Strong Vincent's defense of a key Union position was a turning point at Gettysburg

After three days of fighting and before the gun smoke cleared from the skies over Gettysburg -- the biggest battle ever fought in North America -- soldiers and citizens already were debating the importance of the conflict and how, exactly, George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac had finally bested Robert E. Lee's seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.

More than 50,000 casualties--dead, dying, wounded or missing--lay buried or heaped or writhing in pain in the battle's aftermath. Newspapermen and military men speculated that the Battle of Gettysburg marked the high-water mark of the Confederacy and the turning point of the Civil War. What, then, was the turning point of the battle?

Some pointed to Gen. John Buford's cavalry holding action on the first day that enabled Winfield Scott Hancock's corps to seize the high ground on Cemetery Ridge.

Others identified Confederate Gen. George Pickett's failed charge on the third day as the critical event.

But even as Lee's defeated army streamed southward, many in the North and South talked of the second day's battle for the round-topped mountains that anchored the left flank of the Union line. Though few remember his name today, Strong Vincent, a 26-year-old lawyer from Erie, deserves credit for seizing and holding the key position of Little Round Top and saving the battle of Gettysburg for the Union.

Vincent had worked in his father's iron foundry before heading to Harvard and completing his legal training in 1859. He practiced law for only a few years when, in 1861, the war changed the course of his life.

He enlisted in the Army and quickly rose through the ranks, finding himself a colonel in command of a brigade of four regiments -- 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, 16th Michigan and 20th Maine -- some 1,200 men in all. On the day destined to change the course of the war, Vincent marched his footsore command to the sound of the guns just as Lee attacked the disorganized Union left flank positioned in the wheat fields and peach orchards in the valley east of Little Round Top.

At the same time, the Union's chief engineer, Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, stood atop the summit of the little bald and boulder-strewn mountain. Anxiously scanning the landscape below through field glasses, he worried that no Union troops occupied this strategic position -- if the Confederates got artillery on these heights, they could sweep the entire length of Cemetery Ridge and destroy the Union line.

Warren dashed off a hasty note to George Sykes, commander of the Fifth Corps, urging him to get one of his divisions to the "bald hill" and threatened flank as soon as possible. Warren's anxiety increased when he directed a cannon crew to fire a shell into the thick woods on the other side of the valley to the west.

The shell burst caused thousands of concealed Confederate troops to duck or turn and in the process revealed their position as their burnished gun barrels and bayonets reflected in the light of the setting sun. Couriers from Sykes frantically searched for Gen. James Barnes, commanding the First Division of the Fifth Corps. Vincent, riding at the head of his column bound for the fighting in the Wheatfield, intercepted one of these messengers.

"Captain, what are your orders?" Vincent demanded. The reluctant officer, casting about for Gen. Barnes, said he was not authorized to share the message with anyone but the division commander. But Vincent prevailed, learned of the urgent necessity of occupying Little Round Top, and without hesitation said, "I will take responsibility of taking my brigade there."

With a riding crop given to him by his wife, Lizzie, whom he married the same day he left for war, Vincent lashed his lathered horse, riding far ahead of his men.

He arrived on Little Round Top just as the flank brigade of Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood's Alabamans, Texans and Georgians swarmed over the forested Big Round Top to the south and organized their assault on the more strategically situated Little Round Top.

Artillery shells fired from Rebel cannons emplaced near "Devil's Den" shattered the trees around Vincent. He dismounted, leaving his sword still strapped to his saddle, and turned his horse over to the brigade bugler who shadowed him.

With riding crop in hand, Vincent scrambled over the boulders and through the broken timber, scouting advantageous positions as his winded brigade double-quicked into line and the Confederate infantry began surging up the slopes. Vincent told Joshua Chamberlain, commanding the 20th Maine, "I place you here! This is the left of the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs!"

Chamberlain and every man in the ranks of Vincent's brigade all seemed to understand that this day and this fight could win the war -- and they fought as they had never fought before. Often in hand-to-hand combat, they repulsed five or six desperate attacks until, out of ammunition, they fixed bayonets and leapt over their hasty stone defenses and charged into the final Rebel rush.

The exhausted Confederates, appalled by the audacity of the attacking Union men, broke and ran. But the victory came at a terrible cost. Just a stone's throw from Chamberlain's position, Vincent had thrust himself into a break in the lines, thrashing with his crop any man who attempted retreat and shouting, "Don't give an inch!" until he was cut down by a bullet that broke his leg and ripped open his thigh from knee to groin.

He died in a nearby farmhouse five days later, unaware that a grateful George Meade, the army commander, had promoted him to brigadier general.

It may be argued that Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the war and that Strong Vincent's initiative and his timely occupation and defense of Little Round Top was the key to the Battle of Gettysburg. Veterans, blue and gray, believed this to be the case and often said so at reunions and monument dedications in the decades that followed the War.

Medal of Honor winner Joshua Chamberlain credited Vincent with the victory, and Col. James Rice, who took Vincent's place, predicted just days after the battle that "his memory will outlast the stone which shall bear the inscription of his bravery, his virtues, and his patriotism."

Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Killer Angels," and the subsequent 1993 motion picture "Gettysburg," touches on Vincent's role in the heroic defense of Little Round Top, but today Vincent is little noted or remembered, though he sacrificed himself for a nation that he believed worth dying for.

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Andrew E. Masich is the president & CEO of the Heinz History Center and chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which is coordinating Pennsylvania's Civil War sesquicentennial activities. The History Center's new exhibition, "Pennsylvania's Civil War," opened June 22. First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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