The Big Round Top Controversy, July 2, 1863

This article appeared in the Columbia Spy, (Lancaster, Pa.) in January of 1864

From the perspective of Colonel Joseph W. Fisher, who commanded the Third Brigade of the Fifth Army Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg.

THE PENNSYLVANIA RESERVES AT GETTYSBURG.

A Review of the Publican entitled “The Truth Regarding Some Important Historical Facts.”

Rev. M. Jacobs, Professor of Mathematics and Chemistry, Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg

Dear Sir: – A slip cut from a newspaper (said to be the New York Times,) containing a letter addressed to you, and signed “James O. Rice, Brigadier-General Commanding Second Brigade,” of, I suppose, First Division, Fifth Corps, has just been handed me, which after quoting several paragraphs from your work, recently published, virtually denies to the Pennsylvania Reserves all credit for their participation in the battle of Gettysburg; first denying that a charge had been made from “Little Round Top,” by our division, or any part thereof, and claiming for one of the regiments of his brigade the honor (if there be any honor) of taking and holland “Round Top.” –  I propose to state the facts connected with the action of the Reserves on that ever memorable occasion, so far as they came under my observation, and then leave the question where it has been placed by official reports of the battle, unless forced into some additional statements by future developments.

On the morning of July 2d this division marched from McSherrystown, after marching nearly all the night before, near the scenes of the battle-field.  We arrived within sight and hearing of the battle about noon of that day.  Some time in the afternoon we were ordered forward, and division massed to the right of Little Round Top, but scarcely had this been done, when our position was changed, and we were thrown on the hill in the rear of the part of the Second Division of the Fifth Corps, and very shortly after taking up our new position, my Brigade (the Third) being in front was ordered to the left, to support the brigade then commanded by Colonel (now General) Rice, the enemy at this time pressing the troops in our immediate front so hard that they were driven back, and the First Brigade of the Reserves, with one regiment of my brigade, which had not yet gotten off the ground, were ordered to charge the enemy.  The charge was made, led by Colonel McCandless, and resulted as stated in your book, in driving back the enemy, and in the capture of a large number of prisoners.

Colonel Joseph W. Fisher
Colonel Joseph W. Fisher, commanding the Third Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves.

The charge, bear in mind, was not made over the men or through the lines of Colonel (now General) Rice, but two or three hundred yards to his right. – You do not say, Sir, in your very interesting history of the day’s proceedings, that the Reserves charged down Little Round Top, across the valley, below, and over the next hill, into the woods beyond.”  This, Sir, does not reflect “credit upon the fancy,” but is genuine history.

The Third Brigade, which I then had the honor to command (and have that honor still,) in the meantime was marching to the left to support Colonel Rice, and on arriving near his line I was met by him in person, and asked whether I commanded the brigade then coming up.  I answered that I did.  Colonel Rice at once asked me to support him, as he had been and was then sorely pressed by the enemy.  I requested him to point out the ground where he wanted support, which he did.  I at once threw the Fifth Reserve, commanded by Lieut. Col. Dare, and the Twelfth, commanded by Col. Hardin, in the immediate rear of his line, and, at his request, threw the Ninth, commanded by Lieut. Col. Snodgrass, and the Tenth, commanded by Colonel Warner, on his left.  The firing on both sides ceased very shortly afterwards.

Some time after the cessation of the firing I asked Colonel Rice whether he had not been annoyed by the enemy firing from that hill (indicating “Round Top”) during the afternoon.  He replied that he had not.  I at once remarked that I would take that hill that night. – The Colonel replied that it might prove a hazardous enterprise.  I replied that all forms of active warfare were moreless hazardous.  Colonel Rice then proposed joining me in taking the hill, to which I consented, requesting hi mto give me one of his regents, and I would take two of mine and start up the hill at once.  Col. Rice designated the Twentieth Maine, under command of Col. Chamberlain, and I took the Fifth and Twelfth of the Reserves.  About the time that the above named troops were ready to move General Crawford arrived on the ground, and I at once communicated to him my intention of taking the hill (not then knowing it by the name of “Round Top”), to which General Crawford replied, “Go ahead, and take it.”

General James O. Rice, former commander of the 44th New York Infantry. Library of Congress.

I deployed Colonel Chamberlain’s regiment as skirmishers, I think for the reason that his men were armed with longer ranged guns than mine, as my two regiments were armed with “smooth bores.”  Of this, however, I am not certain.  I moved with this command up the hill, taking quite a number of prisoners; held the hill during the night and until the army moved from the ground, two or three days afterwards.  In the meantime I was reinforced by a brigade from the Sixth Corps, under command of, I think, Gen. Wright.  On my way up the hill I got intimation, coming from some rebel prisoners, that a movement was about being made by the enemy to send a brigade down the valley, between Round Top and Little Round Top, for the purpose of cutting off and capturing the troops on Round Top (they having heard us go up.)  I at once hastened down the hill, and moved the Ninth and Tenth upon the ground previously occupied by the Fifth and Twelfth, so as to cover the valley and prevent such a movement, should it be attempted.  

In the morning, in consultation with Col. Rice, we agreed that it would be better to change the position of the troops on Little Round Top, and I accordingly threw my left around so as to cover the valley, and ordered the men to throw up a strong breastwork of stone, which was very soon done, thus rendering our position very strong and secure.  This interview was the last I had with General (then Colonel) Rice.

I was not aware that General Rice, or any other person, claimed the honor of the conception of the idea, or the execution of the work of taking Round Top, until I incidentally learned from a conversation with General Sykes, that the credit was awarded to another.  

I do not wish to deprive General Rice, or any of his command, the honor justly due them; but in awarding him and his brigade full credit for the noble deeds of himself and men, I cannot permit the most humble soldier of my command to be deprived of a single laurel, which he is clearly entitled to wear.  It is true, Gettysburg might be erased from the lists of the battles in which the Reserves have participated, and enough will be left to immortalize them; but having shared its dangers, it is but right they should share its glory.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. W. Fisher,
Colonel Commanding Third Brigade,
Pennsylvania Reserves

Warrenton Junction, Va.,
December 14, 1863.

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Currently a resident of Burke, Virginia - I'm originally from the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have been a student of the Pennsylvania Reserves since 1997 and thoroughly enjoy telling their story. By trade I'm a former IT Professional but presently working as a Letter Carrier for the United States Postal Service.