Gettysburg: Day 2
“The critical moment has arrived and we can remain as we are no longer. We must advance or retreat. It must not be the latter. But how can it be the former?”
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Today is a day to give praise to God, for 140 years ago He saw fit to spare the Union.
The most important fighting of the second day took place at the southern end of the front, the Union left flank. Here General Meade was weak, for he brought most of his reserves up to his center and right flanks, leaving the left a bit weaker. To shore it up he sent General Sickles to defend, but Sickles erred and put his forces out too far from the rest of the Union lines. This left the left flank dangerously undefended.
Lee saw the tactical advantage the Big and Little Round Tops (the two hills on the Union left) would give him. To quote Col. William C. Oates of the 15th Alabama Regiment, “Within half an hour, I could convert Little Round Top into a Gibraltar that I could hold against ten times the number of men that I had.” Lee ordered Longstreet to march part of his corps, concealed, around to the south, then attack northwards. Due to a bit of poor planning and the difficulties involved in moving 2 divisions, the move took most of the day, delaying attack until 1600 (Four PM).
While Longstreet was moving, Meade sent Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren to the summit of the Little Round Top to examine the situation. Warren immediately sent for reinforcements: 4 regiments raced up the hill, including the 20th Maine, led by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. “Stand firm, you boys from Maine. For not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities for freedom and justice, for God and humanity, as are now placed upon you.” 360 men guarded the gateway to the rear flank of the Union Army. Ten minutes after they arrived the 15th Alabama showed up.
At this point the most important engagement of the whole battle of Gettysburg materialized. To break the 15th Alabama at this point would mean the preservation of the Union Army. To break the 20th Maine would mean a large portion of the Union Army would become cannon fodder. The fighting intensified, with both lines being mauled, pushed back, regrouped, and reasserted with vicious ferocity.
Chamberlain later penned that after five regroupings, “The critical moment has arrived and we can remain as we are no longer. We must advance or retreat. It must not be the latter. But how can it be the former?” His force of 360 men was down to about 200 and his Company B, which he had sent at the last minute before fighting began to bolster his left flank, was missing and presumed dead.
His force on the hill was shaped like a right angle, with one side running north-south. Perhaps he remembered something he once saw on a farm. Perhaps he remembered something from geometry class. I prefer to believe that God told him to swing his north-south leg around like a “gate upon a post”, as one observer wrote. It worked. The 15th Alabama was surprised, the soldiers either ran or dropped their weapons. Those that ran were suddenly attacked by the timely arrival of Company B, which had somehow survived the fighting. The 15th Alabama regiment was defeated for the first time in the war, losing 400 of its men as prisoers. Little Round Top, The Union Army, and as far as I’m concerned, the Union, were all spared.
Sickles, on the other hand, was being slaughtered. His units were stuck out in the open, being decimated by Longstreet’s forces. He was finally able to congeal his troops for one last defense, then began falling back. He did not escape unscathed, however. A shell exploded near him and he was carried from the field, his leg needing amputation. As his troops fell back they passed several places where the fighting was so ferocious it is remembered by the name of the place: the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard, the Slaughter Pen, the Devils Den, and the Valley of Death.
Sickles had been negligent in his defense of the left flank, like Stuart had been to Lee. Why then, one is inspired to ask, was Meade given a second chance, with Warren, Chamberlain, and the 20th Maine, to defend the nation? The answer is not just that God loves us. It is that he has greater things planned for us.
Remember that the next time al Qaeda sticks its devilish head above ground in the United States.