Surveying the base of Little Round Top’s south face, Union Army Col. Strong Vincent had just minutes to determine where and how he would place his 1,400-man brigade.
It was just before 5 p.m. on July 2, 1863 — the second day of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg.
Moments earlier, Vincent rushed his 3rd Brigade to the strategic hill anchoring the Union’s left flank on Cemetery Ridge.
Troops arrived from behind the hill on a logging road. The ridge had been unoccupied, and Vincent had broken the chain of command to whisk his troops nearly a mile to reach the heights before the Confederates could seize the ridge.
The impending battle, which would last from about 5 to 7 p.m., was about to produce the signature moment of Vincent’s military career.
The 26-year-old Waterford, Pa., native and Erie lawyer wouldn’t falter.
“He is given one of the key positions on the battlefield to hold,” Gettysburg National Military Park Historian John Heiser said.
The craggy terrain where Vincent made his stand is heavily wooded today, but the slopes were devoid of trees and brush when the fight erupted there in 1863, said Erie native and historian George Deutsch.
Vincent and his aide and bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, arrived at Little Round Top before the brigade.
“They’re on horseback, and Norton is carrying the brigade flag,” Deutsch said. “They get to the top of the hill and Confederate artillery gunners three-quarters of a mile away spot the flag and they start shelling near Vincent and Norton. So Vincent says to Norton, something along the lines of, ‘Damn it, get that flag down.’”
Vincent then surveyed the landscape.
“He decides he’s not going to place them at the very top of the hill, but on an arc reaching down as far as almost the bottom of the hill,” Deutsch said.
Vincent’s brigade was composed of four regiments — the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, 20th Maine and 16th Michigan.
Vincent deployed the 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York infantry near the base of Little Round Top’s south face. A line of heavy rocks formed a natural fortress.
The 44th New York was placed to the right of the 83rd Pennsylvania, along the western edge of the spur (the regiments fought next to each other in most battles). Vincent positioned the 16th Michigan Infantry to the right of the 44th New York.
Deploying the famed 20th Maine Regiment to the far left flank of his line, Vincent’s last orders to the regiment’s commander, Joshua Chamberlain, are to “hold the ground at all hazards.”
“He’s saying, in other words, ‘You can’t retreat,’ ” Deutsch said. “Essentially, he’s telling Chamberlain, ‘Die to the last man.’”
The timing was key. Within 10 minutes, Confederate forces begin to engage.
“If Vincent had not gotten there … the Confederates could have been up and over Little Round Top,” Deutsch said.
Over the next hour, there were three Confederate attacks against the 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York regiments — the center of Vincent’s line.
Attacking Confederate troops were from two Texas regiments and one Alabama regiment. Another Alabama regiment later joined the fight.
“These were the shock troops of the Confederacy,” Deutsch said. “They were well-trained, aggressive and had been the most proficient attacking troops that Robert E. Lee had.
“They almost never failed to achieve victory when they were on the attack. They attacked three times. Each time, the fire from 83rd and 44th drove them back,” Deutsch said. “It was said that cooks and musicians and orderlies all grabbed muskets to form the Union line. Every man had a musket to fight off the Confederate attacks.”
After Confederates could not break the center of Vincent’s line, two Confederate regiments, which had not been engaged, then peeled off Big Round Top and attacked the 20th Maine on the Union’s left flank.
The 20th Maine repulsed several waves of Rebel assaults during the regiment’s famous stand.
After hard fighting for about 90 minutes, the 20th Maine was nearly out of ammunition, surrounded nearly on two sides and was being badly pressed by the Confederates’ ability to continually extend the regiment’s left flank.
That’s when Chamberlain ordered a wielding bayonet charge down the hill that caught the Confederates by surprise.
“The 20th Maine fills in on the left flank and fights very well, but Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine have gotten a whole lot of press over the years in the movie Gettysburg and the book, ‘Killer Angels,’ ” Deutsch said. “In reality, Chamberlain was a subordinate of Strong Vincent. Vincent placed him there and gave him the orders.”
William Garvey, president of the Erie nonprofit Jefferson Educational Society, believes Vincent’s legacy “has been obscured because Chamberlain lived to tell the story.”
“History is told by those who survive or those who win,” Garvey said. “Because Chamberlain lived, he was able to tell the story over and over again.”
As the 20th Maine was staving off waves of assaults and immortalizing its regiment, two Texas regiments and an Alabama regiment, sweeping up through the Valley of Death, attacked Vincent’s right flank, advancing up Little Round Top’s front face against the 16th Michigan Infantry.
For more than 90 minutes, the line held.
“The 16th Michigan had been engaged a little longer than the 20th Maine,” Gettysburg National Military Park Historian John Heiser said. “They were running low on ammunition.”
The outer half of the 16th Michigan’s line began to break.
“They didn’t have breastworks and they didn’t have time to build stone defenses,” Heiser said.
Troops in the 16th Michigan were being flanked and driven back.
Vincent, stationed behind the center of his line, rushed to the Union right, climbed on a large, flat boulder on the hillside above his retreating troops and shouted, “Don’t give an inch, boys, don’t give an inch.”
Moments later, Vincent was mortally wounded when he was shot in the thigh and groin.
As Vincent was being carried away, he remarked, “This is the fourth or fifth time they have shot at me and they have hit me at last,” Deutsch said.
Just as the right side of the Union line seemed in danger of collapsing, troops from the 140th New York Regiment — their bayonets fixed — counterattacked from behind the ridge. They charged down the slope, breaking up the Confederate attack and saving the line and Little Round Top from Confederate occupancy.
The 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment, which began the fight with 295 troops, suffered 55 casualties (10 killed and 45 wounded).
After Vincent was mortally wounded, he was taken initially to his command headquarters on Little Round Top, where a marker honoring Vincent sits atop a boulder. Vincent was later transferred to an army field hospital at the Bushman Farm, about three-quarters of a mile behind, or east, of Little Round Top. Vincent died there on July 7, 1863.
While Vincent and his brigade stole the thunder on the battlefield on July 2, a second Erie-area regiment — the 145th Volunteer Infantry — also fought at Gettysburg that day.
The regiment saw action from late afternoon to dusk in Rose Woods, west of the Wheatfield, which was west of Cemetery Ridge on the Union’s left flank.
The 145th Infantry was assigned to the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps. Its brigade included four other regiments.
“The brigade gets up here and they make the most successful Union attack across the Wheatfield,” Deutsch said. “They clear the Wheatfield — the final and most successful Union attack of the Wheatfield fight.”
The 145th Regiment was the right flank unit. At Rose Woods, the brigade engaged in a firefight with parts of two Confederate brigades.
“They get pressured from the front, a fresh Confederate brigade of South Carolinians comes in on the right, and another Confederate brigade attacks them from behind on the left,” Deutsch said.
The 145th Infantry and the rest of its brigade was surrounded on three sides.
“The only way to survive is to break and go back,” Deutsch said. “The Confederates pursue them. The 145th fights very hard, but they get out of the Wheatfield. … That gives the Wheatfield up finally to Confederate control.”
The 145th Regiment began the fight with 202 troops and suffered 80 casualties (11 killed and 69 wounded), according to the 678-page historical reference book, “Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg.”
At Rose Woods, the 145th Infantry Monument depicts a young soldier holding a musket.
“I think it’s one of the best monuments on the battlefield because it shows the soldier as he would have looked — young, determined, thin,” Deutsch said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services