A lot of attention was given at the end of the 19th century to the "what if" the Confederates occupied the Little Round Top at Gettysburg, but there's the Big Round Top nearby and the Confederates took it almost without a fight. Would it be better for them if they just sat on it and not have committed themselves to the Little Round Top fight? I know that placing artillery on top was probably not possible, but it might still have been a good position, as the Federals were nervous about the Confederates being there and drove them away.

EDIT: I think I now understand. While something akin to a victory might have been possible on either Round Tops, a concentration there and subsequent baiting for a Federal attack was not general Lee's intention. He wanted to smash the Union left wing in a frontal attack and cause a rout. When that failed, there was no secondary objective (like taking the Big Round Top).

  • I'm confused - don't "What If" questions require opinion-based answers rather than factual historical-based responses? Don't get me wrong, I love what if discusssions especially on Civil War and WWII subjects. But I thought this forum was not the place for such (?) What am I missing here?
    – Kerry L
    Sep 27, 2018 at 15:17
  • @KerryL The Confederates actually occupied the Big Round Top for a short while, no what ifs there. They also defended it, but not vigorously. Sep 27, 2018 at 17:26
  • then why ask would it have been_ rather than was it a good idea? And why are endless comments on this tooic a good thing without being moved to Chat while on other topics comments and discussion are deleted or moved to Chat? I don't see an equal application on the forum regarding this conjectural question and all the ensuing discssion. If a moderator can explain the difference here in understandable terms I would like to know. There are topics from historic periods I would like to discuss with as much lively debate and opinions. But I haven't because of the rules.
    – Kerry L
    Sep 27, 2018 at 17:55
  • @KerryL I think it's just a cosmetics issue. To rephrase the question in the sense of "why didn't they stay put on top of the Big Round Top". No orders to do so, too far forward/exposed. Sep 27, 2018 at 18:35
  • perhaps partly cosmetics, but also a lot of conjecture about whether a victory might have been possible, placing artilery might not have been possible, etc. - and the ongoing comments following the Answers below, a lot of conjecture. I’m not complaining about this, nor asking for moderator intervention. I’m just trying to understand when and where the rules of the forum apply, and when and where they don’t.
    – Kerry L
    Sep 27, 2018 at 18:41

3 Answers 3



The only good idea for the Confederates that day was to withdraw from this accidental battlefield so favourable for the Union, and resume a Fabian strategy of living off the Pennsylvania country side. Never mind the consequences of a defeat, the Confederates couldn't afford the casualties required for a victory.

In What is Operational Art?, Major Walter E. Piatt makes the point that much of early 19th century military theory was a severely wrong interpretation of Napoleonic warfare:

All the lessons of Napoleon may not have been fully embraced by historians and theorists. The wrong lesson may have been learned by the great military leaders that followed. This wrong lesson, or misconception of Napoleon, is that a war could be decided by a single battle. This misconception created a singular vision towards military operations and would influence military instruction in the nineteenth century. This singular vision, or desire to end the war with a single decisive battle, may still linger in the minds of present day officers and hinder understanding of operational art.

Epstein proves that this is clearly the wrong lesson to derive from the study of Napoleon. It may have been this wrong lesson though, that planted the desire for many leaders to emulate Napoleon. After Napoleon military leaders desired to obtain the one quick decisive battle to end the war. It was not to be.

It would take another genius a half a century later to figure it out, his name was Ulysses S. Grant.

Lee's entire Pennsylvania campaign was predicated on the notion that the Army of the Potomac could be destroyed in a single massive battle, a Pennsylvania Cannae if you will. And that if this battle was fought to a successful conclusion, any number of Confederate casualties was acceptable for such a victory. But this was no more possible for Lee in 1863 than it was for Grant in 1864-5. Only a long series of battles could destroy either the Army of the Potomac or of Northern Virginia because, just as for Napoleon's Grande Armee in 1813-4:

Through the sheer size of Napoleon's army and the use of distributed maneuver it would require more than one battle to destroy his army. Distributed maneuver also forced Napoleon to plan for several engagements in a single campaign. [ibid]

If Lee had truly understood these lessons from a half century earlier, he would have heeded Longstreet's advice for the second day at Gettysburg:

Can't we just sit for once, and let the damn Yanks come at us instead.

It was, after all, in the disastrous charge by Pickett the next day where nearly half of all Confederate casualties for the battle were incurred. The truly awesome defensive capability of a modern army, that would be exposed to the entire world in 1915 at Verdun, was already evident, for those willing to see, on the Round Tops and Cemetery Ridge in that first week of July, 1863.

Lee, on July 2 and 3 1863, choose to accept any number of Confederate casualties for the pipedream of winning the Civil War in a single battle. Ironically, the consequent destruction of his army's offensive capability ended all hope for a negotiated settlement with the North. Like the Japanese commander at Midway eight decades later, Lee was the only commander on the field who could lose the war in an afternoon.

  • But, why indeed not wait on the Big Round Top? Jan 21, 2018 at 17:40
  • @user1095108: Because even the casualties required of victory, on this battlefield, were going to be too great for the Confederacy to bear. Any troops on that height covering a retreat would be a sacrificial lamb, too far from the main Confederate lines.. Jan 21, 2018 at 17:45
  • The whole point to a Fabian strategy is to only attack when possessing overwhelmingly favourable odds - because minimizing one's own losses is the paramount consideration. Don't defend where artillery is irrelevant, but make the Union advance across that mile of death in front of (aptly named) Cemetery Ridge. Jan 21, 2018 at 17:47
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    @user1095108: Lee lost nearly 20% of his army and his only great subordinate winning at Chancellorsville. The Confederates couldn't afford to win; they could only afford to survive, and had to hope that was enough. Lee should have observed Washington's campaigns more closely. Jan 21, 2018 at 18:03
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    @user1095108 - Well that's understandable. After all, those were just Yanks, and this was a proper European war.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 26, 2018 at 15:29

First of all, Little Round Top is generally considered the more valuable of the two. So there are two issues. The first was, given Confederate possession of Round Top, should they have played "double or nothing" with Little Round Top? The second issue is whether Big Round Top was worth having (and keeping) in its own right?

The earlier historians (around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) believe that the two Round Tops were the hinge, or key to the Union line, and its left flank, and that the Confederates had lost a major opportunity by not occupying them earlier. If you believe this, you might be torn between holding Round Top, and playing "double or nothing" by going for Little Round Top. In any event, under this view the Confederates lost their best chance when they failed to take Little Round Top, and their remaining chances when they were driven back from Round Top.

The "modern" (late 20th century and later) position is that even the Little Round Top was irrelevant to the later fighting. That's because neither hill was particularly good for placing artillery; Round Top because it was too forested; Little Round top, because it was too rocky. Meade and other Union generals considered and decided against "flanking" Pickett's charge from the Little Round Top because it was too far for infantry. More to the point, General Lee was unhappy about the diversion of the Confederate troops to the Round Tops; if they had broken the Union line higher on the ridge above Devil's Den, it would have obviated the need for Pickett's charge because the Confederates would have won the second day.

In these lights, the actions of Union General Sickles have been re-evaluated. The earlier version considered him reckless to shorten the Union Line by abandoning the Round Tops and occupying the Peach Orchard. Modern historians are more likely to believe that this action, taken against orders, saved the day at Gettysburg.

  • AFAIK the confederates did drive the union from the devils den to the little round top. Their line was not broken, because of reinforcements arriving at the hill. Why were the federals nervous about the Confederates being there? They placed themselves conveniently on top of hills. Sep 2, 2017 at 23:15
  • @user1095108: I changed the answer to "if they had broken the Union line higher on the ridge above Devil's Den." The Confederates failed to win because they didn't drive the Union forces off the "right" hill; only Little Round Top.
    – Tom Au
    Jan 20, 2018 at 23:14
  • I'm not convinced by the artillery argument. The Federals might have been induced into attacking the Round Top and would they have won? Jan 21, 2018 at 9:48
  • @user1095108, if the Confederacy had taken little round top they would be sitting on the high ground looking down on the entire union army's side. The Union would have had to attempt to take it back and probable would have failed as the high ground was a significant advantage. The Union couldn't exploit that advantage because their troops ran out of ammunition. The Union would have had to withdraw, and while withdrawing would have been vulnerable.
    – user27618
    Aug 18, 2018 at 8:05
  • @JMS Maybe so, but would they attack the Confederates on the Big Round Top had the Confederates occupied it in force? Aug 18, 2018 at 9:31

I had three ancestors at Gettysburg. One in the 16th Michigan on little round top. They remained on top of little round top as Chamberlains 20th Maine charged down and attacked the confederates from the side.

As you say, Big Round top or just Round Top was behind the Confederate Lines. They did occupy Big Round top. Would it have been better for the Confederates to have just sat on top of Big Round top and not have tried for Little Round Top. Absolutely. Given Gettysburg broke the confederacy's back and from that point on they never took the offensive in the war again. It would have been better if they never got out of bed that day... Two maps below show July 2, and July 3 positions respectively.

Gettysburg July 2 Gettysburg July 3 - shows cemetery ridge

The issue was that the Union had the high ground (Cemetery Ridge) and the more defensible positions. By attacking Little Round Top at the unions left, the Confederates were trying to flank them and fold up their lines. They were trying to avoid the costly frontal charge which they ultimately did attempt in Pickett's charge.. During this frontal attack on Cemetery Ridge, The attacking Confederates(Picket,Pettigrew,Trimble, Wilcox,Lang) had 50% casualty rate, or 6000 men. There is a plaque at the Gettysburg Battlefield where they temporarily penetrated union lines.. On that plaque it says "The High Water Mark of the Confederacy". The last major offensive by the south of the civil war, from this point on Lee retreated.

And to your point.. Why did Lee attack the Union in such fortified positions. General Longstreet objected on the same grounds.. He counseled that Lee should retreat, the Union's fortifications are too strong. But Lee felt the opportunity of defeating the union army was too tempting to ignore and overruled Longstreet. It was the biggest mistake of the war for Lee.


@user1095108, Lee was in "frontal mode" at Gettysburg even on the 2nd day. His "en echelon" order to attack was essentially an order for a frontal attack, not an attempt to flank the union line. I never read anything about whose idea the flanking attempt on Little Round Top actually was.


Lee Ordered Longstreet to flank the Union Army on August 2nd. (2nd day of the Battle of Gettysburg).

Little Round Top
About 4 p.m. on July 2, 1863, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps began an attack ordered by General Robert E. Lee that was intended to drive northeast up the Emmitsburg Road in the direction of Cemetery Hill, rolling up the Union left flank.


Climbing Little Round Top, Warren (Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, General Meade's Chief Engineer) found only a small Signal Corps station there. He saw the glint of bayonets in the sun to the southwest and realized that a Confederate assault into the Union flank was imminent. He hurriedly sent staff officers, including Washington Roebling, to find help from any available units in the vicinity.

The traditional view—one that emerged in the 1880s[28]—is that the left flank of the Union army was a crucial position. An example of this view is from 1900: "If the Confederates had seized [Little Round Top] and dragged some of their artillery up there, as they easily could have done, they would have enfiladed Meade's entire line and made it too unhealthy for him to remain there."


To your point there are alternative theories about the importance of Little Round Top.

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    I only have one objection to your answer. Lee was in "frontal mode" at Gettysburg even on the 2nd day. His "en echelon" order to attack was essentially an order for a frontal attack, not an attempt to flank the union line. I never read anything about whose idea the flanking attempt on Little Round Top actually was. Nov 7, 2017 at 21:13
  • "Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an attack on Union forces dug in just south of town. His men, fresh off a successful Day 1 of fighting, stormed the Union army’s left flank, but they were repelled partially as a result of Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s famous bayonet charge down Little Round Top." history.com/news/…
    – user27618
    Nov 7, 2017 at 21:26
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    it's kind of contradictory, Lee wanted to crush the Union with his frontal attacks, why flank at all? And if he managed to just push them back, the both Round Tops would have been useless. Nov 8, 2017 at 10:51
  • I know flanking can save lives & rout the enemy, but Lee wanted to smash the Union army, not just have it retreat from the field. He knew the Union would attrite the South into submission otherwise, as they could afford losses more readily. Now, if the South had panzers... it would have been a different story. Nov 8, 2017 at 15:24
  • The Confederacy lost its one tactical genius 8 weeks earlier at Chancellorsville. Gettysburg was one mistake after another for Lee's Army, including fighting a battle at that location and under those circumstances to begin with.; eliminating one error won't change a battle so badly run. Jan 20, 2018 at 23:20

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