Book Review: Custer’s Trials, by T.J. Stiles

T.J. Stiles [author of Pulitzer Prize winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War] gives us a deep understanding of George Armstrong Custer in his new book Custer’s Trials [Alfred Knopf, in stores October 27, advanced ordering at Amazon].

In “Rise”, the first part of Custer’s Trials, Stiles takes us on a well-crafted journey through Custer’s youth, and through the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled at few things military or academic, and including his court-martial while a graduate awaiting orders. It then chronicles the career of the “boy-General” throughout his meteoric rise in rank and legend during the Civil War. At the same time Stiles, relates aspects of Custer’s personal life and his romances, culminating in his marriage to Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon.

He persevered at West Point, and though he was last in his class academically and first in demerits, he succeeded in passing his exams, thus becoming eligible for graduation. In spite of all of the negatives, Custer showed himself to possess many qualities the military desired in its officers: poise, creative thought, conventional and unconventional avenues to problem solving, the ability to get others motivated, and stature, into which he grew through his activities, mostly in the course of breaking rules…rules by which he abided just enough to get by. In short, Custer, with the assistance of West Point, taught himself leadership. It was not the leadership of someone who proclaims himself the leader, it is the one who leads from the front and succeeds because others willingly follow. And all the while building his repertoire of exploits, he began building friendships with his classmates, and with politicians in hopes of receiving assistance to further his career at his pace.

Stiles relates the details of his first trial: a court-martial before he could leave West Point after graduation. The court found him guilty and ordered no punishment except a reprimand in orders. And thus began the hard fighting and fast promotions of his successful and charmed Civil War career.

Custer’s Civil War experiences were as charmed and full of good fortune as were his West Point experiences. He grew to expect this of himself – indeed, he was fearless in battle, leading from the front of his unit, sword in hand, and not just as a symbol, but a weapon he used with devastating effect in every engagement.

But there was another Custer – a self-serving Custer, who cultivated friends, and curried favor with friendly higher-ups. This was the insecure Custer, as changeable as the times, yet as constant as the sunrise with his contradictions. In this manner Stiles presents Custer as a man who embraced the three main realms of his life – the private, public and professional realms, sometimes mixing them but only to his advantage. In each he was comfortable and moved about in them freely, enjoying the moments to their fullest, yet constantly laying and cultivating the groundwork for advancement in all three realms. Sometimes conniving, and never missing an opportunity to not only extol the virtues of his latest adventure, but enhance them as well.

Custer’s rise through the ranks to generalship is well known. But Stiles laces the telling with personal details often missed in many works of history involving Custer, and details the patronage afforded him by Generals McClellan, Pleasonton, and Sheridan.

Custer & Pleasonton

One measure of Custer’s leadership and how it affected his men in the Michigan Brigade was when they began to copy his affectation of the famous red necktie he wore with his gaudy uniform. But the men both loved and respected him for his personal courage and his innate ability to know the lay of the land on which they fought, and how he would invariably place them in the best position to succeed to victory. Time after time Custer won the hearts of the Union thanks to the newspaper coverage of the war [which he curried], and was a favorite subject of sketch artist Alfred Waud.

George and Libbie Custer - LOC - captionedCuster married Libbie on February 9th, 1864, and when campaigning began again in the spring, Custer took the field under Phil Sheridan, and Libbie moved back to a boarding house in Washington. There Libbie was able to have access to the influential politicians, and even to the President himself. She charmed them all and won favor for her Armstrong, as family called him.

His war culminated in the surrender at Appomattox.

No one amassed the legendary success amid the events of the US Civil War like Custer did.


In “Fall”, the second half of Stiles’ epic biography of Custer, Stiles chronicles the last decade and a half of George Armstrong Custer’s life. What many biographers gloss over or omit entirely is the path to Little Big Horn that Custer followed from the end of the war, but not Stiles.

First sent to Texas to restore law and order in a state devastated by the war, he took Libbie along. Life was different in the post-war US Army. There was no more war, and he was still commanding volunteers. Custer was forced to use a hard hand even at controlling his own troops, including head-shaving, whipping and executions. For a man who’s leadership was repeatedly proven in combat, the lack of it was proven in peace. It was a duty for which he was unsuited, and unable to adapt. Nor would his conservative Democrat views on race suffer the change that the war had wrought. And Libbie shared those feelings.

Yet Custer struggled to come to terms with the new reality of the Freedmen. He began to think about redefining himself. He did so in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Committee on Reconstruction, advocating black suffrage, and the continuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Custer’s testimony was in line with that of other officers newly returned from the post war South. Collectively, they pointed to the regressive results of President Johnson’s policies. The ensuing Civil Rights bill was vetoed by Johnson, and in effect, was a declaration of war between the conservative President and the Radical Republicans in Congress. But Custer’s testimony belied his personal beliefs. Once again he was currying political favor from those who controlled Congress. Then he went on a political tour with President Johnson, evoking the wrath of Ulysses Grant. Grant ordered Custer to join the 7th US Cavalry at Fort Riley without delay. Custer soon realized how badly he had erred in publicly supporting Johnson.

A year later found Custer facing his second court-martial, this time for absenting himself from his command without the proper authority. He had left Fort Wallace, Kansas apparently to get to Libbie, and traveled 275 miles to Fort Harker when his command was about to launch a campaign against the Indians. Even worse, he had ordered a detachment of 75 men and three officers to escort the ambulance in which he rode. And it continued to get even worse. Custer ignored an attack on some of his men by Indians, sent a detachment out after deserters with orders to bring none back alive, and eventually had three deserters shot, but not killed, and did not allow them to be treated for their wounds – all without a trial. In a rather long proceeding, Custer was found guilty across the board and sentenced to one year’s suspension and forfeiture of his pay. Ultimately the Indians intervened and Sherman and Sheridan petitioned Grant to restore Custer to the 7th US Cavalry. Grant complied, if only to keep Custer in the field and out of politics and out of trouble.

Thus Custer began the phase of his career that would mark him as “Indian Killer.” He operated in Kansas and Oklahoma, destroying Indian villages, and chasing after famous Indian leaders such as Black Kettle.

Unable to rise in rank, Custer attempted to end his Army career and support himself and Libbie in a style more grand than Army pay could provide. Custer took an extended leave, and made a disastrous foray into the world of Wall Street. He sought funds to support a silver mine in Colorado. It failed when the mine failed.

In 1871, Custer returned to the Army, stationed in Kentucky to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and the illegal manufacture of moonshine alcohol. It was boring duty. Custer yearned for the openness of the Great Plains. He turned to writing there, and while he had a market for his work, it was too small to allow him to leave the Army.

In the Spring of 1873, Custer received word that the 7th Cavalry was being reassigned north to the Dakota Territory. He and Libby began packing. Over the next three years, he mounted three great expeditions: along the Yellowstone River in 1873 – fighting battles on August 4th and August 11th; the Black Hills Expedition in 1874; and finally, the Little Big Horn Expedition in 1876.

The noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner who wrote at the end of the 19th century and for 3 decades into the 20th, formulated the Frontier Thesis, which was presented as a paper to the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893, titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893. He cites the 1890 census report’s proclamation that, “…‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.’ This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”

In his paper, Turner presents the role of the frontier as the developer of Americanism, that the farther from the Atlantic Coast one got on the way west, the farther they got from the influence of their European roots. The Frontier was the blacksmith’s hammer, forge and tempering bucket that produced American Exceptionalism and American Identity.

In the fifteen years from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Frontier, as the Census report put it, there was perhaps no other person whose day-to-day life on that Frontier had more influence in the final forging of the American Identity and Exceptionalism than George Armstrong Custer.

Stiles’ book, 472 pages not including acknowledgements, is a most thorough, detailed, and well-supported biography. The cast of characters is rich, and most are well known, but even the lesser known help to paint the portrait, often filling in gaps. The principals are fascinating, and brought down from their legendary status by relating their intimate interactions and thoughts. George Armstrong Custer was a truly great soldier during the Civil War. The absence of war was a large part of his undoing, for it forced him into realms he had not entered before, that he was unable to manipulate to his advantage, and for which he was wholly unprepared.

Custer’s Trials is the consummate biography of George Armstrong Custer.


Stiles, T.J., Custer’s Trials, Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi, New York City, 2015. ISBN 978-0-307-59264.

Available in stores October 27th, 2015. Also available to pre-order at Amazon here.


W.G. Davis

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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 silouetted against the sky when viewed from below].  In addition, the west slope was fairly severe but grew moreso 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 their 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…


Posted in Artillery, Artillery as an objective, Battle Decisions, Battle Geometry, Battle Segments, Big Round Top, Description, Little Round Top, Tactics, Terrain | 3 Comments

Tracking Hazlett’s Battery D, 5th US Artillery

Although we are constantly reading up on the Battle of Gettysburg, we think we have read only a pinch of what is available.  One thing that has caught our interest over the years is a question about Hazlett’s Battery D, 5th US Artillery, the unit that General Warren is said to have stepped down from his horse and helped the men muscle the guns over the boulders to get them into final position on the crest.  We have never read anything that explained where Hazlett’s guns got the powder bags and shot they fired from the 6 guns on the crest.

We have to start with Hazlett, but he was killed in action by the sniper behind Devil’s Den [see the earlier post on the Devils Den Sharpshooter].  So we had to track down the man who assumed command when  Hazlett was killed.  He was 1st Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Rittenhouse, from Berwick, Pennsylvania.  Rittenhouse commanded the Battery for the remainder of the war.

There is very little in the Official Records of the Civil War…just a brief passage from a letter/report written by Rittenhouse to the commander of his Artillery Brigade, Captain Augustus P. Martin, in which he states Hazlett’s death came about an hour after they opened fire from Little Round Top.  One wonders if that letter/report survived.

So we went looking for Rittenhouse and found him in The Gettysburg Papers.   Rittenhouse presented a paper to the Washington DC Commandery of MOLLUS on May 4, 1887.  In it we find rich detail about the locations and movements of the Battery on July 2nd.

We find the Battery on Baltimore Street near Powers Hill at about 4 PM when they were ordered to “to the left” to Little Round Top, probably by way of Blacksmith Shop Road.

As Hazlett approached the foot of the hill, he was ordered to move as rapidly as possible, the caissons were halted on the left, and ordered to a safer place, and the battery went up that rocky hill, through the woods on the east side, at a trot, with spurs and whips vigorously applied. I do not believe a piece barked a tree…In less time than it takes to tell it,  four guns were on the crest, where a rider would hardly go today; a few minutes later Hazlett got the fifth piece into position over huge rocks, and a little later he got the sixth piece fairly lifted into position by the cannoniers and the infantry. As each piece was unlimbered, it spoke for itself, for the country on the left and in front was full of rebels, with their battle flags flying, and coming so rapidly that it seemed impossible to stop them.”

So the caissons were ordered to the left, which would indicate down south on Taneytown Road.  Below is a copy of the 1868 Warren Map of the Little Round Top area: Detail of Warren 1868 map[from National Park Service, GNMP: Little Round Top: Cultural Landscape Report, Treatment & Management Plan, 2012., used with the kind permission of GNMP]



  • The yellow highlights over the Round Tops and Vincent’s Spur.
  • The red arrow on right at the entrance to the logging lane dividing the two Weikert Farms.
  • The the two blue arrows indicating the lane on the north edge of the Bricker Farm orchard.  The left arrow show the lane reaching the crest of Little Round Top.  Wheatfield Lane [now Road] is clearly just north of this lane.

We think the guns were raced up that lane.

From this map one can readily see where the third logging lane [missing from this map] should show, about half way between the two right hand arrows.  The caissons of Hazlett’s Battery were ‘safely’ tucked away there since there was little enough room on the crest for the six guns.  Hazlett would not have been stupid enough to put the caissons in the same lane he used to get up to the crest of Little Round Top as they would have blocked his avenue of escape.  Thus the middle lane is the likely spot for the battery’s caissons.

[Note:  Rittenhouse notes that on July 3rd, only 2 of the 6 guns could be used against Pickett’s Charge as there simply was not enough room, nor level ground to support more at the angle they needed.]

Frankly, I think there was no room up top for the limbers, but perhaps a chest was brought up. Up to 50 rounds of ammo were in each chest, adding to the 150 pound chest almost 500 pounds of weight, and enough powder bags at one pound per would add another 50 pounds. That is a lot of weight to hump up over the rocks after moving an 1800 pound gun up there. So we are left with a bucket brigade type of arrangement of handing the ammo and powder up the last few yards.

So, why are the caissons in the logging lanes important?

To be continued..


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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.


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 | 9 Comments

Geometry of Combat 4: ‘The Hump’ on Big Round Top

One of the advantages of exploring the Battlefield in winter is the absence of foliage. As we will present here, you will see photographic evidence of the terrain features of Big Round Top, and how it plays with the movement of the 15th Alabama on July 2nd, 1863.

For reference, see this earlier post:

The Battle for Little Round Top – Part 2

[Note: Click on the images for a larger view.]

First, here are two views of the west side of Big Round Top, one from the south, one from the north. Both will show what I call ‘The Hump’, the ground that extends westward out from the nearly sheer descent from the peak of Big Round Top to a point about half way down before leveling out [as much as that rugged terrain can be described as level], and then sloping down to Plum Run.

This image shows the ‘The Hump’ on the left, and on the right, the peak of Big Round Top, looking northeasterly from South Confederate Avenue.  It is also the general direction the 15th Alabama followed after descending from Warfield Ridge:

IMG_0059 (Large) This images shows the hump, on the right with the peak of Big Round Top on the  left, from Crawford Avenue looking southeastward:

IMG_0063 (Large)Clearly, the ground extends less severe terrain westward, and it was over this ground that Colonel Oates led the 15th Alabama to its match against the 20th Maine. [See above linked post].

 Here is an image taken from up on Big Round Top near the parking area for the hiking trail to the peak. It is looking east up to the peak of Big Round Top. You have to look at it for a while to see the southern slope going down to the right through the trees. Look for the skyline. Anyone who has ever climbed the Park trail to the top can testify to two things…the slope on the west side is worse than that on the other sides [from ‘The Hump’ up], and no one could ride a horse up there, nor could artillery be placed up top:

IMG_0085 (Large)A view from above the Bushman Farm shows the field through the trees and one can see the break in the tree line that indicates the route of South Confederate Avenue as it climbs Big Round Top, crests ‘The Hump’:

IMG_0054 (Large)Here is an image of the trail going up from the Slyder Farm to that open field on the left side of the road as you rise to the parking area on Big Round Top:

IMG_0083 (Large)

It was in that rock wall lined field that Oates rested his men after their movement from Warfield Ridge which was impeded by the Company of Berdan’s Sharpshooters. It was in that field that Oates met with General Law’s Messenger to get moving. Oates then moved his men in the same direction they had been moving all along.

Here is an image showing where the 15th Alabama emerged from the trees and, as noted by Oates in his official report, found themselves matched flank for flank with Colonel Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. The view is as Chamberlain may have seen it:

20141208_130303 (Large)More to come on this as we explore the east side of Little Round Top!

Remember, comments are encouraged and welcomed!

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The Battle for Little Round Top – Part 2

We are reposting this for reference of another post to come up shortly.

[NB: Images are clickable and can be enlarged]

As most of the history books have it, Colonel William Oates, Commander of the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, was in the center of Law’s Brigade at the southern end of Warfield Ridge as they awaited the order of their Division commander, General John Bell Hood, to advance in a generally northeasterly direction toward Little Round Top.  On the march to Gettysburg since 2 AM, and immediately caught up in Longstreet’s March and Counter March west of town on the afternoon of July 2nd, Oates realized his men were out of water.  He sent a group of soldiers to collect all the canteens in the regiment and sent them off to fill those canteens.  Those men were never reunited with the regiment.  When Oates then turned back to the front, he saw that the Brigade had stepped off without him.  Hurrying and sliding to the right, since his spot in line was being closed from the right, Oates quick-stepped his men and quickly had them guiding along Plum Run [on their right], and being pushed up the western flank of Big Round Top by the regiment on his left, the 47th Alabama.  Stopping briefly on the way to the summit of Big Round Top [BRT], Colonel Sheffield’s messenger rode up to Oates on horseback and instructed Oates to keep moving.

[Note: General Hood went down with a serious wound to his arm shortly after the Division stepped off, so Brigadier General Evander K. Law, commander of the Alabama Brigade, stepped up to command the Division, and Col. Sheffield of the 48th Alabama stepped up to command the Brigade.]

Oates then moved his men in a line of battle, upward in the face of what seemed like a regiment or a brigade of infantry they could barely see in the rough, tree and boulder filled terrain.   [In actuality it was a company of Sharpshooters, using breech-loaded Sharp’s rifles, enabling them to put out an increased rate of fire.  That fooled several Confederate commanders at Gettysburg into misjudging the size of the units in front of them.]  Eventually, the infantry disappeared, and Oates and his regiment went over the crest of  BRT, and down into fame and glory in their encounter with the 20th Maine.

But something has always been awry with that account.  Directionally, it does not make sense.  The angle of ascent, from somewhere near the Slyder Farm, would put them on a west to east track, and his regiment would come out of the trees on the east slope of BRT just about at the Plank Farm.  That would put him almost directly across Taneytown Road from the Union Artillery Reserve Park, and would completely miss the 20th Maine and the Sharpshooters that joined Company B east of Chamberlain’s position on LRT.

Even had Oates turned north at the summit, he would not have lined up with Chamberlain, but would have arrived on Chamberlain’s left flank, which was the left flank of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.  In that situation, Oates would have been in perfect position to roll up Chamberlain from his left flank.

Here is an image of those two scenarios:

Longstreet's Attack 18630702

Either one of these scenarios would have been serendipitously positive for the Army of Northern Virginia.  Wreak havoc on the Artillery Reserves, or, roll up the left flank of the Army of the Potomac.

Here is scenario one, moving easterly over the peak of BRT, and assaulting the Army of the Potomac’s Artillery Reserves:

Oates Scenario 1Here is scenario two, turning northerly from the peak of BRT and attacking the left flank of the 20th Maine.

Oates Scenario 2

But we know that neither of these scenarios happened.  We are left, then, with the glaring fact that Oates and his Alabama Regiment, which was crowded constantly on his left by the 47th Alabama, never went up over the crest of BRT.

Then where did he go, what was his path?  Let’s ask Oates [from his after action report]:

“My regiment occupied the center of the brigade when the line of battle was formed.  During the advance, the two regiments on my right were moved by the left flank across my rear, which threw me on the extreme right of the whole line.  I encountered the enemy’s sharpshooters posted behind a stone fence, and sustained some loss thereby.  It was here that Lieut.  Col. Isaac B. Feagin, a most excellent and gallant officer, received a severe wound in the right knee, which caused him to lose his leg.  Privates [A.] Kennedy, of Company B, and [William] Trimner, of Company G, were killed at this point, and Private [G. E.] Spencer, Company D, severely wounded.”

Alright, he advanced on the right of the Brigade, which puts his right on, and eventually pushed across the lower reaches of Plum Run, which marks the base of the west slope of BRT.  And he is already angling to the right a bit, being pushed that way also by the 47th Alabama.

Stone Wall?  What stone wall?  The only stone walls in that area are across Plum Run, and part way up the slope of BRT.  [If you drive up South Confederate Avenue today after crossing Plum Run, part way up BRT you will see a field on the left.  In that field is the First Vermont Cavalry Monument, one of the units that participated in Farnsworth’s [fatal] Charge the next day.  When you are there next, explore this field.  It is surrounded on three sides by stone walls [fences].  They bound [generally] the south, west and north sides of the field.

Here is a Google Earth image showing the route of attack made by the 15th Alabama.

Note how the path shifts downward, or to the right on the line of march.  Some of this is because of the disorganized line described above, but most of it is from pressure on Hood’s Division by the brigades of McLaw’s Division, which were to start on an angle similar to the way Hood lined up, but because of the presence of Graham’s Brigade of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac in the Peach Orchard, McLaws Division was forced to proceed straight across the Emmitsburg Road, thereby forcing Hood to swerve to the right.

Oates' Attack 18630702

Also note the tip of the third arrow [from the left] is resting on the field up on BRT.  Here is an image of that field on the path from South Confederate Avenue:

IMG_0001 (Medium) cropped

The monument is the First Vermont Cavalry Regimental Monument.  Behind it you can just make out the stone fence that borders the south edge of the field.  The field is approximately just shy of 2 acres in size.  It was on this side of the stone fence that Union Sharpshooters delayed Oates progress up BRT.  Once they fell back, Oates men came over the fence and took a break.

Oates continues:

“After crossing the fence, I received an order from Brigadier-General Law to left-wheel my regiment and move in the direction of the heights upon my left, which order I failed to obey, for the reason that when I received it I was rapidly advancing up the mountain, and in my front I discovered a heavy force of the enemy.  Besides this, there was great difficulty in accomplishing the maneuver at that moment, as the regiment on my left (Forty-seventh Alabama) was crowding me on the left, and running into my regiment, which had already created considerable confusion.  In the event that I had obeyed the order, I should have come in contact with the regiment on my left, and also have-exposed my right flank to an enfilading fire from the enemy.  I therefore continued to press forward, my right passing over the top of the mountain, on the right of the line.”

At this point, Oates is aligned pretty much with South Confederate Avenue as it crests a rise [where the current parking area is located for the trail to the peak of BRT].  The “top of the mountain” Oates refers to is the crest of the spur over which South Confederate Avenue goes.  In all likelihood, Oates would not have been able to see the actual top of BRT on his right, due to the thickness of the woods.  In fact, the right of Oates regiment would likely have guided on the logging trail that became the modern road.

Oates Actual

After a short hike through the trees, Oates men would have emerged from the woods at about this vantage point:


That is Warren Avenue in the front, and Sykes Avenue heading up to the crest of LRT.  To the right of Sykes Avenue is the pair of low stone walls marking where the 20th Maine was arrayed.  Oates continues:

“On reaching the foot of the mountain below, I found the enemy in heavy force, posted in rear of large rocks upon a slight elevation beyond a depression of some 300 yards in width between the base of the mountain and the open plain beyond.  I engaged them, my right meeting the left of their line exactly.  Here I lost several gallant officers and men.”

The angle of this photo is the only angle that would meet the condition noted above.  I engaged them, my right meeting the left of their line exactly.”

No other avenue of approach puts Oates on this line of attack.  No other avenue of approach allows Oates men to line up flank for flank.

Oates continues:

“After firing two or three rounds, I discovered that the enemy were giving way in my front.  I ordered a charge, and the enemy in my front fled, but that portion of his line confronting the two companies on my left held their ground, and continued a most galling fire upon my left.”

Actually, Chamberlain is starting to refuse his line.  Here is what he has to say:

“The artillery fire on our position had meanwhile been constant and heavy, but my formation was scarcely complete when the artillery was replaced by a vigorous infantry assault upon the center of our brigade to my right, but it very soon involved the right of my regiment and gradually extended along my entire front.  The action was quite sharp and at close quarters.

“In the midst of this, an officer from my center informed me that some important movement of the enemy was going on in his front, beyond that of the line with which we were engaged.  Mounting a large rock, I was able to see a considerable body of the enemy moving by the flank in rear of their line engaged, and passing from the direction of the foot of Great Round Top through the valley toward the front of my left.  The close engagement not allowing any change of front, I immediately stretched my regiment to the left, by taking intervals by the left flank, and at the same time “refusing” my left wing, so that it was nearly at right angles with my right, thus occupying about twice the extent of our ordinary front, some of the companies being brought into single rank when the nature of the ground gave sufficient strength or shelter.  My officers and men understood wishes so well that this movement was executed under fire, the right wing keeping up fire, without giving the enemy any occasion to seize or even to suspect their advantage.  But we were not a moment too soon; the enemy’s flanking column having gained their desired direction, burst upon my left, where they evidently had expected an unguarded flank, with great demonstration.”

So, now we know that Law’s Brigade engages Vincent’s Brigade  first with the 83rd Pennsylvania and the 44th New York [stacked in the center], then the 16th Michigan [on the right], then the 20th Maine [on the left].  And in the second paragraph, Col. Chamberlain explains when and why he began to stretch and refuse his line.

One last quote from Oates:

“Just at this moment, I discovered the regiment on my left (Forty-seventh Alabama) retiring.  I halted my regiment as its left reached a very large rock, and ordered a left-wheel of the regiment, which was executed in good order under fire, thus taking advantage of a ledge of rocks running off in a line perpendicular to the one I had just abandoned, and affording very good protection to my men.  This position enabled me to keep up a constant flank and cross fire upon the enemy, which in less than five minutes caused him to change front.”

There are two very important elements here.  First, he reports the Confederate regiment on his immediate left, the 47th Alabama, which was totally engaged with the 83rd Pennsylvania, was withdrawing.  Why is Oates still fighting and the 47th withdrawing?  Remember that defense in depth?  The 44th NY is right behind and above the 83rd Pennsylvania, so the 47th Alabama is taking fire from not one, but two stacked regiments in their front.  Also, at this point, Oates has shifted to the right in his flanking movement and he confirms Chamberlain refusing his line.

Oates goes on to report then that the enemy had flanked him on his right, which could only be Company B of the 20th Maine, which Chamberlain had posted five hundred yards east on what is now Wright Avenue, and behind a stone wall, where they were joined by that pesky bunch of Sharpshooters that had earlier caused so much trouble to Oates advance up BRT.

Next up, part 3, and the fight on the plateau between the 16th Michigan and 44th NY, vs. the 4th and 5th Texas regiments, and how Texas almost took Little Round Top.

Remember, please, your comments are welcome.  Click on the “leave a comment” link at the bottom of every post.

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Cushing finally gets his Medal of Honor

Lt. Alonzo Cushing of Delafield, Wisconsin, commander of Battery A, 4th US Artillery, will receive a long overdue Medal of Honor in a September ceremony at the White House.

Cushing’s heroic stand at the Gettysburg ‘High Water Mark’ during Pickett’s Charge is the stuff of legends.  Cushing, wounded several times, remained at his guns assisting the loading of them, was killed with a final wound while ordering the gun to fire.

Our masthead image is of four guns of Cushing’s Battery today near the ‘inner angle’ of the stone wall that was the defensive line of the Army of the Potomac on  July 3rd 1863.

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Geometry of Combat 3: The Devil’s Den Sharpshooter

We have calculated the distance of the shots made by the Confederate sharpshooter in Devil’s Den that killed Captain Charles E. Hazlett, Commanding Battery D, 5th United States Artillery, in the Fifth Corps Artillery Brigade; and Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed, Commanding Third Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Army Corps on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863 late afternoon.

Please click on the link below to  open the Adobe Portable Document Format file [.pdf].

The Sharpshooter

If you do not have the Adobe Acrobat Reader, click here to get a free version for download and install.

Gardner-OSullivan Sharpshooter on hillGardner-OSullivan Sharpshooter in position

Alexander Gardner/Timothy O’Sullivan’s images before and after moving the body to the Sharpshooter’s Position [courtesy of the Library of Congress].


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Congratulations to Professor Guelzo

Our heartiest congratulations to Professor Allen C. Guelzo, on his award of the 2014 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for his book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion [see review here]. Professor Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of several books on Abraham Lincoln.

Professor Guelzo shares this year’s prize with Martin Johnson, of Miami University – Hamilton, Hamilton, Ohio, for his book, Writing the Gettysburg Address.

The Awards will be presented in New York City on April 24th.  Also being honored at that time will be Director Steven Spielberg with a first-time Special Achievement Award for his film Lincoln.

If you have not read Gettysburg: The Last Invasion yet, you are depriving yourself of one of the finest histories of the Battle of Gettysburg ever written.  The book was published in 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf [ISBN 978-0-307-59408-2].

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The Geometry of Combat, Part 2: The Triangular Field

Fields of view are important to military operations.  They will expose to the commander avenues of approach, fields of fire, ambush positions, naturally favorable ground, and conversely, naturally unfavorable ground.  Sometimes a field of view can be deceptive, hiding certain features that might be used against the commander’s forces, or even deceiving him in thinking some ground is favorable when it is not.

Here is an image of the ‘Triangular Field  on the west slope of Houck’s Ridge [Devils Den is on the east slope].

Triangular Field Google ExpandedNote the apex of the triangle is at the top of the ridge, and the base at the bottom.  The stone wall is where the 124th New York [Colonel A. van Horne Ellis’ Orange Blossoms from Orange County, New York] formed.   The 99th Pennsylvania formed behind and to the left [south] of the “Orange Blossoms”.

Below is an image of the Slyder Farm from South Confederate Avenue.  Note the rising stone wall of the Triangular Field on the left side of the image, and the small white object on top of the ridge is the 124th New York Monument.

IMG_0028 (Large)Below is another view of the Triangular Field shot from above the Bushman Farm on South Confederate Avenue.

IMG_0026 (Large)Note the automobiles on the right winding their way up from Devils Den to the top of Houck’s Ridge.

Below is an image of Little Round Top from Emmitsburg Road north of the intersection with Confederate Avenue.  This would be approximately where the right of General G. T. Anderson’s Georgia Brigade would be overlapped by the left of General Jerome Robertson Texas Brigade [with the 3rd Arkansas].

IMG_0004 (Large)Note that you can clearly see the stone wall of the Triangular Field on the right of the image.

The view of Little Round Top from this area would be deceptive.  It actually strikes the eye as one slope, gradually rising from the Triangular Field to the crest of Little Round Top.  It show no sign of the Plum Run Valley, or of Devils Den, or, for that matter, anything else between the Triangular Field and the top of Little Round Top.

Confederate General William N. Pendleton wandered down this way, but perhaps a half mile north of here on the morning of July 2nd, and General Lee came down to a point about a quarter-mile north of here on the afternoon of July 2nd.  Neither would have been able to see this view, but the solders in Hood’s Division could clearly see it.   And at least for a while, they probably were fooled by it.

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