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Twilight At Little Round Top: July 2, 1863 - The Tide Turns At Gettysburg By Glenn W. LaFantasie

Jacket: Hardcover
Pages: 366 pages
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons (February 25, 2005)
Genre: Military History
ISBN: 0471462314

Comments about the author: Glenn W. LaFantasie teaches history at the University of Maine at Farmington. His book Twilight at Little Round Top, has been on the History Book Club Bestseller List for more than twenty-five weeks.

Review: “Doctor” Glenn W. LaFantasie is a working historian who has credits for a number of Civil War Journal articles, editorship for Bantam Books Memoirs of Frank Haskell and William Oates on Gettysburg, and work on the Roger Williams Papers. With a large personal intellectual investment in researching the Little Round Top fight this book dovetails with a soon expected biography of Colonel William Oates, 15th Alabama; Joshua Chamberlain’s adversary at Gettysburg.

The core exposition here is a micro-history of military action around the venerated terrain of two pronounced knolls that end the southern reach of the Cemetery Ridge which demarcated the shank of the Army of the Potomac’s defensive line assumed at the end of the first day of the battle. Several reputations were made here. Governeur K. Warren and Joshua Chamberlain’s are prominent in Civil War mythology. (I should add that the activity of General George Sykes, 5th Union Corps, seems better accounted for here than I can recall in other sources. The stolid regular army Sykes never gets credit for his role in the battle as he willingly risked his position in sending support to threatened areas.) Chamberlain’s stock particularly, has soared thanks to Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels"" novel. The novel and the Gettysburg"" movie derivative caused the National Park Service to reverse the traffic flow pattern 180 degrees so that the faithful approach the hill from the 20th Maine’s position.

This is a problem in discussing Civil War battle in general or in specifics: there is a mythology well established and maintained about such events. Perceptions of the weight and meaning of actions and the contributions of participants are vetted and hard to reconcile, even when facts to the contrary suggest another interpretation the urge to maintain the myth persists. (Casualty figures for the battle are controversial, the National Park Service dodges the issue officially, but the highest number is flaunted anyway.)

Dr. LaFantasie lures the reader to his interpretation with dramatic narrative rather than a dry critical analysis of references and historiography. His conclusion is that the myths, with some minor revisions, are true. That Union military action at the Round Tops won the battle by stopping the Army of Northern Virginia’s best chance for achieving victory.

Dr. LaFantasie actually provides most of the essential military reasons why this can’t be the case in his own operational narrative which sets the scene for the tactical battle. Based on faulty reconnaissance General Lee planned a battle intended to sweep a Union left flank he thought was somewhere north of the Round Tops. This flanking attack, by James Longstreet’s Corps would drive towards A.P. Hill’s Corps which would join in the fight, followed by Ewell’s Corps, concerting the weight of a grand army attack in a unified onslaught on the known Army of the Potomac point of concentration east of the town. This plan went kafuffle because everybody’s favorite bad boy, Dan Sickles the Union 3d Corps commander, refused to remain on Cemetery Ridge and advanced his Corps to occupy the same ground Longstreet’s Confederates were heading for to stage their attack.

This required Lee and Longstreet to modify their battle. Longstreet must now fight thru this enemy and continue to drive the battle towards AP Hill. Longstreet’s right flank division commander, John Bell Hood discovers that the Union flank ends on Houck Ridge. The Round Tops are clear. More importantly there are logistical trains and the Taneytown road behind Cemetery Ridge. Getting deep into the enemies flank is the cheapest way to dislodge them. Hood wants to shift the axis of his attack further right. But Longstreet says no. Longstreet had spent most of the day dragging his feet trying to get Lee to modify his concept of operations to defense. By 4 pm Longstreet had run out of time and excuses short of insubordination. He told Hood that, on the express orders of General Lee, no further delay was possible and a direct attack on Sickles was inevitable.

That the round tops were even attacked directly was a mistake. Law’s Brigade drifted right, off their mark and eventually fronted Little Round Top. No corrective was made. No reinforcement was given to this line of attack.

Elsewhere, the main battle pitted seven of Longstreet’s brigades against, 5 Union Divisions (14 Brigades) in a protracted and bloody series of fights at other points such as Houck Ridge, Rose Woods, The Wheatfield, The Stony Hill, and The Peach Orchard. Eventually Longstreet’s soldiers bludgeoned their way through two major pulses of Union resistance and fronted the Round Tops at dusk, too mangled and exhausted to do anything but retreat.

In spite of everyone’s distaste for Dan Sickles, and all the very correct reasons for declaring what he did to be dangerous and insubordinate, the fact remains that Sickles folly disarticulated Lee’s scheme of maneuver and guaranteed that the Confederate Corps would not fight in concert in this battle. Confederate Corps actions were fought separately and failed all along the front. I’ll agree that 2 July sealed the fate of Lee’s campaign. But not particularly for what happened at the Round Tops.

In spite of personal misgivings, there is value to this work. Some of the sections of this book do manage to evoke Homeric truth and lyricism. There are some expansions and corrections of fact which are not to be found elsewhere. But there are also sections that cry out for a tougher editor. All things considered this doesn’t have the Olympian grasp of Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day"", but only provides a minor corrective for some of the lore surrounding this portion of the battlefield.

— Reviewed by: David Kelly


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