Tuesday, July 6, 2010

“Killer Angels” and “Gettysburg”
Fiction and Myths

Southern Ridge of Little Round Top

The novel “Killer Angels” and the related movie “Gettysburg” offer several heroic acts intended to demonstrate typical examples of warrior action during the Rebellion. These distinguished acts depict historical-fiction meant for application across the general Civil War combatant population. One significant combat event is selected to represent action on each of three days that encompass the Battle of Gettysburg:

· Day One, July 1st, 1863 - General John Buford’s courageous action to stand-and-fight a greatly superior Confederate Force with his dismounted cavalry,
· Day Two, July 2nd, 1863 - The Union defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, and,
· Day Three, July 3rd, 1863 - General George Pickett’s Charge against the center of Union position on Cemetery Ridge.

One of the distressing late Twentieth Century revisions in American Civil War history is the extraordinary recognition now bestowed on Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and the honorable 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment regarding the Union defense of Little Round Top. This recent revisionist history is in no small part rooted in Michael Shaara’s novel and in Ted Turner’s movie production, perhaps an unintended consequence of using singular exploits to represent typical action over the combatant general population. Some historians suggest that the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg might have been won by the Confederacy if the Rebels had taken Little Round Top in the late afternoon of July 2nd. Other historians have expressed a certain amount of skepticism concerning Colonel Chamberlain’s extraordinary contribution to the defense of Little Round Top – and to the larger question regarding far-reaching importance of Little Round Top to the outcome at Gettysburg and to the Civil War. This analysis is not intended to diminish the heroic action of the valiant 20th Maine or their fascinating commander Joshua L. Chamberlain. Rather, the goal here is to cite and exalt the efforts of other military officers and men who did not survive their struggle on that rocky hill.

Had Confederate troops of the gallant Texas 4th and Texas 5th Infantry Regiments (i.e., General John Hood’s famed Texas Brigade) broken-through to the summit of Little Round Top on the Union left – as they almost did in the afternoon of the second day – Little Round Top might have been captured by the Rebel troops.
It was West Point graduate Colonel Patrick Henry O'Rorke's 500 courageous Monroe County soldiers of the noble 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment who joined to the right of the superb 16th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, filling weakened gaps in a near broken Union line and to eventually turn-back that bold assault on Little Round Top by the Texas Brigade. It is important to know that this later afternoon struggle between the Union 140thNY & 16thMI Regiments and the Texas Brigade took place some amount of time (perhaps more than a half hour) before General Hood’s 15th Alabama Regiment engaged Colonel Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Regiment. A successful Texas Brigade would have held the high ground atop Little Round Top and to the right of Harvard graduate Colonel Strong Vincent’s undermanned 3rd Brigade - the brigade that included the 20th Maine troops.Coupled with General Hood’s 15th Alabama uphill attack on the Union extreme left flank – the small Union 3rd Brigade, the 20th Maine and Colonel Chamberlain might have been crushed – sandwiched between Confederate Forces from both high right and low left by General Hood’s Rebels. No amount of 20th Maine heroics would make much difference had the gallant Texas Brigade secured the high ground summit of Little Round Top. This critical afternoon engagement, but a subset of July 2nd fighting, is not reported in the book “Killer Angels” or presented in the movie “Gettysburg.” Why do these works of historical-fiction overlook the heroism of these two young Colonels O'Rorke and Vincent? No doubt this is because Commander of 140th New York Colonel Patrick Henry O’Rorke was killed-in-action in the afternoon struggle against the Texas Brigade. And after issuing battle orders to Colonel Chamberlain, the Union 3rd Brigade Commander Colonel Strong Vincent was mortally-wounded-in-action just moments before Colonel O’Rorke’s combat death – Colonel Vincent then departing this life five days later. Both of these articulate Union officers were aged but 26-years when killed at Gettysburg. Whereas, Colonel Chamberlain survived for more than a half-century following the Battle of Gettysburg to write, speak, and promote his personal wartime endeavors – and those courageous acts of the 20th Maine Regiment. In fact, the many post-war writings of General Joshua L. Chamberlain and those of Confederate Corps Commander General James Longstreet significantly influenced Shaara’s book and Turner’s movie. Click here to review my July 2009 posting relating to the life and times of Patrick Henry O’Rorke.

Furthermore, if the Confederates had captured Little Round Top, they would likely have had a clear shot to Union supply lines and to the rear of many Union forces – together with a more direct road to Washington. At a minimum, Confederate Forces would have been better positioned on July 3rd to assist with General George Pickett’s Charge and with General J.E.B. Stewart’s unsuccessful cavalry attack on the Union rear and to those important Union supplies. Many significant historians speculate that another Union defeat at Gettysburg might have won the Rebellion for the Confederacy. This logic follows that a Union loss on Little Round Top would directly lead to a Union loss at the Battle of Gettysburg – and the Union defeat at Gettysburg would lead to Federal capitulation in the American Civil War and victory for the Confederate States. For me it seems there are too many "ifs" presented by this argument – but plausibly – it just might have happened. I'm not at all sure that a victorious Confederacy in the War of the Rebellion would have been all that bad for the Greater North American population, particularly in view of direction the Americas presently tend. Many northern-region residents of North America might perhaps find life more fit for human habitation somewhere in the Confederate States Of America - bathing in less federalism.

A closing thought: CSA Commanding General Robert E. Lee in no way accepted the premise that the Confederate Rebellion was lost following those three days in early July 1863 at Gettysburg. More Civil War causalities occurred following the Battle of Gettysburg than were suffered before the Gettysburg battle. General Lee does not appear to be a broken man as he writes this August 1863 letter from Richmond to his second-in-command & right-hand man Lieutenant-General James Longstreet:

GENERAL, I have wished for several days past to return to the army, but have been detained by the President. He will not listen to my proposition to leave to-morrow. I hope you will use every exertion to prepare the army for offensive operations, and improve the condition of our men and animals. I can see nothing better to be done than to endeavor to bring General Meade out and use our efforts to crush his army while in its present condition.

Very respectfully and truly yours,


References cited:

Michael Shaara, “The Killer Angels” , Random House Inc., New York. 1975.

Ronald F. Maxwell, screenwriter & director of movie “Gettysburg” , Turner Pitchers Inc., Atlanta. 1993. Included on this DVD are valuable comments by the noted Civil War historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson and beneficial comments by professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy and noted military historian Craig L. Symonds.

Selected examples of numerous web site references:


1 comment:

  1. From: Dale
    Sent: Wednesday, July 07, 2010 6:22 PM
    Subject: Re: Fw: On the 147th anniversary...

    Thanks DJ.

    I still feel the emotions as I think of standing in the field where my ancestor was killed during the battle on July 3.

    I am in Newport News now and it pisses me off that the state named the local bridge/tunnel system the "Monitor Merrimack Memorial Bridge Tunnel". There was never a battle between them.
    How can you honor the wrong ships in a pivotal battle in naval history? Oh well! What can 1 man do?

    Hope you are enjoying your summer. Hope to see you in Groton next June.