The First Question: How did he know?

One author* details a contentious discussion on the peak of Big Round Top between Colonel Oates and General Law’s messenger [Captain Leigh Richmond Terrill, Assistant Adjutant General on Law’s staff] wherein Oates demanded to be allowed to go after the artillery he could see from the peak of Big Round Top, while Law’s officer reminded him of his orders to hit the flank of the Army of the Potomac.

[*NB: Tucker, Phillip Thomas, Storming Little Round Top: The 15th Alabama and their fight for the high ground, July 2, 1863. Da Capo Press, 2002.  ISBN 0-306-81146-4, p. 180 ff]

But we have determined that Oates halted the 15th Alabama for a short rest in the triangular field** bounded by stone walls, and met with the messenger from General Law, who by that time had stepped up to command the division after Hood was wounded.

[**NB: This triangular shaped field is located east and up hill from the Slyder Farm and contains the Vermont Cavalry Monument.  It is on the left side when driving up Big Round Top on the hump over which South Confederate Avenue climbs from Plum Run.  It should not be confused with the more famous Triangular Field on the west slope of Houck’s Ridge/Devil’s Den.]

We have authored a detailed analysis that shows what the outcomes would be if Oates had led the 15th Alabama up to the actual peak of Big Round Top: an attack on the Union Artillery Reserve, or an attack on the left flank of the 20th Maine Infantry, either of which would have been exploitative enough to spell disaster for the Army of the Potomac.  Let us then dispense with the notion of Oates and his men climbing to the very peak of Big Round Top because neither of those outcomes occured, and as Oates himself states in his After Action Report that when he and his battleline emerged from the woods his right meeting the left of their line exactly.”   In other words, they were matched with the then-disposition of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine.   [see Oates’ After Action Report]

Well, if he was not on the peak of Big Round Top, and was still on the west side of that elevation in the triangular field, then how did Oates know the artillery was there?  He could not possibly see the artillery park.  He had only a vague confidence that his line would meet the left end of the Army of the Potomac.  The woods were dense, the foliage full, and the boulders over which his men climbed were enormous.***

[***NB: Further logical proof that Oates was not on the peak of Big Round top can be found in a later recounting where he details the struggle of his men in getting over and around the enormous boulders that you can see from the road when driving up Big Round Top.  He described that journey as a “climb“.]

So, how did he know about the Artillery?

We invite your commentary and questions. Please click on “Leave a comment” at the bottom of this post.


About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
This entry was posted in Artillery, Artillery as an objective, Battle Decisions, Battle Geometry, Battle Segments, Big Round Top, Description, Little Round Top, Strategic Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Terrain. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The First Question: How did he know?

  1. Lee Elder says:

    The trees and other plant growth on the Round Tops was less dense in 1863 than it is today, I think. Wildlife would have seen to that. The piece above seems to indicate the trees/brush were as dense then as they are today, which I don’t believe is accurate. I don’t think this disproves your general idea, that the 15th Alabama did not climb the heights of Big Round Top but rather skirted around the side on its way to combat with the 20th Maine. However, I have wondered if elements of the 20th, perhaps their right-most company, reached toward the peak of BRT, while the center of the line and left-most companies did ranged in the direction you indicate. Wouldn’t this allow the 15th Alabama’s right flank to match up with the left of the 20th Maine? Not arguing so much as wondering.

  2. wgdavis says:

    Thanks for the discussion, Lee.

    First, from all of the accounts I have seen, the west side of BRT was heavily wooded, much as it is today, or perhaps more so. The south side has an easier slope to deal with, but the east side borders on being almost sheer. The north side at the peak leads to a sheer drop of at least 30 feet before the slope eases. As for LRT, the east side was heavily forested, but still had many trees on it. The east slope comes down pretty severely until it reaches what I call “The Gully” that runs north and south, then comes a ridge that runs north and south, and the farms on Taneytown Road back up almost a quarter mile to the stone wall on this ridge, and from that ridge to those farms, is a steep incline. There were at least 3 logger lanes that were large enough to get a wagon in and out again, fairly evenly spaced down below Wheatfield Road to what one between the two Weikert Farms just north of Wright Avenue. The rise to the Farms on Taneytown road, which are on the east slope of that rise, is perhaps a little bit higher than the position of the 20th Maine. So that would have blocked the view of anything immediately across Taneytown Road from those farms [artillery reserve].

    Now about Chamberlain’s line…his left was, at first, just above the road level of Sykes Avenue as it rises from the intersections with Wright/Warren Avenues to the north to crest LRT. If you click on this link:[ ] or copy and paste it into our URL window, and scroll to near the end, there is a photo taken from Chamberlain’s position looking directly to the spot where the 15th Alabama emerged from the trees to begin their assault. Chamberlain then drew his lines up toward the top of Vincent’s Spur, extending it down to where their Monument is located, just above the parking area on Wright Avenue. After Oates began to slide his men around to his right [Chamberlain’s left], Chamberlain refused his line by having every third man step back and file to the end of the line then move back north to form another line creating a V with the bottom of the V where the 20 Maine’s Marker stands. Chamberlain never crossed the swale between the two Round Tops until the bayonet charge.

    As for the 15th Alabama not going to the peak of BRT, there is another point. Oates says his men cleared the stone fence after driving off the sharpshooters and then took a rest, which is where Captain Terrill found him. [Coddington states that Terrill rode his horse up to Oates position, which would have been impossible at the peak] The peak and its western and southern approaches contain more than a few short stone walls that were put in place the night of the 2nd by the 20th Maine and other regiments posted to the top of BRT. A few more were added on the 3rd, including one connecting to a pretty sturdy wall running up from the north end of South Confederate Avenue, which displays, in its angle, the direction of the attack the day before. The only place, then, with a stone fence on BRT is the triangular field just west and uphill from the Slyder Farm. There are three walls, two of which are about 100 yards long while the southern side is closer to 150 yards. Oates men, as I figure it, came up from the south west, crossing through the Slyder farm, and climbing to the west stone wall and the south stone wall, which serendipitously put them into an “L” shaped line, which threated the flank of the sharpshooters.

    So, to answer your question directly, Chamberlain did not reach across the swale and extend his line up the north/northeast side of BRT. What he did do, however, was to post Company B in the rear of his left, behind a stone wall north of Wright Avenue, about 250 yards behind his left. The wall marked the back boundary of the Weikert Farms, and is still there. It can be seen from the first bend in Wright Avenue when exiting toward Taneytown Road. Company B was joined there by the Sharpshooters that had given Oates’ men fits all the way up from Plum Run Valley to the triangular field. That was Chamberlain’s insurance policy in case an attack threatened his lines on Vincent’s Spur. And they did indeed provide that support just as the bayonet charge was getting started, and that caught a party of fifty of Oates’ men from which only one survived, the rest being killed, wounded and captured, or captured.


    • Lee Elder says:

      Thanks for answering so quickly! I bow to your knowledge of the area when it comes to the fullness of the trees and undergrowth before the battle. I thought there was less greenery then. I’ve been to the Company B position and it is hard to see how the rifle fire could have been effective from there with that much vegetation in the area. I did understand about Chamberlain’s line not reaching the swale. Somehow, I came to the conclusion (while standing midway between the 20th Main right flank marker and the Memorial to the 20th) that at least some of the Alabama boys came off BRT, forcing Chamberlain to refuse his line. I’ll be there later this month, so I’ll copy all this down and walk the grounds. Nothing like it for learning! I’ve enjoyed this, thanks very much for the terrific detail.

  3. wgdavis says:

    You are very welcome, Lee.

    I would note that LRT was very heavily used on the west face for logging, so it was almost bare. The east face was also used but was much heavier forest in large part due to its rugged terrain. That said, there was likely a tree line much farther back from Warren Avenue and Wright avenue simply due to the ease of access. But it wouldn’t take much farther before the forest would thicken. The photos of the time show a tree shrouded BRT and the swale between was wooded.

    Some of what I have posted today in the comments is based on some original documentation sent to me by a descendant of the Adjutant for the 15th Alabama who led the attack around the left flank of 20 ME. He was the only survivor to return.

    We walked the east side of LRT in early December last year. We went in with the permission of one of the owners, and explored that back stone wall, then turned north and found the going very, very heavy, with lots of briars and brambles, and at one point, having lost our way, I guided on the sun and the deer trails…even got huffed at once by [I think] a deer. We eventually made our way out several properties north of the Weikert farms, and exited on a gorgeously restored logging lane. Stone walls on both sides, wide, and smooth ground. Most maps only show two, the one we used to exit the wilderness and the one we went in on. The Warren Map of 1868 shows the third one, just south of where the BBQ place is now, and that lane goes up over the top of LRT north of where the battery was, and west down to Plum Run. It ran on the north edge of an orchard that I believe is still an orchard. More on that when I post next on Hazlett”s Battery.

    By the way, take insect repellent if you walk those woods and wear heavy leather boots. It is a wetland back there, and there are likely some snakes that are not friendly. Hence, our choice of early December to venture through there. The briars and brambles and vines were enough to require an extra day of rest afterwards!


  4. Lee Elder says:

    Snakes! That’s an excellent warning, thanks.

  5. Bob Carey says:

    I totally agree with your assessment of the terrain on the east side of LRT, and I do not recommend venturing there in the summer time. One time years ago I followed a path from the 20th’s monument in a southeasterly direction and I found the wreckage of what I think is a farm wagon. I don’t think it was Civil War because the wheels were made of iron. Did you ever come across it? I am interested as to your thoughts of what it was.

    • WG Davis says:


      Though I’ve never seen the wagon, I have heard others speak of it. It is likely still there. The NPS pretty much leaves things where they are unless they can prove that it got there AFTER the Battle. I’d suggest to you that perhaps it is a logger’s wagon.


      • Bob Carey says:

        I’ll have to go through my photos and find the one I took of the wagon. Since it is on film and I’m basically computer illiterate I’ll try to remember to bring it in October.
        BTW going back to the original post Oates could not have known of the artillery reserve. I’ve noticed that the good Colonel tends to embellish his role at Gettysburg the further away in time he is from the event, (the same might be said of Chamberlain), in reading Col. Oates’s immediate after action report he doesn’t mention artillery whatsoever.

        • WG Davis says:

          True, but once they were in contact and started to slide around to the right to flank Chamberlain they saw the trains of Hazlett’s Battery down in the “cove” as they call it, I call it the gully but won’t any more, so let’s call it what Oates men called it…the cove.

          I smell a post coming.


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