Many people remember how the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry defended Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, but the regiment’s actions late in the day don’t receive as much attention. In the evening, Col. Joshua Chamberlain volunteered to take his men and secure Big Round Top, the heavily wooded height to the south.
As I write in Maine Roads to Gettysburg:
In some ways this night climb was more nerve-racking than the blood and thunder on Little Round Top had been. The regiment had little ammunition and Chamberlain wanted to avoid a firefight that would give away his small numbers, so he had his men move forward with their bayonets attached. The little band crawled and climbed through the darkness. It was “rough scrambling,” Chamberlain noted. Ahead they could hear enemy troops crashing through the woods as they fell back. There was a full moon, but its light proved feeble in the dark woods. As the men of the 20th Maine reached the summit, some of the pickets advanced far enough to see the light from enemy campfires flickering through the trees. They fell back, and some of the Rebels pulled themselves away from their fires in pursuit.
“Who goes there?” one of the Mainers shouted.
“4th Texas,” came the reply.
“Alright come on, we’re 4th Texas,” a quick-witted Mainer replied, and the unfortunate Rebels from the Lone Star State emerged from the trees to find themselves facing leveled muskets and a Maine man behind each one. The regiment bagged some 30 prisoners, including Gen. Evander Law’s acting assistant adjutant. Ellis Spear remembered how one of the Southerners commented “on the fact that men from the two ends of the country should so meet, in the woods & dark.”
Once he reached the summit, Chamberlain sent for reinforcements. Fisher ordered two of his Pennsylvania regiments to climb Big Round Top and provide support on the 20th Maine’s right. The Pennsylvanians stumbled and thrashed their way up the dark hill. Alerted by the noise, enemy soldiers fired a volley into the night. Chamberlain said the Pennsylvanians “started like antelopes & went down the way they had come up on, & never stopped till they were behind the line on Little Round Top again.” Chamberlain sent a messenger to Rice requesting he send either the 83rd Pennsylvania or the 44th New York for support. He felt he could depend on regiments from his own brigade. Leaving pickets at the summit, he withdrew the rest of the regiment back to level ground until reinforcements arrived from the 83rd Pennsylvania. Then he moved his men back up the steep slope.
There the men of the 20th Maine settled in for a long and uncomfortable night. Overcome by fatigue and illness, Spear fell asleep sitting against a tree. He woke in the middle of the night shaking and shivering with a feverish chill. He found a soldier sleeping on the ground, crawled next to him to share his blanket and body warmth, and fell back asleep.
The 20th Maine had secured Big Round Top without suffering any casualties, but as morning began to brighten the eastern sky, Lt. Arad Linscott decided to grab a musket and see if he could annoy Rebels he heard moving on his front. One of them shot Linscott instead, and the young lieutenant fell with a mortal wound to the thigh. Later that morning the regiment was relieved by the First Brigade and moved back down the mountain. It took up a position somewhere to the left of the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The men sat down to wait and see what would happen next.