Objectives and the Use of Terrain

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…


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, Tactics, Terrain. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Objectives and the Use of Terrain

  1. Lee Elder says:

    Mr. Davis,
    I am somewhat taken aback by the Note you posted in this discussion, the sweeping comment that, “Everyone in the Army of Northern Virginia who could get a good view … knew with a certainty … the higher hill was too severe …” and so forth. With logic like that, Culp’s Hill should have been left alone. I understand your point, that you discount Oates’ claim that he scaled Round Top prior to attacking LRT. That’s a solid question. However, looking back with 152 years worth of hindsight and given the quality of field glasses at the time, I wonder if the Note’s very general statement is accurate.
    Lee Elder

    • WG Davis says:

      I expected that question. Once those troops of McLaws and Hood lined up on Warfield Ridge they could see the two hills clearly. And they could also see that there was a Union Signal Station on Little Round Top, but not on Big Round Top. There, of course, had to be a reason for this, part of which would be the open west face of LRT which would aid the signalling. But that goes to terrain, then. When next in Gettysburg, I suggest you stop along Emmitsburg Road [be careful doing this please…look for a small wide spot on the southbound shoulder] about a quarter mile north of where West Confederate crosses it along the crest of Warfield Ridge, and take a look at Big Round Top from there. The steepness of the terrain on the north and south sides are clear to see. There was no way until the right of Hood’s Division got into place, to see the slope of the west side, up which the Rebs would have to climb, but they could easily see that BRT was not very forested while LRT was. And the reason was plain…it was too difficult for the loggers to get to the trees.
      Hood, in his memoirs, talks of the report of his scouts that he sent out in advance of the division’s arrival on Warfield Ridge. They went along the old trail at the south base of Big Round Top, and came out at the Plank Farm, and went up along the east side of BRT to LRT and the lane that is now Wright Avenue, and down into the valley to return south along Plum Run. [Warren may, or may not have already been up there, and the signal station was probably in place when Hood’s scouts went by unseen.] Hood recalled their report as saying the south way around to the east and Taneytown Road was open, and there was an artillery park up that road behind LRT. They reported no defense on LRT, but also reported that a small force would only need to roll rocks down on them to defend LRT.

      In this report and the way the scouts traveled, there is no tactical value assigned to BRT beyond a physical masking of a proposed assault around the south foot of BRT. Clearly, to the scouts, LRT was the tactical high ground there. They assessed only LRT for its defensive weaknesses and found none save the east side artillery park of VIth Corps Artillery reserves across from the houses along Taneytown Road. Take them and the defense of LRT becomes meaningless. Hence Hood’s and Longstreet’s remonstrations to Lee to allow them to do just that. And doing just that would not call for any force to transit the peak of BRT. The entire issue comes across as if it was a given that BRT was tactically out of the picture for anything other than a physical screen of movements on that south base path to Taneytown Road.

      At no time [according to his memoirs] did Hood even so much as hint that troops could make any use at all of BRT except as noted above.

      One more thing about this is timing: When Hazlett’s Battery finally gets on top of LRT and begins firing, Smith’s Battery on Houck’s Ridge [Devil’s Den] has already beein in action against Benning, and others, and Smith has already sent one section to the floor of Plum Run Valley to cover the approach up along either side of Plum Run [Slaughter Pen], and Vincent’s Brigade is already in action because Hazlett’s second in command can hear them.

      So, when Warren sees the Rebs on Warfield Ridge forming for attack, he literally has no more than ten to fifteen minutes to get somebody [Vincent and then O’Rorke, and some artillery – which was followed by O’Rorke] to come up and block the south and southeast approaches to LRT. He has already decided after one short look around at the situation that defending BRT was out of the question for many reasons — terrain difficulty was only one of them, but it was the primary reason. He made the decision based on troop availability and timing that the left of the Army of the Potmac would rest on what is now known as Vincent’s Spur on the south side of Little Round Top.

      • wgdavis says:

        Let me add this, as well. Your comparison to Culp’s Hill is sort of valid. Though I don’t believe Culp’s Hill is quite as high as BRT, there are similarities. I would point out that that the assaults by Early’s Division on the northeast and north sides of Culp’s Hill, and by Johnson’s Division on the east and southeast side of Culp’s Hill encountered a stiff defense, and the terrain could not be overwhelmed enough for the ANV to make any inroads except the temporary occupation of abandoned works that were occupied by Johnson’s men on the night of July 2nd/3rd. That said…

        I would point out that in the early evening of July 1, when Lee gave his infamously vague order to Ewell to “Take those hills if practicable,” Ewell took the decisiton not to attempt it, and for good reasons. Though not fully manned, and with defenses not fully completed, he judged it a bad risk to take in assaulting the hills. He could have considered assaulting Culp’s Hill by itself. It still would have been difficult. His two divisions under Early and Rodes, were tired from a long day of marching and fighting, they were still getting reorganized, fed, watered and rearmed, and Johnson’s Division was still many hours away. So his decision not to attack was, in my thinking, absolutely correct, especially after hearing from Hill that Hill would offer no support or direct help. Once Johnson’s Division did arrive, sometime around 1 AM, Ewell ordered Johnson to attack Culp’s Hill! Johnson sent some scouts up who returned with the bad news of many troops and lots of defensive works, so Johnson bedded the division down behind the Daniel Lady Farm and got them some rest.

        As far as the comparison of Culp’s Hill to Big Round Top, I think it stops with the ruggedness of terrain factor, and the ease of access for the Culp’s Hill defenders, while the terrain was difficult for the attackers. On BRT, the terrain had no such ease of access for defenders, and the terrain was even less amenable to attackers.

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