Holding the ground at all costs
Chamberlain and his men were drowsing on the ground south of Gettysburg that afternoon when drums called for assembly. They had been on the move for nearly 24 hours and had marched through the night.
They were ordered to the top of a high crest that lay before them. The Union command that held the spot had recklessly disobeyed orders to stay there and moved from it to encounter the enemy. Vital high ground stood completely undefended.
Little Round Top was not the highest point on the field; that distinction belonged to the neighboring hill, Big Round Top. But it was covered with trees, whereas Little Round Top had been mostly timbered off and at 150 feet high presented a commanding view of the entire field.
It anchored the far left end of the Union army, and now that it was empty, it exposed and jeopardized the entire Federal line. Should rebel forces seize the crest, batteries of cannon placed there could smash the Union army in order.
Advancing Confederates saw their opportunity and made for the top along the western slope. Chamberlain’s regiment and three others scrambled up the eastern side to beat them there.
They won the race by minutes.
Brigade commander Col. Strong Vincent of Erie placed the regiments along the crest and put the 20th Maine at the far southern point. They were now the very end of the Union line, 300 men at the flank of 90,000.
Chamberlain was ordered to hold the ground at all costs. Giving way would imperil the entire army.
Confederate artillery that had targeted the crest, sending splinters of trees, rock and iron among the occupying Federals, stopped. Chamberlain described the pause as “a lull, then the crash of hell.”
A tide of Confederates rose up against the sides of Little Round Top, pressing every Federal regiment there. Before the 20th Maine were two regiments from Alabama. They outnumbered the Maine men by more than 2 to 1 and moved to get around their left end.
A formal infantry battle line in the Civil War consisted of two lines of men, one close behind the other to produce the most strength and firepower. But that formation could not hold against such an end-around, flanking attack that threatened men from Maine; it was too short. Chamberlain saw this and ordered his men into one single rank and had them spread out, effectively doubling the length of his line. Then he had its left wing bend back on itself, forming a great “V” and placed the regimental colors at the point. It would make it harder for the Alabamians to get around the end.
But that didn’t stop the onslaught. That afternoon Confederates charged, fell back and charged again repeatedly like stormy waves upon a coast. Chamberlain’s regiment staggered but held on desperately, all the while losing men and ammunition.