The Geometry of Combat, Part 1: Little Round Top

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.

83rd & 16th Captioned croppedHere is a wider version of  the same view.

83rd & 16th Captioned fullThe 44th New York was just out of view to the right near the top of the image, and directly behind and above the 83rd Pennsylvania.  The 20th Maine position is directly behind the photographer.

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.

IMG_0019 (Medium)In places, this is almost a sheer climb.  Isn’t it amazing how those Texans got up there with their rifles while under fire!?!?!

 Here is the right flank marker under the pine tree.

IMG_0021 (Medium)Note the steep angle to the right, heading up to where the 16th Michigan was located.

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.

IMG_0022 (Medium)A final look at the 83rd Pennsylvania’s flank markers:

IMG_0023 (Medium)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!

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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6 Responses to The Geometry of Combat, Part 1: Little Round Top

  1. robert carey says:

    there are two iron post on the north slope of LRT I always wondered whether these were the flank markers for the 44th. they are situated between the 16th and the 83rd

    • Walter Troy says:

      According to the website – Battle of Gettysburg Buff
      there are two metal bases that once held signs for two Massachusetts regiments that were posted there July 3, 1863. These may be the metal posts that you are referring to. According to this website these markers are located as follows-
      18th Massachusetts (Little Round Top) — at stone wall 25 yards northwest of the 83rd Pennsylvania.
      22 Massachusetts (Little Round Top) — at stone wall 55 yards northwest of the 83rd Pennsylvania.
      There are no longer flank markers in place for the 44th New York, although there apparently was at one time. The monument for the 44th New York reads-
      The 44th N.Y. Infantry, Lieut. Colonel Freeman Conner
      commanding, held position about 100 feet in advance of
      this monument, designated by a marker, from about 3 p.m. July 2, to about 11 a.m. July 3, 1863.
      Hope this helps. W. D. Troy

      • wgdavis says:

        Thank you Walter! And yes, it all helps. There are many surprises on the Battlefield. I love finding them, and hearing about them. Your research is much appreciated.

        W.G. D.

  2. wgdavis says:

    Thanks for commenting Robert.

    The 44th New York has no flank markers. I’m not sure, but I believe them to be the only one, or one of the few Union Regiments without at least one set.

    I think the iron posts you are referring to are on the south slope, and they are from an old iron trail railing that ran behind the 83rd Pennsylvania’s position, and may have led up to the 16th Michigan’s position. They are, I believe, the last remnants of it, and apparently the Park has decided to leave them in place.


    • robert carey says:

      thanks for setting me straight as far as my terrible compass reading. i did not realize that there was railings in the park, this explains a similar iron post on east cemetary hill

  3. wgdavis says:

    The Park has undergone many significant changes since the Battle. A good source of those changes can be found in “This is Holy Ground: A History of the Gettysburg Battlefield 1863-2006, by Barbara L. Platt. Her book is a wonderful detailing of the many changes made over the years.

    Did you know that there once was a parking lot on the northeast part of Little Round Top? If you travel just about to the end of the parking area on the west side up top, and cross the road, down in the woods is some steel cable, similar to what was once used along highways for guardrails. It was the boundary for the parking area. There is also a concrete slab there where a small Ranger shelter was located. And across the road toward the face of Little Round Top there was a road that ran out along that face.

    And of course, Pickett’s Charge was taken over by the Army after WW I and made into Camp Colt, the training ground for its new tanks. It was an assignment to Camp Colt after WW I that brought a young Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gettysburg.

    Barbara Platt’s book is an excellent resource and provides a fascinating journey through time by showing the many different ways the Battlefield was interpreted and shown to the visitors.

    Platt, Barbara L., “This is Holy Ground: A history of the Gettysburg Battlefield, 1863-2006.” Published by Barbara L. Platt, Gettysburg, PA 2006. ISBN 0-9712661-0-7.


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