(Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; July 2, 2021) – We pay a sizable price for tickets so we can to to the movies to see sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, but a bit of historical research will reveal truth was far stranger and far more exciting that fiction ever could be.
The fate of nations often hinges on mere moments of tightly scripted action in some of the greatest adventures to grace the silver screen, but at Gettysburg the fate of our nation did indeed hinge on the narrowest of margins at several points during those broiling days in July 1863. No screenwriter will ever be able to craft a movie scene with more pathos, terror, heroism, folly, genius, and sheer coincidence than what really happened on two obscure hills anchoring the Union’s line of battle.
Anyone who’s seen the 1993 epic Gettysburg is well aware of the charge conducted by the Union’s 20th Maine against a Confederate advance, saving the hill called Little Round Top and preventing the Confederates from breaking the Union’s lines. In most every way, the movie got it right.
After the carnage of July 1, the Union soldiers settled in along Cemetery Ridge, a low ridge running from Cemetery Hill south to the Round Tops, two hills that became the southern anchor for Union General George Meade’s battle plan. The Southern forces lined up behind lines they built along Seminary Ridge, a low ridge running parallel to Cemetery Ridge.
When July 2 dawned hot and humid, Confederate foces began to surge south, belatedly recognizing the improantance of Little Round Top. Cleared of trees and brush by local farmers, Little Round Top would be the perfect spot for General Lee’s forces to begin crushing the Union army. The Union army realized this as well, rushing forces up the hill just in time to meet the enemy assault.
The battles on that hill were epic, long, hot, horrid, and utterly exhausting. Both sides were finally out of ammunition and nearly out of able-bodied men. Desperate, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge down the hill. It was a horrible gamble, but Chamberlain was out of options. Reasoning that if his men, who were well supplied by the Union war machine, were out of ammo, then the Confederates, chronically short on everything, had to be out of ammo as well. The only weapons Chamberlain had left to issue his men were bayonets, gravity, and devotion to duty.
The movie shows the outcome. On paper a downhill bayonet charge was ‘textbook’ tactics, but the reality of the war rendered such tactics rather…stupid. Even with the high ground, a bayonet charge would be vaporized by massed gunfire, so no one ever did it in reality.
Chamberlain shocked the world by doing the unexpected. He gambled correctly; the Confederates were out of ammunition and were exhausted. They had nothing left in the tank as they made that last assault up the hill. The 20th Maine swept the rebels from Little Round Top, forever enshrining their names in the annals of history for the boldness of desperation, a boldness that stopped Lee’s efforts cold with hot steel.
Had Chamberlain failed to hold the line, the Southern forces would have likely crushed the entire Union army by the end of the day. Imagine how different our history would be if General Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2. No unified nation to face the hostilities of World Wars I and II. No unified nation to face down the Soviet Union. The past 158 years would have been completely different.
Now, if you think fighting during the daytime was horrible, violent, chaotic, and terrifying…let’s take a walk to the northern end of the field and the other hill the Union desperately needed to hold.
Culp’s Hill was, perhaps, even more critical to the fate of our nation than Little Round Top. Culp’s Hill was attacked by Confederate forces late in the day of July 2. The oldest Union general on the field, 62-year-old Brigidier General George S. Greene, led the efforts that held Culp’s Hill during the afternoon and evening of July 2.
Culp’s Hill was not as overtly a spectacular fight as Little Round Top due to the late hours of the battle. Darkness fell while the combatants were contesting possession of the hill, but Greene’s leadership and foresight in building strong defensive fortifications won the night for the Union.
The loss of Culp’s Hill presented two threats to the Union efforts: the obvious danger of the Confederates getting through to the rear of the Union line, and the more critical threat to the Baltimare Pike. The Baltimore Pike was the only major road that Union Gen. Meade had with which to keep his massive supply trains running. Had the Confederates captured that road, Meade would have been forced to pack and run like hell, thereby handing the Confederates the victory they sought so assiduously.
The story of Culp’s Hill is more remarkable when you realize that the Union troops on the hill had but scant hours to rest and recuperate before the Confederates launched new assaults the early morning of July 3. Despite their exhaustion and despite the repeated battering taken at the hands of the rebels, Green’s forces held firm, protecting the Baltimore Pike and the northern end of the Union Line.
Visit Culp’s Hill as night falls. When you stand under the stature of Gen. Greene and look into the darkening woods, imagine carrying over 30 lbs. of gear with no lights. Perhaps you’ll pin a piece of white paper to your back to increase the odds of your own fellow soldiers being able to see you. You can identify the enemy’s position from the flash of their muskets…until enough smoke is generated that you can’t see anything anymore. Between the dark night and the thick smoke you really have no idea which way you’re facing. For all you know, you might be firing on your own men…or they might be the ones firing at you.
Welcome to nighttime combat operations, Civil War style.
By the time the campfires were lit and the stars were twinkling on July 2, 1863, the Union and Confederate forces had been locked in mortal combat for nearly 48 hours. The blood letting had been quite unprecendentedly horrendous, with thousands of men maimed, mutilated, mauled, and dead among the ruins of a formerly quiet farming town.
However, the epic clash of these military titans was about to come crash to a horrifingly spectacular conclusions. The final units of both armies tromped into Gettysburg as the sun fell away and July 2 came to an uncertain end.
Check out Part 2 of my video about Gettysburg’s 158th at: https://youtu.be/E6RtKVgKgvw
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