From the Gettysburg Compiler, Sept. 15, 1896

Crisis on Round-Top: Battle Between the Twentieth Maine and Fifteenth Alabama

by George L. Kilmer

Round-Top was the gateway to Gettysburg. There were so many key points on that field of varying fortunes that the mind may readily be confused as to the real importance of any one of them. Late in the afternoon of July 2 there was a hot race between Federal and Confederate troops for the first foothold upon the twin crests of Round-Top. The race ended in a battle for the possession of the heights. History tells how the struggle ended. This is a story of the encounter and of the men engaged. Some band of northmen stood in the imminent breach that day and hour of destiny. The Twentieth Maine claims that honor.

In an address delivered on Round-Top at the dedication of the monument marking the position of the Twentieth Maine Captain Howard L. Prince of that regiment told the story from which I quote portions describing the fight. After treating of the movements of Vincent's brigade, which included the Twentieth Maine, to gain the crest of Little Round-Top, Captain Prince said:

The two right regiments (the Sixteenth Michigan and Forty-fourth New York) were placed somewhat below the brow of the hill, facing Devil's Den and the gorge of Plum Run, while the Eighty-third Pennsylvania filled the semicircular bend of the escarpment as it doubles back to face the loftier summit of Round-Top. The Twentieth prolonged this line, facing generally toward the higher mountain and looking down into the comparatively open and smooth depression between the summits. On this line Colonel Chamberlain brought our regiment into place"on the right by file into line"in order that the flank nearest the enemy might be most firmly planted, and received from Colonel Vincent his last orders, being to"hold this ground at all hazards." Then that gallant soldier departed forever from the sight of the soldiers of the Twentieth Maine, to fall within a short hour, in the very moment of victory. Each regiment threw out skirmishers, Company B, Captain Morrill, being ordered to extend the left flank of the Twentieth across the low ground and cover the front and exposed flank against direct attack, it being known that the command at that time held the extreme left of the army.
The Confederate brigades which marched eastward from the Emmitsburg road to assail the Round-Tops went into action in detachments at Devil's Den and on the slopes of Little Round-Top, leaving on the extreme right only two regiments to ascend the high Round-Top mountain. These were the Fifteenth Alabama, under Colonel Oats[sic] and the Forty-seventh. Having marched 24 miles that day that Alabamians were exhausted by the rugged climbing to the crest, and reaching there halted for breath. The Fifteenth regiment and the right companies of the Forty-seventh squarely confronted the Twentieth Maine. For a moment the antagonists, as it were, glared into each other's faces. The Twentieth Maine mustered 308 men in line, 50, under Captain Morrill, being absent skirmishing on the hillside opposite. Colonel Oates' regiment numbered 650 men in line. The Forty-seventh Alabama, on the left of Colonel Oates, was thrown into confusion by the fire of the Federals confronting it and in order to rel ieve his comrades Colonel Oates wheeled the Fifteenth into position to enfilade the men of Maine. The battle was opened. Of the attack by Colonel Oates, Captain Prince said:
His great superiority in numbers enabled him easily to cover our entire front and to bring a most deadly crossfire on the salient at our color company. He made his first advance from this new direction with great vigor and weight, hoping to drive us from our position but was met by a fire from our left companies that surpassed in its deadly effects that experienced on the right, which had caused him severe loss. His line wavered before it like men trying to walk before a strong wind, and it was compelled to give way. Again and again this rush was repeated, each time to be beaten off ˙ by the ever thinning line that clung desperately to its ledge of rock, refusing to yield excepting as it involuntarily shrunk a pace or two at a time from the storm of lead which swept its front. Colonel Oates advanced himself at the head of his men, and at times the hostile forces were at hand to hand distance. Twice the Alabamians were followed down the slope so sharply that they were obliged to use the bayonet, and in places small squads of their men, in their charges, reached our actual front. The lines surged backward and forward like a wave. At times our dead and wounded were in front of our line, and then, by a superhuman effort, our gallant lads would carry the combat forward beyond their prostrate forms. Continually the gray lines crept up by squads, under protecting trees and bowlders[sic], and the fire became at closer and closer range. And even the enemy's line essayed to reach around the then front of blue that stretched out in places to a single rank could not go much farther without bre aking. So far had they extended that their bullets passed beyond and into the ranks of the other regiments farther up the hill, and Captain Woodward, commanding the Eighty-third, on our right, sent to ask if the Twentieth had been turned. Colonel Chamberlain assured him that he was holding his ground, but would like a company, to extend his line. Captain Woodward was unable to give this, but by shortening his own line he was able to cover the right of the Twentieth and enable it to take ground to the left. Meanwhile the rest of the brigade, in front of Little Round-Top, was hard pushed to hold its own, and the heavy roar of musketry came to the anxious ears of our commander and told only too plainly what would be the result if our line gave away. Not a man in that devoted band but knew that the safety of the brigade, perhaps of the army, depended upon the steadfastness with which the point was held, and so fought on and on, with no hope of assistance, but not a thought of giving up. Already nearly half our force lay prostrate, the dead and wounded clogging the footsteps of the living. General Grant has said that there comes a time in every battle when, both sides being nearly exhausted, the combatant who can make the final effort, or hold his own way by sheer force of will, is to be winner. The moment was rapidly approaching to these two wrestlers. The pressure is growing harder and harder. Every advance seems more difficult to resist. How can flesh and blood endure it? Ammunition is rapidly exhausted. Many men have replenished their stock from the boxes of their fallen comrades, but that cannot last long, and then what? There is but one expedient, the cold steel, truly a forlorn hope when the force of the enemy is two to one. The die is cast, and the one word,"Bayonets!"rings from Chamberlain's lips like a bugle note, and down that worn and weary line the word and action go. In an instant, less time than has been required to tell it, Lieutenant Melcher has sprung to the head of the line, the ūcolors are advancing, and the regiment hurls itself down the ledge into the midst of the gray lines. Officers and men strive for the lead. Some have greater opportunities for individual deeds than others, but every man does his duty. Pistols are leveled, swords flash and bayonets clash. A Confederate fires in Colonel Chamberlain's face, and then, seeing the line upon him, surrenders his sword. Which wins the day, gray or blue? Will our line be swallowed up in the gray ranks? No! No! They turn and fly! The victory is ours!
The story of Colonel Oates describing the action of his Alabamians in that unique and bloody struggle has been preserved in the papers of the Southern Historial[sic] society. Of the first attack upon the Twentieth Maine and its sequel the Colonel says:
Just as the left of the Forty-seventh Alabama was being driven back I ordered my regiment to change direction to the left, swing around and drive the Federals from the ledge of rocks, partly for the purpose of enfilading their l ine and relieving the Forty-seventh. My men obeyed and advanced about half way to the enemy's position, but the fire was so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk against a strong wind, and then, slowly, doggedly, gave back a little; then, with no one on the right or left of me, my regiment exposed, while the enemy was still under cover, to stand there and die was sheer folly. Either to retreat or advance became a necessity. My lieutenant colonel, Feagin, had lost a leg, the heroic Cap tain Ellison had fallen, while Captain Brainard, the bravest and best officer in the regiment, in leading his company forward fell and instantly expired. Lieutenant John A. Oates, my brother, was pierced through by eight bullets and fell mortally wounded. Lieutenants Cody, Hill and Scroggin were killed and several other officers seriously wounded, while the hemorrhage of the ranks was appalling. I again ordered the advance, and knowing the officers and men of that gallant regiment, I felt sure than they would follow anywhere in the line of duty. I passed through the column, waving my sword, rushed forward to the ledge and was promptly followed by my entire command in splendid style. We drove the Federals from their strong defensive position. Five times they rallied and charged us- twice coming so near that some of my men had to use the bayonet- but vain was their effort. It was now our time to deal death and destruction to the foe, and the account was speedily settled, with a large balance in our favor. But this state of things could not long continue. With a withering and deadly fire pouring in upon us from every direction it seemed that the entire command was doomed to destruction. Captains Hill and Park suggested that I order a retreat, but this seemed impracticable. My dead and wounded were greater than those on duty. Out of 664 men and 42 officers I had lost 343 men and 19 officers. The dead literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles on the rocks. I hoped for reenforcements[sic]. It seemed impossible to retreat. I therefore replied to my captains:"Return to your companies! We will sell out as dearly as possible!" Hill made no reply, but Park smiled pleasantly, gave me the military salute and replied,"All right, sir." On reflection howvwer; a few moments later I did order a retreat, but did not undertake to retire in order. I had the officers and men advised that when the signal was given every one should run in the direction whence we came and halt on top of the mountain (Round-Top).
The flight of the Alabamians was past a stone wall where Captain Morrill's skirmishers and a handful of Michigan sharpshooters, cut off from the regiment had taken shelter. From behind the wall a terrible fire was poured into the retreating Confederates. Captain S amuel J. Miller of the Twentieth Maine says the distinct and signal services of his regiment at Gettysburg have sometimes been disputed for the reason that the regiment fought in the woods and their movements were concealed from view.
"Colonel Oates unconsciously pays a high tribute to the men who successfully repulsed the gallant assault made by the Fifteenth and Forty-seventh Alabama regiments in their desperate attempt to turn the left of the Army of the Potomac on the 2d of July. With the exception of the assistance of 15 sharpshooters every shot fired on the Fifteenth Alabama came from the Twentieth Maine, and previous to the flight of the Forty-seventh Alabama the right wing of the Twentieth alone contended with that regiment. The Twentieth carried into action 358 men and lost 130 killed and wounded. Colonel Oates admits that his regiment numbered nearly 700 men and officers and at roll call that night only 225 responded. Fifty Confederates lay dead in front of the Twentieth Maine, and the regiment captured more prisoners than it had men engaged.
"Had the twentieth Maine failed to check the assaults of those two Alabama regiments,"concludes Captain Miller,"the successful Confederates would have fallen upon the rear of the other regiments of Vincent's brigade and Hazlitt's[sic] battery, already heavily engaged with the enemy in their front, and their escape from capture or destruction would have been a miracle. With Little Round-Top in their possession the whole line of the army would have been [f]lanked."

Although the Twentieth Maine had been at the front nearly a year the struggle on Round-Top was the first stand up fight of the regiment.

George L. Kilmer.