[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:
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:
Here is scenario two, turning northerly from the peak of BRT and attacking the left flank of the 20th Maine.
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.
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:
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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