Movements Of Companies Of the 20th Maine and 15th Alabama Regiments During the Attack On Little Round Top

Lowell Getz


The Confederate attack on Little Round Top, near the end of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, often is purported to have been a pivotal battle of the Civil War. Because of this, there has been a proliferation of accounts of the battle for this small hill. New information continues to appear (Desjarden 2012). Actions of the 15th Alabama and 20th Maine Regiments, in particular, have received extraordinary attention. This, in no small part, results from the allurement of the deeds of the college professor turned army officer, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, on his "sabbatical leave" from Bowdoin College. Colonel Chamberlain's leadership of the 20th Maine, on the extreme left of the Union line, was instrumental in preventing the 15th Alabama, under the command of Colonel William C. Oates, from capturing Little Round Top. Emphasis on the importance of the battle for Little Round Top was fostered by personal reports of those who had partaken in the battle, especially by Colonel Chamberlain in speeches and publications of his role in the battle. Fascination with Little Round Top was furthered by Ken Burns in his Public Television Civil War documentary, by Michael Sharaa's book, "The Killer Angels" and by Ted Turner's epic movie, "Gettysburg", based on Sharaa's book.

Much of the emphasis on the importance of the attack on Little Round Top is a result of the often-cited presumption that had the 15th Alabama carried the crest, the left flank of the Union line would have been turned. Continuing this line of reasoning, the Confederates would then have rolled up the rear of the Union line and won the Battle of Gettysburg. If this had occurred, many believe the outcome of the Civil War would have changed. Such views were promulgated, not unexpectedly, by the participants in the battle from the 20th Maine and 15th Alabama and by historians of the two regiments, the former to imply significance to their efforts, the latter, to their published works.

Other authors (Longacre 1999, Adelman 2003) suggest, however, that even had the 15th Alabama turned the Union left flank, it is not realistic to assume the entire Union line would have been "rolled up." The three adjacent Union Regiments to the right of the 20th Maine (83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan) were holding fast and not in danger of being broken. Had the 15th Alabama captured the crest of Little Round Top there would have been approximately 2,650 Confederate sufficient Union troops available to hold the crest and run up the Union line (Adelman 2003). Most of these would have been exhausted from the day's battle. In contrast, the Union would have had at least 11,600 fresh troops available (Adelman 2003) to mount a counter attack that would have driven back any flanking Confederate forces.

At the beginning of the attack, however, neither the troops of the 20th Maine nor those of the 15th Alabama, understood anything other than that the outcome of Battle of Gettysburg hinged on who controlled the crest of Little Round Top. Colonel Chamberlain was told by his brigade commander, Colonel Strong Vincent, to "Hold that ground at all hazards" and Colonel Chamberlain simply said to his men: "Boys, hold this hill." Brigadier General Evander M. Law ordered Colonel Oates to "do all the damage you can." Thus, both Regiments fought with stubborn ferocity in the belief that the Battle of Gettysburg and, in turn, the fate of their respective nations rested on their carrying the day.

Irrespective of the actual impact of the outcome of Battle for Little Round Top, the struggle between the 20th Maine and 15th Alabama is one of the most publicized small unit military battles in American history. That the battle ran its course in less than three hours emphasizes the horrific magnitude of casualties incurred by the two regiments (20th Maine, 32.4% of the combatants; 15th Alabama:, 34.3% of the combatants; Desjardin 1995).

In spite of all the literary and media coverage of the actions of the 20th Maine and 15th Alabama, there is no source that maps movements of individual companies of the two Regiments. The few accounts that provide detailed maps show only general alignments of the regimental lines during one or two phases of the battle.

As was true of most combat companies during the Civil War, members of the 15th Alabama and 20th Maine regiments formed especially close company identities. Companies of both regiments, and especially of the 15th Alabama, were formed from soldiers primarily recruited from one or two counties (Pullen 1997, Tucker 2002). Many of the soldiers were related, friends with whom they had grown up or had other personal relationships that provided a unique bonding to their "own" company. Accordingly, the men had a sense of unity exceeding that of simple company assignments. Because of this, the disposition of and relative movements of companies during the battle for Little Round Top seems appropriate to document.

Several published accounts include textual indications of movements of the companies. Tucker (2002), in particular gives a relatively complete account, but no map, of the alignments and movements of the individual companies of the 15th Alabama and 20th Maine during the battle for Little Round Top. Unfortunately, in presenting an exceptionally lucid account of the battle, Tucker presents large sections of detail regarding the individual participants and the ensuing actions in between descriptions of the movements of the companies. It is difficult, therefore, for the reader to visualize the relative movements of companies of the two regiments. Pullen (1957) also provides the alignment of the companies along the regimental line of the 20th Maine, but does not give detailed maps or textual accounts of movements of the companies during the engagement.

In this account I present eleven maps that show the relative positioning of the individual companies during the attack of Colonel Oates' 15th Alabama Regiment against Colonel Chamberlain's 20th Maine Regiment. In developing these maps, I have relied mainly on the written accounts of Tucker (2002), LaFantasie (2005, 2006), Oates (1974), and Pullen (1957). Other authors also provide additional or confirming information as to movements of the individual companies (Norton 1992, Laine and Penny 1996, Nesbitt 1996, Spear et al. 1997, Penny and Laine 2000). There were at least five attacks by the 15th Alabama on the 20th Maine. There is insufficient information to show the positioning of specific companies during the individual attacks of the 15th Alabama and counterattacks by the 20th Maine. I have shown the alignment of the companies as reflected by the positioning of the regimental lines during the course the battle.

The attack of the 15th Alabama and the defensive movements and counter attacks of the 20th Maine soon resulted in a breakdown of unit integrity of the companies of both regiments, with intermingling of troops from adjacent companies. The exceptionally rugged terrain features added to the confusion in unit movements, as troops from adjacent companies became intermingled. From all accounts, however, the companies maintained their relative positions along the regimental lines, with company commanders directing movements of their companies during the battle. For clarity in illustrating movements and the positioning of individual companies, I have depicted the companies as discrete entities.

In most instances it has not been possible to be certain of the exact positions of the companies in respect to the actual terrain features or contour intervals. In preparing the maps, I have to the best of my ability interpreted the information in the various accounts as to the relative positions of the companies of each regiment during ensuing sequence of events. Any errors in interpretation and presentation are my own. The descriptive accounts accompanying each map are explanatory of the positioning of the companies, as depicted in the map. I do not attempt a comprehensive account of the battle for Little Round Top. This has been amply described in the various works cited in the References.

This account is presented, not so much as to provide definitive information (since actual dispositions of the companies was not recorded at the time), as it is to stimulate additional inquiry into the relative movements of the companies of the two regiments during the attack on Little Round Top. Hopefully, others may locate or have access to records that show more precisely the positioning and movements of individual companies during the battle.

I have not attempted to depict the "charge" of the 20th Maine and the concurrent "retreat" of the 15th Alabama back down Little Round Top at the end of the day. These events were too confusing to reconstruct. All happened so rapidly and the "charge" of the 20th Maine is surrounded by mystic, as enhanced by Colonel Chamberlain over the subsequent years, as well as by romanticizing historians. Accounts of other participants are also inconsistent. It is obvious that the final minutes of the battle represent extensive chaos, with intermixed companies, retreating and charging. Thus, my maps end with the estimated positions of the companies of each regiment just before the retreat of the 15th Alabama and charge of the 20th Maine.

There is disagreement as to usage of the name "Little Round Top" at the time of the battle. The name "Round Top" or "Sugar Loaf", but not "Big Round Top", was used for the larger hill to the south. Some authors suggest Little Round Top was not applied to the smaller hill upon which the battle took place until sometime later. In the following account I use the terms "Big Round Top" and "Little Round Top", as these are the names by which the two hills are now known.

Map 1

Map 1. Location of the four regiments of Colonel Strong Vincent's Third Union Brigade at the beginning of the attack on Little Round Top. Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren had ordered Colonel Vincent to defend the rocky hill. After a quick reconnaissance of the terrain, Colonel Vincent deployed the Brigade along the lower elevations on the western and southwestern sides of Little Round Top. The right flank of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain's 20th Maine was tight up against the left flank of the 83rd Pennsylvania. Originally, the 16th Michigan was to deploy on the left flank of the Brigade. However, Colonel Vincent moved the 16th to the right flank as the Brigade was deploying. This move placed the 20th on the extreme left of the Brigade and thus the entire Union line. The 47th and 15th Alabama Regiments, part of Brigadier General Evander M. Law's Brigade, were moving off Big Round Top as Vincent's Third Brigade was deploying on the lower slopes of Little Round Top. A few minutes earlier, the 15th and 47th, who were under the overall command of Colonel William C. Oates, had captured Big Round Top. General Law then ordered the 15th and 47th off Big Round Top to capture Little Round Top. The two regiments descended on the north side of Big Round Top to deploy in the low swale on southwest and west sides of Little Round Top in preparation for moving up to the crest, under the assumption it was not defended. Colonel Vincent's Brigade moved into place only ten minutes before the 15th and 47th reached the low swale.

Map 2

Map 2. As he moved the 20th Maine into position, Colonel Chamberlain sent Company B, under the command of Captain Walter G. Morrell, southeast of the left end of the regimental line to protect his left flank. Company B was to join up with skirmishers of the 16th Michigan, who, however, had withdrawn earlier when the 16th was moved from the left flank to the right flank of Colonel Vincent's Brigade. When he did not find the skirmishers, Captain Morrell decided to take up position behind a stonewall (heavy dashed line in front of Company B), even though the wall was beyond the distance from which Company B could support readily the left flank of the 20th. Company B was soon joined by 12 of Major Homer R. Stoughton's 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, who had been run off the crest of Big Round Top by Colonel Oates 15th Alabama.

As the 15th Alabama moved down the northern side of Big Round Top, Colonel Oates saw the Union supply and ordnance wagon trains to the southeast of Little Round Top. He sent Company A, under command of Captain Francis K. Shaaff, to surround and capture the apparently undefended wagons. Company A immediately ran into Company B of the 20th Maine and the 2nd US Sharpshooters and could not advance on the wagon train. Rather than rejoining the 15th regimental line, Company A remained in the swale southwest of Little Round Top and did not take part in the ensuing attack.

The 47th Alabama reached the swale between Big and Little Round Tops ahead of the 15th Alabama and began to move on up toward the crest of Little Round Top. The 47th immediately ran into and attacked the 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania and the right companies of the 20th Maine. While the 47th was attacking, the 15th reached the swale, where Colonel Oates realigned his regiment before moving on up to Little Round Top.

Map 3

Map 3. When Colonel Chamberlain saw the 15th Alabama battle line approach and begin exchanging volleys with the 20th Maine, he moved his regimental line slightly back up the hill to a higher, more easily defended positions. When Colonel Oates saw this movement, he thought the 15th was driving the 20th up the hill. By this time, the 47th Alabama had attacked three times, often engaging in hand to hand fighting with the Union troops. Each time, the 47th was repulsed with heavy losses. Following the third attack, survivors of the 47th withdrew and took cover along the SW base of Little Round Top. From there, the troops continued to fire at the Union line, but were unable to provide additional support to the attacks of the 15th.

Map 4

Map 4. As Colonel Oates moved the 15th Alabama up the southwest slope of Little Round Top, he ran into the left wing of the 83rd Pennsylvania and right front of the 20th Maine. The attack of the 15th rolled along the line of the 20th, from left to right, until both regiments were completely engaged. After the 15th had exchanged several volleys with the 83rd and 20th, Colonel Oates realized he could not break this line. He then attempted a new tactic, turning left end of the Union line. He recognized that if he were to get around the left end of the 20th, he might be able to enfilade and roll up the left flank of the entire Union line. Colonel Oates ordered his seven right companies (E, F, G, H, I, K, and L) to move to the right and then around the end of the left wing of the 20th. The three left companies (B, C and D) kept up a steady rate of fire along the regimental front in an attempt to cover the flanking movement of the other companies.

Map 5

Map 5. Fortunately for the 20th Maine, and unfortunately for the 15th Alabama, the flanking movement of the 15th was observed by Lieutenant James H. Nichols, commander of Company K of the 20th, Captain Orpheus S. Woodward, commanding officer of the 83rd Pennsylvania and Major Ellis Spears, commander of the left wing of the 20th. Captain Woodward sent a messenger to Colonel Chamberlain, who arrived just as Lieutenant Nichols and Major Spears approached Colonel Chamberlain to tell him of the flanking movement. Colonel Chamberlain climbed up on a large rock and confirmed the movement. To avoid being flanked, Colonel Chamberlain ordered his companies to side-step three to five paces to the left, and the four left companies (A, H, C, and G) and the Colors Company (F) to bend back ("refuse") to the left to form a horseshoe shaped line, essentially doubling the original regimental frontage. This maneuver maintained the original regimental front facing to the southwest, albeit in a single rank in some places, and did not allow a gap to develop between the right wing companies and the refused left wing companies. When the right flank companies of the 15th attacked from the northeast, to what they believed to be the undefended rear of the 20th, they ran into heavy fire from the refused companies.

Map 6

Map 6. Pressure from the right companies of the 15th Alabama pushed Companies C and G of the 20th Maine, backward and upward onto higher and more defensible positions. The rest of the 20th companies held firm.

Map 7

Map 7. The seven companies of the right wing of the 15th Alabama made a series of five attacks against the five companies of the refused left wing of the 20th Maine, under the command of Major Spears. The right wing, under command of Captain Atherton W. Clark, held the original southwest-facing line of the 20th. Small squads of the 15th broke through the lines of the 20th with hand-to-hand fighting. Each time, the 20th counterattacked. As a result, the line of fighting forged back and forth up and down the hillside. Because the 47th Alabama no longer pressured his right wing, Colonel Chamberlain ordered Companies E and I to withdraw to the rear and move to reinforce the left wing.

Map 8

Map 8. When some of the troops in Companies E and I of the 20th Maine, saw others in their company moving back, they assumed the company was being over-run and began to race to the rear. To avoid a panic retreat, Colonel Chamberlain ordered Companies E and I to move back into the line on the right wing. The left wing would have to fend for itself.

As the attacks and counter attacks of the 15th Alabama and 20th progressed, troops of the individual companies became more and more scrambled into small groups, each group attacking and retreating on its own. Men from adjacent companies undoubtedly were intermixed. The company fronts, however, retained their approximate positions along the regimental lines. The commander of each company led the troops in his company line.

Map 9

Map 9. Attacks from the right wing of the 15th Alabama continued, eventually causing all companies of the left wing of the 20th Maine to fall back to higher ground. At the same time, the left wing of the 15th advanced up the hill far enough so as to push back Companies E and I of the 20th to higher ground and to move up and in between the left flank of the 83rd Pennsylvania and the right flank of the 20th. Company B of the 15th then was able to fire into the rear of the 83rd.

Map 10

Map 10. The entire left wing of the 20th Maine eventually was pushed so far back, the regimental alignment resembled a hairpin. The 15th Alabama, however, had lost so many men it appeared to the officers that they could not sustain the attack. At this time the 15th regimental Adjutant, Captain De Bernie B. Waddell, approached Colonel Oates and asked permission to take 40-50 troops from the right companies and move them to higher ground to the right of the regimental line in an attempt to enfilade the Union line. Colonel Oates approved his request. Major Waddell selected the troops and moved them to higher ground far to the right end of the 15th line. There they fired down upon and into the rear of the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York Regiments.

When he began taking fire into the regimental rear from Company B of the 15th and from Major Waddell's troops, Captain Woodward of the 83rd sent his acting adjutant, Lieutenant Martin Van Buren Gifford, to Colonel Chamberlain to ask him if he had been turned. Colonel Chamberlain said "No", but asked for a company from the 83rd to shore up his left wing. Captain Woodward could not spare a company, but said that if Colonel Chamberlain would move his right wing to the left, he would pull back the left wing of his regimental line and extended it to the left to straighten his line and close the gap between the 83rd and 20th lines, and at the same time allow Colonel Chamberlain to defend a shorter right wing.

Map 11
Map 11. Continued attacks by the left wing of the 15th Alabama forced companies E, I, K, and D of the 20th Maine to fall back up the slope of Little Round Top. Colonel Oates reported that the last attack by the right wing of the 15th pushed the left wing of the 20th from the higher ground of Vincent's Spur, at least for a short period of time. The 15th then held the higher ground, with the two wings of the 20th pushed almost back-to-back. It is not clear, however, that the 15th did advance this far.

Map 12

Map 12. Even if the 15th Alabama did succeed in driving the 20th Maine off the Spur, it was only a few minutes before the 20th rallied to drive them back and regained control of the Spur. Whether or not the 15th took the Spur, the relative alignment of the companies along the lines of the 20th and 15th would not have changed. Colonel Oates ordered and then rescinded an order for a sixth attack. The attack of the 15th was finished.

The Day Is Done

Upon receiving enfilade fire from Captain Waddell's troops, Colonel Chamberlain thought the 20th Maine might have been turned. It was at this time Company B of the 20th Maine and the 2nd US Sharpshooters chose to enter the battle. They began firing into the rear of the 15th Alabama. When the 15th began taking fire from the rear, Colonel Oates thought the 15th was surrounded.

Believing they were surrounded, almost out of ammunition and their troops exhausted, neither Regimental Commander felt he could maintain the battle. After rescinding the order for a sixth attack, Colonel Oates ordered a retreat back down the hillside. A hectic scramble down the slopes of Little Round Top ensued. At the same time, Colonel Chamberlain decided a bayonet attack was all that was left to him. Almost as soon as he ordered "bayonets", the men of the 20th, apparently on their own, began a successful charge down the hill that swept it clear of Confederate troops. The battle for Little Round Top was over. The 20th Maine and the other three regiments of Vincent's Brigade had carried the day. Little Round Top remained in Union hands.


I thank Gerald Degnen for providing the contour maps of Vincent's Spur and John Heiser for suggestions regarding the originally deployment of Vincent's Third Brigade.


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