The second day of fighting at Gettysburg involved the majority of the Union and Confederate armies. Federal brigades and regiments had moved up from the south during the night, reinforcing positions on Cemetery and Culp’s Hill as well as stretching along the heights adjacent to that position known as Seminary Ridge, down as far as two hills known as Big Round Top and Little Round Top. The line of soldiers and artillery in these positions would have appeared as a fish hook on a map, with the barb at the north end of the line, near the town, and the shaft stretching south along the heights.[i]
Confederate reinforcements had moved into opposite positions stretched along the Union line to the west. Cannon fire was exchanged all along the line for most of the day, but the bulk of infantry fighting was concentrated on either end, or flank, of the Union position.[ii] Lee commanded that action based on his typical strategy throughout the war.
Recent advances in military technology, which increased the accuracy and effectiveness of muskets, made frontal attacks on entrenched positions much more dangerous than they had been in previous wars. Defenders could begin delivering fire on an advancing force from a much greater distance using riffled ammunition than they had before with smooth musket balls. This led strategists, like Lee, to favor flanking maneuvers in which a force would attempt to move around the side of an enemy where it would be exposed to the least fire and attack there.[iii]
The Confederate assault on the left flank of the Union army at Little Round Top might be the most famous flanking maneuver of the Civil War because of the film Gettysburg. The film depicts the 20th Maine Regiment, lead by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain fighting off waves of Confederate attackers at the far end of the Union line until the regiment ran out of ammunition and was forced to defend its position with bayonets. The film producers chose to focus on this action at Little Round Top to represent the second day of the battle. Union and Confederate forces fought elsewhere along the Union line, but this small piece of the confrontation is a good example of how Lee’s army was focused on performing a flanking maneuver that day.
[i] Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson, Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 3-47.
[ii] Gary W. Gallagher, Three Days at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1999), 109-128.
[iii] Craig Symonds, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).