Civil War historical fiction: ‘Courage on Little Round Top’


Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels” about the Battle of Gettysburg features Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment. It was on Little Round Top, a low-lying eminence that anchored the left of the Union defensive line at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, that Chamberlain narrowly escaped being shot by an officer of the 15th Alabama Regiment that was attempting to capture that hill.

Thomas M. Eishen’s historical novel “Courage on Little Round Top” identifies this officer as Lt. Robert Wicker, and relates the circumstances that led to his confrontation with Chamberlain. Wicker, like the youthful Private Henry Fleming in Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” was beset by fear that he would show cowardice on the battlefield. 

This was the burden that Lt. Wicker, a real-life character, was carrying as the Confederate invasion of the North was underway in June 1863; and, at times, he found it nearly overwhelming. The author sets the stage for the Chamberlain-Wicker encounter by describing their movements prior to arrival at Little Round Top on July 2.

While marching toward Gettysburg, Chamberlain had to contend with his two well-intentioned but meddlesome brothers serving on his staff. Wicker had similar issues with enlisted men in the regiment, close friends and relatives from back in Alabama, with whom he routinely fraternized. As part of a close-knit group, Wicker feared that if he ran away from the enemy he would become a laughing stock and an embarrassment to his family.

As the armies of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade converged on the remote Gettysburg crossroads community in south central Pennsylvania and the opening battles had taken place on July 1, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock helped the Union army establish a defensive position on Cemetery Hill and the adjacent ridge just south of town. In one scene that evening, the author depicts Hancock being relieved when Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, a notorious political general whose actions came into question the next day, passed by without recognizing him in the fading light, because “He didn’t want Sickles to spoil his evening.” 

On the early morning of July 2, Rebel Brig. Gen. E.M. Law’s brigade, that included Lt. Wicker’s company, conducted a forced march of 20 miles from New Guilford, Pa., to Gettysburg. There they would join Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps.

Meanwhile, Col. Chamberlain learned that he had the unpleasant task of informing the men of his regiment of Gen. Meade’s message emphasizing the critical nature of the upcoming battle, and that “commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier who fails in his duty.” Chamberlain fully understood that was a responsibility he could never carry out, and hope to return home to Maine again.

That morning of July 2, when scouts informed Gen. Lee the hill on the Yankee left was unoccupied, he ordered Longstreet’s corps to attack that flank of the enemy position. After a time-consuming countermarch to avoid Union signal corps observers operating on that hill, the attack went forward late in the day and part of Law’s brigade marched toward Little Round Top.

When Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, Gen. Meade’s chief engineer, learned that the hill was undefended, he directed a brigade that included Chamberlain’s regiment to occupy it immediately. Warren’s initiative was timely, since Law’s units soon moved into position at the base of this eminence. 

Fate placed the 20th Maine and the 15th Alabama in direct contention on the battlefield, and the scene was set for Chamberlain to seize the moment and Wicker to confront his personal demons. The description of these fast moving events is crisp and detailed, and the story alluded to in Shaara’s novel takes on new meaning.

In Courage on Little Round Top, Thomas Eishen brings to the fore an important Civil War engagement. The novel’s appeal is its focus on lower-ranking individuals, while not neglecting strategy and tactics of the commanding officers.

Next we will discuss “Shrouds of Glory” about the bloody battle at Franklin, Tenn., in November 1864. Winston Groom, who created the inimitable character Forrest Gump, is also the author of this Civil War historical novel.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point