“There Seemed to be a Viciousness in the Very Air We Breathed”
Make way, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine; author Phillip Thomas Tucker believes that the glory of Little Round Top rightfully belongs to Colonels Vincent Strong and Patrick Henry O’Rorke of the Union 5th Corps. Unlike Chamberlain, however, they were denied the opportunity to promote themselves, having died leading charges against fast-approaching Texas troops on the second afternoon at The Battle of Gettysburg.
In America’s Bloody Hill of Destiny: A New Look at the Struggle for Little Round Top, Gettysburg July 2, 1863, Mr. Tucker closely examines the attackers and defenders at the southern end of the Union line.
He provides brief biographies of the men and regiments who played the most daring roles and does so without bias.
His admiration is for the courage and steadfastness displayed by soldiers on each side, and his work draws heavily from their letters and reminiscences.
Tucker argues that Little Round Top was the great turning point of the war. Federal and Confederate officers were aware of its importance and raced to claim the hill for themselves.
Had Southerners gotten an earlier start, as General Lee intended, they might well have captured and held the hill, and from there, turned the Union right flank. As it was, Union General Gouverneur Kemble Warren became aware of the danger before Longstreet’s Second Corps arrived.
After a series of communications, Colonel Strong took command of the situation and rushed to position four of his regiments below the crest of the hill. Private Giles (no first name given) of the 4th Texas later lamented, “It was nearly four-thirty in the afternoon when we reached the battlefield, nearly ten and a half hours behind time, (and) that delay lost the Battle of Gettysburg to (for) the Confederates.”
Nevertheless, the 4th and 5th Texas Brigades joined by the 14th and 47th Alabama, were determined to win back Little Round Top, despite the loss of their commanding General, John Bell Hood. Hood was confident in his strategy to circle Big Round Top and assault Union forces “flank and rear,” but he was wounded by shell fragments almost as soon as the fighting began.
Subordinate officers were left to make tactical decisions in the confused fury and fog of battle.
According to Tucker, the veteran soldiers of the 4th and 5th Texas regiments were General Lee’s elite corps.
The 4th made four ascents against the Strong’s men who had the protection of large boulders and rocky outcroppings. Captain Decimus Et Ultimas Barziza of the 4th, Company C described his men advancing at a “wild, frantic, desperate run, yelling, screaming, and shouting; over ditches, up and down hill, bursting through garden fences and shrubbery, occasionally dodging the head as a bullet whistled by the ear.”
The Texans attempted to dislodge the 44th New York and the 83rd Pennsylvania who held the northern slope. The 15th Alabama went after the 20th Maine at a shelf of rock nicknamed “Vincent’s Spur.”
The 4th Alabama supported the 5th Texas to their right. Sergeant Oliver W. Sturdevant of the 44th NY described the devastation of the first Texas assault, “Where our first volley struck the enemy’s line was one of sickening horror.” That sickening carnage was to continue throughout the afternoon.
Despite staggering losses, the 4th Texas planted their battle flag at the top of Little Round Top on their fifth assault, but only momentarily. Colonel Strong, aware that the Texans were chasing the 16th Michigan from the field, called for the 44th NY to fire at the Texans flank. Strong received a mortal wound while rallying his men.
General Warren had been seeking reinforcements for Strong’s hard-pressed troops and encountered Colonel Patrick O’Rorke of the 140th NY, on his way to assist General Daniel Sickles at the Peach Orchard. Despite previous orders, O’Rorke responded to Warren’s urgency, and led his men up the hill where the Texans “were nearly to the top.” Although his men successfully beat back the Texans, O”Rorke was killed in the endeavor.
America’s Bloody Hill of Destiny is an important and gripping tale, made vivid by a number of eyewitness accounts. Tucker fulfills his mission of convincing readers to reconsider what they thought they knew about Little Round Top. Unfortunately, spelling and syntactical errors, as well as mistakes in word usage, abound in the work. For example, previous was once spelled pervious; morality became mortality; has was used instead of have. Furthermore, Tucker too frequently recycles judgments and descriptive phrases. His exciting story could have been told more briefly.
That being said, I look forward to taking America’s Bloody Hill of Destiny on my next trip to Gettysburg. It will be an indispensable guide to the battle for Little Round Top.
Title: America’s Bloody Hill of Destiny: A New Look at the Struggle for Little Round Top, Gettysburg, July 2, 1863
Author: Philip Thomas Tucker
Publisher: America Through Time, 2018