Gettysburg: Day 2
The Battle in Miniature by Dennis Morris
Book1: Devils Den and Houck's Ridge
At this point the Confederates' over whelming numbers began to take their toll. All available Union reserves in the vicinity had been committed and new troops from other corps had to try to stem the Confederate attack that now raged across the entire Union Left from Little Round Top all the way to Cemetery Hill.
Some time around 5:30 PM the situation became critical. On the Union left it became clear that the defenders of Little Round Top were not going to be able to extend their line down the west slope of the hill as Vincent's troops were precipitously close to being overrun on each flank.
On Ward's left flank, the 40th New York had suffered over 150 casualties and was struggling to keep the Georgians penned in the lower Plum Run Valley. The 6th New Jersey had either retired or held a small portion of the east slope of Houck's ridge.
At the crest of the ridge the 4th Maine, 99th Pennsylvania and 124th New York had only 450 effectives left from their original 800 men. Additionally their forward position was exposed to fire from the Confederate batteries near the Emmitsburg Road and the survivors were in such a position that they could be instantly enveloped should a breakthrough happen in Rose Woods or the Valley of Death. Due to the terrain this could take place without any warning.
On the Union right the 17th Maine was now fully occupied by Anderson's Brigade and no longer in any position to aid Ward's Troops. Lt. Colonel Work's 1st Texas and Colonel Manning's 3rd Arkansas were now joined by Anderson's 59th Georgia and Benning's 15th Georgia.
Opposing the 1200 troops of four Southern regiments now pushing through Rose Woods were about 600 survivors of the 20th Indiana and the 86th New York. The 20th Indiana had not only lost two field commanders but 40% of its troops as well during its two-hour slugfest with the 3rd Arkansas. While they had given as good as they got, the problems were mounting. Now their ammunition was nearly gone and Ward could not fill their request for resupply. To the south the 86th New York was relatively unscathed with only 66 casualties but ammunition was an issue here, too.
At this point Ward recognized the inevitable, that his position was too tenuous and gave the order to fall back. With fresh troops coming in from the V Corps and II Corps and setting up a line to his rear he gave the order for his brigade to move back towards the Wheatfield Road. Finally Little Round Top was allowed to be the anchor of the union left.
Ward’s Brigade would take a position in reserve and would remain out of the fray that evening and the next day. Robertson’s and Benning’s Brigade were not done. Realizing that there was nothing within their power to force the now heavily defended and open West face of Little Round Top they now turned northward and joined into the continuing battle for the the 27 acres of Wheat on the north end of Houck's Ridge
The new Union line utilized Little Round Top's steep west face and actually connecting the forces still fighting desperately to hold its wooded south slope to the remaining regiments of the 3rd Corps who were just as desperately tying to hold the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard area.
With 700 less yards of line to defend and new regiments arriving by the minute, the numbers game became less critical. However a terrible cost had been paid to control that ground for 1½ hours. Casualties in Ward’s Brigade plus the 40th New York totaled 780 out of the 2200 involved (35%). Confederate losses were similar with nearly 1000 killed, wounded, or captured out of 3100 troops engaged around Houck’s Ridge. While most of the popular attention in this vicinity is on the Triangular field, the Valley of Death and the Slaughter Pen, the most deadly area was Rose Woods. The 3rd Arkansas and the 15th Georgia lost over 350 men in Rose Woods during their contest with the 20th Indiana, 17th Maine and the 86th New York
Ward’s Brigade had done as good a job as could have been expected. Their presence alone drew off valuable regiments from Law’s attack on Little Round Top. The stubborn resistance all along Houck’s Ridge apparently postponed the commencement of McLaws’ attack to the North. Since the theme of the day was the appearance of Union reinforcements just in time to keep a line from breaking, the importance of that first roadblock could not be underestimated.
Lee’s original plan would have had Longstreet’s troops moving up the Plum Run Valley to make contact with Mead’s left flank. Had Ward’s Brigade cracked on the first contact, Robertson, Law and Benning could have funneled their troops through the Valley before Vincent and Weed secured a position on Little Round Top. The II Corps left flank would have been dangerously exposed and the probable isolation of the rest of the III Corps could have turned the day into a Southern triumph.