A bit of terrain description is required here. Little Round Top is the second of three elevations that are located at the south end of Cemetery Ridge. First is Munshower’s Knoll, the position where General Dan Sickles was supposed to place his Third Corps, but left to move farther west to the Peach Orchard. The third is, of course, Big Round Top.
Big Round Top is the highest of the three, and both Round Tops actually have a north-south spine crest at the top, though Little Round Top’s is far more pronounced and noticeable. Big Round Top has no easily-scaled approaches to the peak. The Park Service has cut a trail from the parking area up to the peak, and it is indeed, not an easy climb. That is probably the easiest ascent on the hill. The entire east side is almost sheer. The south approach is steep, deceptively so, as is the western approach. The northern descent from the peak starts with a 30 foot cliff. The hump that extends out from the west flank of the hill is less severe, but all around the hill on all sides are enormous boulders, making climbing even more difficult. Colonel Oates of the 15th Alabama led his men up from the banks of Plum Run near the Slyder Farm to a field bordered on three sides by stone walls. That was the easy part of their route even though their progress was contested by a company or more of Berdan’s Sharpshooters, dressed in green uniforms, hard to see in the thick dark woods. From the field they climbed over the stone fence to continue their advance after the Sharpshooters withdrew. The boulder field is mind-numbing. Some of the boulders are the size of small houses. It had to be a nightmare for Oates to maintain unit continuity advancing up the hump northeastward toward Little Round Top.
[Note: Everyone in the Army of Northern Virginia who could get a good view of the Round Tops and Munshower’s Knoll, knew with a certainty that the key was Little Round Top, not Big Round Top. The higher hill was far too severe, too difficult to scale, and offered no real platform from which to defend the crest or safely launch an assault. On the other hand, the Rebs could easily see that the Army of the Potomac had already established a signaling station on the crest of Little Round Top. It was much easier to get to, much clearer access and already in use by the enemy. There was, in fact, no reason whatsoever to scale Big Round Top during the July 2nd assault. If this doesn’t put the final knife into the stories of the 15th Alabama going up over the crest of Big Round Top…]
Crest, Slope, Small Hump Ridge, The Cove, High Ridge, The Farms:
Little Round Top’s crest runs north and south, and offers a military crest [a point below the actual crest on an elevation where a soldier standing cannot be silhouetted against the sky when viewed from below]. In addition, the west slope was fairly severe but grew more so the higher one climbed. In some areas, such as that defended by the 16th Michigan, there was an almost sheer cliff facing the attackers before they could reach the position of the 16th.
The North slope was easy and whoever was assigned to the crest of Little Round Top was supposed to connect to Sickles Third Corps on Munshower’s Knoll. But Sickles was gone, so Fifth Corps was sent in to plug the gap, meaning some would need to go over the crest to the south side of Little Round Top to establish the left flank of the Army of the Potomac…the line end of the ‘fish hook.’. That fell to Vincent’s Brigade.
The terrain on the east side of Little Round Top is almost as severe as its big brother’s. It has boulders but far fewer and smaller. Still, for the size of the hill, there are enough to go around. The crest slopes precipitously from the top on the east side, and though there was likely a lane or logging trail it hardly resembled the road and parking area of today. Farther east, the slope becomes quite severe until a fairly level extension provides enough room for a footpath, Then another, larger drop to a small hump ridge running north and south, made up of larger boulders. Then a drop into the Cove…a low ground area, with wetlands, small and medium boulders, and year round briars and brambles, and many trees. On the east side of the Cove, a steep rise to a ridge that begins to ease toward the top and provides farmland for crops and orchards for the farms that line Taneytown Road. The crest of this ridge is almost as high as the road currently running over Little Round Top. The houses and barns are on the east slope of that ridge which comes down fairly sharply at the southern end, gradually easing toward the north end and Wheatfield Road.
Colonel Strong Vincent performed brilliant service that day in deploying his men to take every advantage of the terrain. A very important note about the decision to defend in this location was the knowledge of the ground over which the enemy was advancing: starting by coming off a steep ridge, then slogging through fields, advancing up a stream that often ran beneath boulders for many yards at a time, and finally climbing…and climbing, and working their way around, or over boulders, enormous boulders, and small boulders the size of a sedan, and always trees. And the heat. And the final assault was all up hill.
The one advantage the Rebs had was the surprise of suddenly bursting from the woods.
To the west, the right of McLaws Division was marching straight across the fields south of the Rose Farm, heading straight for Hobart Ward’s brigade set up on the west side of the crest of Houck’s Ridge while the left of Law’s Division was advancing up the boulder strewn Plum Run valley.
To be continued…