In the two-and-a-half decades after the battle of Gettysburg, the
Union veterans who survived to tell the tale were nearly unanimous in
the declaration that the key to the battle depended on holding one very
important hill. The puzzle for most modern students of the battle is why,
with one consent, those veterans seemed to choose the wrong hill. 
For the present generation of battlefield tourists, the most important
hill on the battlefield is the cone-shaped moraine known as Little Round
Top. Oddly, this was not the name by which it was known at the time of
the battle. People referred to it variously as Wolf's Hill, Sugar
Loaf, or simply the "rocky hill," and after the battle, John
B. Bachelder (who set himself up almost at once as the official chronicler
of Gettysburg) tried to fix the name "Weed's Hill" to it,
in honor of the most senior Union officer killed there during the battle,
Stephen Weed. But Little Round Top it became, and Little Round Top it
stayed, although even then it played a strictly back-seat role in the
imaginations of the battle's veterans. It was not until the 1890s
when curiosity began to shift in Little Round Top's direction,
and not for another eighty years - after Michael Shaara's The
Killer Angels - that Little Round Top suddenly blossomed into the
key to the entire battle. From that point, and up through the Ronald
Maxwell movie epic, Gettysburg, Little Round Top was transformed into
"the key of the field in front beyond a doubt," and popular
historians upped the ante to the point where "they saved the Union
at Little Round Top."  In particular, it has been Joshua
Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine's last-chance bayonet
charge on Little Round Top on July 2nd which have taken most of the
laurels for guaranteeing that salvation. Certainly, the stand of the
20th Maine makes for great drama in the midst of great drama. As the
left-flank regiment of Col. Strong Vincent's four-regiment brigade,
Chamberlain's 20th Maine held off at least two major rebel infantry
attacks in their front that afternoon, and then, when their ammunition
was virtually gone, fixed bayonets and charged downhill, surprising
and scattering the rebels. It was a beau geste straight out of the
story-books. The fact that Chamberlain had, only a year before, been an
unheralded professor of rhetoric at Bowdon College made the charge all
the more amazing: an amateur, in command of amateurs, somehow made not
only the right call, but the most daring call that could have been made,
and succeeded. Chamberlain's story appealed to that deep streak of
American self-reliance--that confidence in improvisation, that can-do
spirit that trumps overly-intellectualized and hidebound European ways of
doing things. That Chamberlain was a highly-intellectualized individual
himself was beside the point. It takes nothing away from the tenacity
of the fighting - the last-minute arrivals, the desperate and sometimes
hand-to-hand combat, the just-in-time swing and flow of the action - to
say that the drama of Little Round Top has been allowed to run away with
the reality. But looked at coldly, the real credit for defending Little
Round Top belongs less to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and more to
three others who have largely faded from attention: Gouverneur Warren,
the Army of the Potomac's chief engineer, who spotted rebel infantry
swarming in the direction of the otherwise undefended hill and sent off
gallopers to beg or borrow any troops they could find...Strong Vincent,
who took his professional standing in his own hands, brought his brigade
up to Little Round Top without authorization from his division commander,
and organized its defense...and Patrick O'Rorke, who also bolted
at Warren's call and brought his 140th New York up and over the
crest of Little Round Top just in time to shove an even more serious
Confederate attack back down the slopes. Unhappily, O'Rorke was
killed in the charge and Strong Vincent was shot through the groin and
died after four days of suffering. Gouverneur Warren would outlive the
battle, only to be pilloried for misconduct at Five Forks in 1865. That
left Chamberlain as the best candidate for laurel-wearing. And he was
not an unworthy candidate, either. He would survive three wounds in
1864 (one of them near-fatal), win the Congressional Medal of Honor,
end the war as a major-general, serve four terms as governor of Maine
and as president of Bowdoin. Even more important, he would publish at
least seven accounts of Little Round Top, giving himself the starring
role, and giving Little Round Top the starring role in the battle as
the last extension of the Union Left flank.  Other veterans of
Vincent's brigade were not impressed: "Chamberlain,"
complained Porter Farley of the 140th New York, "is a professional
talker and I am told rather imaginative withal." And the truth is
that Chamberlain's charge was only one of several such spoiling
attacks that day, and Little Round Top was more of an outpost than the
real flank of the Union line. It was the ex-professor's considerable
flair for self-promotion which vaulted him ahead of the others. 
Nor is it entirely clear that Little Round Top quite deserved the role
Chamberlain attached to it. The puffing of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th
Maine is a subset of the larger problem of glamorizing Little Round Top
itself. Charles Hazlett, yet another forgotten player on the hill that
day who manhandled his six 10-pounder Parrott rifles "by hand and
handspike" up through the tangled trees and underbrush of the hill,
warned Gouverneur Warren that Little Round Top didn't afford much in
the way of an artillery platform. The cone of the hill crested in a narrow
spine which offered very little room for the deployment of artillery,
and only permitted a line of fire facing west. Both Warren and Hazlett
agreed that Little Round Top "was no place for efficient artillery
fire--both of us knew that." Hazlett only took the trouble to get up
there because he hoped that "the sound of my guns will be encouraging
to our troops and disheartening to the others."  Defending
Little Round Top may even have endangered more than it protected the Union
position at Gettysburg. The great Confederate attack on July 2nd had never
been designed to seize Little Round Top in the first place; the plan laid
down by both Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet was to swing a gigantic,
curling blow up the Emmitsburg Road into the rear of Cemetery Hill,
and brush past the "rocky hill." When Gouverneur Warren began
pulling, first Vincent's Brigade, then O'Rorke's regiment,
then the balance of Stephen Weed's brigade, up to Little Round Top,
he was actually subtracting units which were intended to reinforce the
Union line along the Emmitsburg Road, and thus made it all the easier for
James Longstreet's rebels to land the real blow of the afternoon. The
Confederates who scrambled up Little Round Top were only there because
they had wandered off-course during the attack, and probably would have
made no difference to the overall outcome of events on July 2nd - except,
of course, that they induced Union commanders like Warren to siphon-off
troops which could have been used to shore-up the Emmitsburg Road. As it
was, the thinly-spread Union troops along the Emmitsburg Road were crushed
by Longstreet's sledgehammer, and the Army of the Potomac was nearly
brought to its knees. Had Longstreet succeeded in seizing Cemetery Hill,
we would today be blaming, rather than celebrating, Warren, Chamberlain
and O'Rorke for allowing themselves to be distracted by a useless
piece of rocky