[NB: Images are clickable and can be enlarged]
After intercepting the messenger from General Warren asking for a brigade to defend Little Round Top, Colonel Strong Vincent took it on his own hook to order his brigade [Third Brigade, 1st Division [Barnes], Fifth Corps [Sykes]] to the crest of Little Round Top. Riding from just west of Plum Run on Wheatfield Road, Vincent, a Harvard educated lawyer from Erie Pennsylvania, and former commander of the 83rd Pennsylvania, rode to the top, met briefly with General Warren, and rode to the south side of Little Round Top to survey the ground.
In the approximate 10 minute span until his troops began to arrive, Vincent developed a plan of defense for the assault Warren had pointed to earlier, and that he could hear coming right at him. And here is where the story gets interesting.
The history books show little detail about the Vincent Defense. [All we have ever seen show the 20th Maine on the left facing due south, with the rest of the brigade forming a line of defense to the right: 83rd PA, 44th NY, and on the west side, on a plateau, the 16th Michigan. To be sure, traditionally, the histories have this brigade in a line of defense along the military crest of the south and west faces of Little Round Top. [The Military Crest is a location below the summit or top crest of an elevation which, when manned, will not expose the troops positioned there to observation from below silhouetted against the sky.]
In the image below, you can see the position of the 20th Maine on what we now call Vincent’s Spur, an elevation jutting from the eastern crest of Little Round Top [LRT] southeastward toward the small saddle that separates LRT from Big Round Top. The regiment’s first positions are indicated by the stone walls erected lower than their final position on top of the Spur.
This image is taken from the west. Visible in the center of the image at the top is the right flank marker of the 20th Maine after they refused their line into the tight “V” shape with its point to the right. Initially, the regiment was posted only on this side of the spur, along the lower set of walls, in lines that sometimes overlapped. And they were farther to the left [northerly] than this view shows.
Here is what Lt. Col. Chamberlain wrote in his after action report:
“In order to commence by making my right firm, I formed my regiment on the right into line, giving such direction to the line as should best secure the advantage of the rough, rocky, and stragglingly wooded ground.
“The line faced generally toward a more conspicuous eminence southwest of ours, which is known as Sugar Loaf, or Round Top. Between this and my position intervened a smooth and thinly wooded hollow. My line formed, I immediately detached Company B, Captain Morrill commanding, to extend from my left flank across this hollow as a line of skirmishers, with directions to act as occasion might dictate, to prevent a surprise on my exposed flank and rear.”
By “generally,” [our emphasis] Chamberlain meant toward the lower western slope of BRT. He also describes the ground as rough and rocky, something which describes the west face of the spur much more closely than the top of the spur.
The next image is of the left of the 83rd Pennsylvania. Note that the unit’s statue of Strong Vincent is closest to the left flank marker just to its right, and in front about 20 yards. [Ignore the stone wall in the foreground, it was put there the next day by another unit.]. In fact, you cannot see the right flank marker in this image. [Also note that the slope of the ground along Sykes Avenue, which crosses LRT south to north – after it crosses Warren Avenue, is built up to support the roadbed, but at the time of the battle was a natural slope down to the left flank marker of the 83rd PA].
This image is looking generally north from the north side of Warren Avenue.
Note, then, that the left flank marker of the 83rd PA, which would show the right of the line as viewed in this image, ends much farther downhill from either the main crest or the military crest of the south side of LRT. Note also how Vincent’s spur beginning to diminish on the other side of Sykes Avenue as it heads up toward the east crest of LRT, and it was along there that the 20th Maine’s right was located, on an angle, but with an inviting gap between the right to the 20th ME and the left of the 83rd PA, which was forward of the Maine right. Thus, the right of the 20th ME covered that gap, and the left of the 83rd PA.
That’s pretty advanced thinking, even for a Harvard educated lawyer. But wait, there’s more.
In fact, the military crest directly behind the 83rd Pennsylvania is occupied by the 44th NY, which left no flank markers, but did leave a wall. They were elevated behind the 83rd PA by about 15 yards up, and 30 yards distance on the ground. And the right of the 44th NY connected with the left of the 16th Michigan on the plateau on the southwest corner of the Military crest of LRT.
The front of the 16th Michigan was essentially a cliff, and the 83rd Pennsylvania’s right was anchored to the base of that cliff.
So, in effect, we no longer have a line of defense, but rather a very sophisticated defense in depth, making maximum use of the terrain features to put concentrated fire on any assault by the enemy.
More than anything else, that effort on the part of Strong Vincent to defend the Union left at Gettysburg was what earned Vincent his posthumous promotion to Brigadier General.
Part 2 coming up: The fight for Vincent’s Spur. Be ready for more new stuff!