The Battle of Gettysburg, fought on July 1–3, 1863, was the turning point of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee's plan to invade the North and force an immediate end to the war failed. The little town of Gettysburg held no military significance, but several roads converged there. On June 30, 1863, advance cavalry elements of the Union Army began arriving at Gettysburg, and 7,000 Confederates were sent to investigate.
The following day the battle began in a place neither Lee nor his Union counterpart, General George Meade, would have chosen on purpose. It was almost as if the roads just happened to bring their armies to that point on the map.
As the Battle of Gettysburg developed on July 1st, the Union troops held a series of high ridges running southward from the town. At the southern end of that ridge were two distinct hills, known locally for years as Big Round Top and Little Round Top.
The geographic importance of Little Round Top is significant. Whoever controlled that ground could dominate the countryside to the west for miles. And, with most of the Union Army arranged to the north of the hill, the hill represented the extreme left flank of the Union lines. Losing that position would be disastrous.
Vast numbers of troops took positions during the night of July 1, Little Round Top was somehow overlooked by Union commanders. On the morning of July 2, 1863, the strategic hilltop was barely occupied. A small detachment of signalmen, troops who passed orders via flag signals, had reached the top of the hill. But no major fighting detachment had arrived.
The Union commander, General George Meade, had dispatched his chief of engineers, General Gouverneur K. Warren, to inspect the federal positions along the hills south of Gettysburg. When Warren arrived at Little Round Top he immediately realized its importance.
As the Confederates came in a final attack, Col. Joshua Chamberlain bellowed the order, “Bayonets!” His men fixed bayonets, and without ammunition, charged down the slope toward the Confederates.
Stunned by the ferocity of the 20th Maine’s assault, and exhausted by the day’s fighting, Confederates soldiers surrendered. The Union line held, and Little Round Top was secure for the moment.1
Just 262 Men
The next day the 1st Minnesota Infantry performed one of the most critical actions of the battle. The Union line had been dangerously thinned to prop up other sections. Minnesota had only recently become a state in May of 1858, but they had sent the first infantry of volunteers to fight.
On July 2,1863 as Union troops were desperately trying to hold the line on Cemetery Ridge, a major hole opened and nearly 1,200 Confederate troops marched forward. Though grossly outnumbered, the 1st Minnesota was the only unit that could stop them long enough for additional troops to arrive. They did not hesitate. Within five minutes 215 of the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota fell. When the soldier carrying the Minnesota colors was killed, another dropped their weapon and grabbed the flag. Five times that happened in five minutes. Minnesota’s brave and courageous men held the line. Minnesota experienced an 82% casualty rate, but the Union line held until reinforcements arrived. There is a memorial in Gettysburg honoring these brave Minnesota American patriots.2
Gettysburg can be viewed as the turning point of the Civil War, and the fierce combat at Little Round Top was the turning point of the battle.
President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address speech was given at the official dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery (now called the Gettysburg National Cemetery) at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Beginning in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to recognize the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving, and in 1870 Congress passed legislation making Thanksgiving Day (along with Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day) a national holiday.
There are two lessons we must not miss this November: 1. Hold the high ground and 2. Be Thankful.