If the Battle of Gettysburg was the Civil War's turning point, Little Round Top
(in which nine Union “alumni” participated), was Gettysburg's crucial
moment. The battle, tactically, was unremarkable – a Union brigade arrives
on a hill minutes before larger Confederate forces come to seize it. The Union brigade barely holds on but a second brigade arrives and drives back the Confederates. This action keeps the Union army from being outflanked, and the next day Pickett's failed charge becomes a household word….
By 4 p.m. on July 2, 1863, the Federal army held the high ground outside of Gettysburg but was on the defensive. An
ill-conceived attack near Little Round Top, against larger Confederate forces, was disastrous, leaving the hill undefended. By controlling the strategic hill, the Confederates could push north, creating a domino effect on other Federal positions, or
swing east to begin encircling the entire Union army.
Spotting Confederates moving forward, a Union general commandeered Col. Strong Vincent's 1,200-man brigade ' (consisting of the 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania, 20th Maine, and 16th Michigan regiments), ordering them to Little Round Top. They arrived, out of breath, about 4:30 p.m., only ten minutes ahead of the first of 2,400 Confederates. [With the
possible exception of the tiny window of opportunity at Midway in 1942, when American planes caught Japanese fighters refueling and sank four aircraft carriers, few minutes have been more decisive in American military history.]
Vincent quickly placed his four regiments one-third of the way down the steep, rocky hill so the Confederates at the bottom would be in the open while his troops were protected by trees and rocks as they fired downhill. Not yet seeing the enemy, Vincent sent out skirmishers including the 44th New York's Company B2 with Moses H. Bliss '57, Charles E. Sprague '60, and James F. Knowles '68. The skirmishers had gone only
a short distance when, out of the woods at the foot of the hill, came 1,200 men from John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade, the creme de la creme of Lee's great army.
The Confederates launched two attacks, getting within yards of the Union lines, but heavy Federal fire drove them back behind large boulders on the lower slope. This was a classic Catch 22the defenses were so strong that the Rebels began fighting “Indian-style,” shooting down dozens of Federal soldiers, including perhaps John Butler '62, who was seriously wounded.
Other problems quickly developed. Part of the 44th and all the undersized, 150-man 16th Michigan were in an open area, taking heavy casualties. Those Confederates not pinned down, reinforced by another regiment-altogether perhaps 600 men-began moving toward the 16th. As the Rebel attack gained strength and confidence, the outnumbered 16th began to crumble. Shortly after 5:30 its colonel fled with forty men. Seeing this gap between the 44th and the 16th, Vincent quickly shifted two of the 44th's companies, again linking the regiments, and himself circled to the rear to prevent others from running away.
Here Vincent ran into Sprague. At Union, Sprague was Phi Beta Kappa, gifted in languages (he knew eight), and gave the salutory address in Greek. Now he was just another casualty, a bullet through his shoulder. Staggering to the rear, Sprague screamed and cursed at the fleeing men of the 16th. In 1910 Sprague wrote:
“The 16th seemed to be retiring in some confusion. I turned toward them and commenced to exhort them to stand…. I was bleeding profusely and very likely a little
delirious; my waist belt had broken and I was trying to hold up both my trousers and my wounded arm (which seemed to weigh a ton) with my right arm. The men of the 16th stared at me curiously, but I think what they saw was someone behind me,
Vincent coming up on foot with his wife's little riding whip in his hand. [Vincent] touched me lightly with his left hand, saying, `That will do, Sgt. Sprague; I'll take hold of this.' …he happened to know my name from the old chaplain of the 83rd who graduated from Union College. (I wish I could
remember his name.)… [Vincent] went to driving the men of the 16th back into line with the little whip and that was the last …I saw him.”
Minutes later, Vincent was mortally wounded. “This is the… fifth time they have shot at me,” he gasped, “and they have hit me at last.”
Just when all seemed lost, another Union regiment suddenly appeared on the Confederate left. Only yards from victory, the Rebels had to change direction to face Col. Patrick O'Rorke's 450-man 140th New York coming over the crest of the hill. O'Rorke's adjutant, Porter Farley '61, later wrote:
“A great basin lay before us full of smoke and fire and literally swarming with riderless horses and fighting, fleeing and pursuing men… The wild cries of charging lines, the rattle of musketry, the booming of
artillery, and the shrieks of the wounded were the orchestral accompaniments of a scene like hell itself…. O'Rorke did not hesitate… `Dismount,' he said, for the ground before us was too rough to ride over. We
sprang from our horses and gave them to the sergeant major. O'Rorke shouted, `Down this way, boys!' and following him we rushed down the rocky slope…. [where O'Rorke] was shot in the neck and dropped instantly dead.”
Hand-to-hand fighting followed. The 140th, crazed at O'Rorke's death, surged on, linking up with Vincent's men, not stopping until the Rebels had fled down Little Round Top. With this, and the arrival of three new regiments (including the 146th New York with Benjamin Franklin Wright '62 and James Henry Robinson '68), the battle should have ended.
But just about the same time, two additional Confederate regiments, under a William Oates, reached the opposite side of little Round Top and attacked Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine, with Lt. Samuel T. Keene '56.
Outnumbered two to one, Chamberlain's regiment held its ground against four determined assaults. Oates called the 20th's fire “so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk in a strong wind.” About 7 p.m., with his men out of ammunition, Chamberlain led the 20th Maine in a bayonet charge that drove Oates's men off the hill.
The day's fighting had finally ended. Dressed in their flannel uniforms, heavy and sticky with sweat and caked with the grime of gunpowder, eyes watery from acrid smoke, stomachs turning from the sights and smells of
the littered field, the Union men realized they had won.
But for the wounded, the worst was just beginning. At field hospitals, doctors were sorting them into those likely to survive who did not need
surgery; those who might survive but needed surgery; and those whom only the clergy could help-including Sprague.
Left to die, Sprague defied the odds to write later:
“Most of this is still very clear in my mind, as also the terrors of that night in the old stone house. I heard every tick and every stroke of the old clock as I lay in [a] bedroom; rows of men of all ranks and of both armies covered the floors; each one seeming to have his own peculiar groan or cry…. On the night of the third I was carted in anguish somewhere to the south, was soaked all night, and on the morning of the Fourth found close by me the old Chaplain of the 83rd who saved my life with a tumbler of whiskey.”
By the morning of July 3, Vincent's brigade had left Little Round Top. Robinson, Wright, and Farley's regiments
remained and they witnessed Gettysburg's outcome.
“No language [Farley wrote] can exaggerate the mighty storm of shot and smoke and sound which for nearly two hours filled the air. Many caissons were blown up on both sides [with] an occasional explosion much louder than the rest and huge columns of smoke rising…. We saw [Pickett's charge] up to the point where they came into actual collision with our lines and there the hills and trees hid them for us. Then succeeded a few minutes of the most exciting suspense, while we waited for the verdict from this trial by battle… [but] at last the well-known cheers of the Union troops broke out upon the air.”
After Little Round Top
Samuel T. Keene '56, an officer, was shot in the chest by a sniper a year later. He died in the arms of a good friend, who married his widow.
Moses Hawks Bliss '57 was wounded twice after Gettysburg. Little more is known about him. He died in Pasadena, Calif., around 1905.
Charles E. Sprague '60 survived but his left arm was thereafter useless. Sprague became a banker, helped develop a “universal” language, was active in veterans affairs, and served on Union's Board of Trustees. He died in 1911.
Porter Farley '61 left the law to practice medicine. He wrote extensively on the Civil War, coming back to Schenectady when Union honored its veterans in 1915.
John Butler '62 became a missionary and died in China in 1885.
Benjamin Franklin Wright '62, an officer, was captured in 1864 and spent a year in a Confederate prison. In 1895 he was a school principal in St. Paul, Minn.
James F. Knowles '68 became a minister holding sixteen pastorates in seven states. He died in 1909.
James H. Robison '68 was captured with Wright and sent to the infamous Andersonville prison. He became a minister, and was active in Veterans affairs, attended Union's 1915 ceremonies, and became his class president. He died in 1923.