By the morning of July 2, both armies were in place on ridges facing each other about a mile apart, but the Union forces, arranged in the shape of a fishhook, had the advantage of easily defensible terrain and ease of communication. The Confederate line was five miles long and messages were harder to transmit.
Lee planned a series of coordinated, “en echelon” attacks on both flanks. Timing was critical. One attack was to follow another, to confuse the enemy and prevent men from reinforcing other parts of the line. The distance worked against Lee. So did his unfamiliarity with the terrain.
The assault was supposed to begin in the morning, but it took Longstreet longer than expected to position his men. At one point the column came into view of the Union troops, and to preserve the element of surprise, they doubled back and took a roundabout way to reach their objective. The assault did not launch until 4:00pm, and Ewell’s planned diversionary attack on the right did not begin start 7:00pm, too late to confuse the northern forces. To make things worse for Longstreet, his commanders were not in position to roll up the Union flank as Lee had expected. Instead, the ground before them was well defended.
In the course of the bloody afternoon, both sides realized the hill called Little Round Top was undefended. Union commanders rushed Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, including the 114 former-mutineers, into position, with orders to “hold to the last.”
Some historians now dispute the assertion that the Union army would have fallen if Little Round Top was lost, but everyone who ought for the hill that day believed it. Chamberlain’s men repulsed repeated assaults. They started the battle with 60 rounds each, but even taking the cartridges of the fallen, they ran out of ammunition before the battle was over. Under orders not to retreat, but with his men unable to shoot, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge, a tactic from the books of military history he had studied.
The Confederates were exhausted. The day was hot, and many of them had been fighting all afternoon with empty canteens. When the Union forces came charging downhill out of the trees, many gave up the fight and surrendered. The others fled.
Chamberlain was wounded in the foot that day, one of six wounds he would receive in the course of the war. One, in 1864, was so serious he was promoted to brigadier general where he was fallen, since no one believed he would survive the day. He recovered and his regiment was chosen by Grant as the honor guard at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain served four terms as Governor of Maine, and thirty years after his stand on Little Round Top, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. After retiring from politics, Chamberlain became president of Bowdoin College. He died in 1914, a few months before the guns of August signaled the world’s descent into another round of the folly he had survived.