One of the ways to look at the ebb and flow of isolated actions at Gettysburg is by using geometry. Some of it is fairly obvious, some is deceptive, but it all involves angles. Angles as we are discussing mean terrain angles, firing angles, and line of sight angles, and we can draw conclusions from these analyses that can help explain what the outcomes were of combat over that terrain, and why those outcomes occurred. Using a series of recent photos, we have discovered that there seems to be an angle for every situation.
Remember, you can click on these images for a larger view.
We’ll start with one of our favorites, the position of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment on the south slope of Little Round Top. Here you can see an enlarged view showing both flank markers of the 83rd Pennsylvania and the extreme slope located just behind [to the right of] their right flank where the 16th Michigan was posted, both of which protected the 83rd from attack on their right flank. Angles.
Below is a view of the upward path to the 16th Michigan’s position [note their monument on the boulder at the right side of the image]. On top, and much higher than the 16th’s position, is the 44th New York Monument. This is the route the 4th and 5th Texas took in their assault on the 16th Michigan.
Here is the right flank marker under the pine tree.
Below is a look at the Strong Vincent statue on top of the 83rd Pennsylvania Monument. Note how close the left flank marker is to the monument. A legitimate question might be, “Was the left flank marker moved west away from the lines of the 20th Maine to make way for Sedgwick Avenue?” Normally the monument is located in the center of the two flank markers.
The left flank marker is easily seen at the left, with upper Warren Avenue at the pull-offs near the top visible in the background. Photo was taken from the west side of Sedgwick Avenue. The right flank marker is harder to see, but can be located under and to the left of the pine tree at the extreme right of the image.
Analysis: We should note here that the definition of the “military crest” of any elevation is a line along which a soldier can stand and NOT be silhouetted against the sky when seen from below. It is also a line where the terrain below can be readily observed…and taken under fire. It is NOT necessarily a physical feature which could be construed as a crest per se, but simply a line along which the soldiers take up positions. There is that angle thing again.
In Strong Vincent’s Brigade, the colonels were obviously well schooled in that concept and three of the four of the regiments took positions on Little Round Top along the military crest line.
The 44th New York has no flank markers to note its position. Nevertheless, there are enough features to mark their position as being up in the center of the brigade line, but below the actual crest of the hill, along the line of the military crest. On their right was the 16th Michigan, on a small plateau, also along the line of the military crest, and wrapped around the curve of the hill to the west. On the left of the 44th, but extending forward along the side of a spur jutting to slightly east of south was the 20th Maine, and their first line is marked by the remains of the low stone walls just a few feet above the right side Sedgwick Avenue on the south slope of Little Round top…those walls would be on the military crest line. Later, the 20th would draw their lines up to the crest of the spur in order to shorten their line and refuse it to the left as the 15th Alabama began to maneuver to threaten the left of the regiment. This then accounts for the line of stone wall along the crest of the spur.
Directly in front of the 44th New York, but much lower on the south slope of Little Round Top [perhaps half-way between the 44th New York and what is now Warren Avenue coming up from the Plum Run Valley] is the line of the 83rd Pennsylvania. It was well below the military crest. It was also below the fire of the 44th New York.
As the 83rd Pennsylvania was advanced into some rather large boulders in front of the rest of the brigade, we need to note that their left was covered by the angle taken by the terrain of what is now known as Vincent’s Spur, along which the 20th Maine was formed, and their right was up against the base of a small cliff above which was the left flank of the 16th Michigan, 30 feet higher.
Thus we have a defense in depth, with sophisticated positions providing covering angles of fire, and inviting gaps that became killing grounds when the Rebels entered them. The Brigade fought with valor from this strong position, and repulsed the assault by Law’s Brigade.
Strong Vincent had no more than 5 or ten minutes to survey the ground he was given to defend, and come up with a formation that provided maximum fire along the brigade line and protection for the flanks of the advance regiment [83rd Pennsylvania]. The angles of fire, both up and down, and right and left, were maximized, and all the likely approaches to the brigade position were covered.
Not bad for a Harvard-trained lawyer from Erie Pennsylvania. He certainly did not learn those angles at Harvard Law!