ‘they’, the Rebel guns, would give him the time to do so. Meade turned his horse and rode back to the Union lines to try to fill the gaps that Sickles had left.

The result was troops from two other Union Corps engaging the approaching Confederates in the bloody battles of the Wheatfield. Nearly seven thousand men lay as casualties, dead and wounded, when the afternoon’s fighting ended there.

What Warren was seeing was the line of men, a half mile wide, of Confederate General John Bell Hood, approaching toward Sickles men on the ridge. And Hood's line extended even farther to the left than that. Some of them were starting up the southern face of Big Round Top, the highest elevation in the vicinity, just several hundred yards to Warren’s left. He sent a messenger to the Commander of the Union Fifth Corps asking for a brigade of men to take up a line on the south face of Little Round Top to stop the end of Hood’s line. If they flanked the Union position on Little Round Top, well, it was possible that the Union Army’s strong position at Gettysburg would be so threatened as to cause it to withdraw southward into Maryland.

On the lane below Little Round Top, Colonel Strong Vincent, a Harvard educated lawyer from Erie, Pennsylvania, stopped his small brigade and stopped the messenger, asking for his message. When told he was sent for troops to defend the hill, Vincent told him that on his own responsibility, he would take his brigade to the crest of the hill and place them at General Warren’s disposal. Vincent ordered the men to the top of the hill and proceeded to move ahead of them to scout the terrain. After a brief consult with Warren, who merely had to point to the advancing Confederate troops, Vincent set off to look at the south flank of Little Round Top.

The two Round Tops [not known by those names until after the battle] were physically separated by a small saddle of ground through which a lane ran, coming up from Plum Run Valley to the West and running out between farms on the east side of the two hills, to the Taneytown Road. A spur of ground jutted from Little Round Top into this saddle of ground from north to south. It came to a point and descended perhaps 15-20 feet very sharply to the saddle. The ground was strewn with boulders large and small. After perhaps ten minutes, Vincent’s men started to arrive.

Historians for years have written that Vincent arrayed his troops along the military crest [A lower crest than the top, on which men could stand and fight and not be silhouetted to attackers from below.] with the 16th Michigan Infantry at the southwest corner of the crest, and on their left, the 44th New York, then the 83rd Pennsylvania, and finally, on what would eventually become known as Vincent’s Spur, the 20th Maine. However, recent work clearing the south slope of Little Round Top has resulted in the [re-]discovery of the flank markers [stone markers which marked the left and right ends – flanks – of a regiment, placed there by the Veterans of the battle] of the 83rd Pennsylvania. And they are not in line with the rest of the Brigade. Instead of a line of defense, Vincent, who once commanded the 83rd Pennsylvania, placed his men in a very sophisticated defense in depth. He placed the 83rd Pennsylvania about fifty yards in front of the 44th New York, facing south. They were also twenty-five feet lower than the 44th New York. To the right rear of the 83rd Pennsylvania was what is essentially a 25 foot cliff leading up to the position of the 16th Michigan. To the left is a gap between the 83rd and the 20th Maine, arrayed on an angle leading away from the 83rd, and ending at the end of Vincent’s Spur. The gap was an invitation to the attacking troops to enter and become a killing ground as the Maine troops opened on them from behind the rocks on the spur.

It was innovative, sophisticated, and deadly to the enemy. Sadly, Strong Vincent did not survive the Battle of Little Round Top. The fight made a Medal of Honor recipient of Lt. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commanding the 20th Maine. Chamberlain was not only the left flank of Vincent’s Brigade, but of the Army of the Potomac. He wound up facing one regiment of Alabama Troops in the killing ground and in front of the 83rd Pennsylvania, and then another Regiment appeared in his rear. After fending off repeated assaults, including one that reached inside his lines, Chamberlain’s men were out of ammunition. Thinking the enemy was forming for another assault, he seized the initiative, and ordered his men to fix bayonets, and charge the enemy. They drove the enemy regiment off, capturing many prisoners.

Below is a recent picture of the 83rd Pennsylvania’s position on the south flank of Little Round Top.


The view is looking west. The crest of Little Round Top is to the right, and Warren Avenue [visible to the left] which comes up from Plum Run Valley and runs out to Taneytown Road over the saddle of ground that separates Little Round Top from Big Round Top. The monument is that of the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the statue on top is that of Strong Vincent. Unlike most regiments, the regimental marker for the 83rd Pennsylvania is not in the center of its line, but rather about twenty yards behind, and closer to its left flank than its right. The right flank marker of the 83rd Pennsylvania is under the pine tree in the center of the photo. The left flank marker is not visible in this photo, but another marker near it is visible to the left in a completely bare ground spot to the left of middle of the fallen tree [see detail photo below]. The line of the 83rd runs parallel to Warren Avenue about 20 yards in, and follows a line of boulders, which no doubt was used for cover.


Next time you are out on the Battlefield, go explore this for yourself!

Novus Livy

"Fellow Citizens, we cannot escape history." -- Abraham Lincoln

Copyright © 2005-2012: Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog;; All Rights Reserved.