While there were many personalities on or about Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, none loom larger than the man whose majestic mustache is outdone only by his impressive ego. See…I didn’t even have to say his name and you know who I’m talking about. And yet there are others who sacrificed on Little Round Top who lacked the pen and the years utilized by that certain Mainer to cement his legacy. And while Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s popularity has reached meteoric levels in more recent decades, Stephen H. Weed, Charles E. Hazlett, and Patrick O’Rourke have been reduced to relative obscurity.
Were it not for the 1974 novel The Killer Angels and a handful of lines in the 1993 movie adaptation, such might have been the case for Union Colonel Strong Vincent. Though his name may be recognizable, many visitors may not realize the significance of Vincent’s contribution to the outcome at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. After all, Vincent had received only one modern (albeit brief) biographical treatment (What Death More Glorious, Nevins & Styple, Belle Grove Publishing, 1997) that has subsequently been out of print for a number of years.
Enter Hans G. Myers, a young historian from Vincent’s hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. In this latest treatment, Myers aims to correct what he deems “the vanishing” of Strong Vincent at the hands of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Indeed, Frank Varney’s foreword promises The Lion of Round Top will be a controversial read.
Myers briskly takes readers through Vincent’s upbringing and education, and his ascendance from a young lieutenant in the 83rd Pennsylvania to the regiment’s lieutenant colonel in just a few short months. An inactive winter of 1862 gives way to a baptism of fire on the Virginia peninsula, where at Gaines’ Mill the regiment’s colonel was killed in action. At just 24 years old Vincent was elevated to command the 83rd Pennsylvania, though a bout of malaria kept him from field duty until October 1862.
Myers ably recounts Vincent’s drive and ambition, including his refusal of a position as judge advocate for the Army of the Potomac. While such a position would have paid dividends to Vincent’s peacetime avocation as an attorney, the colonel demurred. “I enlisted to fight,” he told a comrade.
The author takes readers through the spring of 1863, and Vincent’s elevation to brigade command (3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Army Corps). We follow Vincent’s brigade on the march into Pennsylvania, and the circumstances on the Union left on July 2, ultimately leading to Vincent’s gamble to divert his brigade to Little Round Top and stave off determined Confederate attacks. Carrying his now hallmark riding crop (a gift from his wife), Vincent implored his men “Don’t give an inch, boys,” before taking a grievous wound to the left groin. He died five days later, only hours after receiving a promotion to brigadier general.
Myers details Vincent’s legacy in the years following the war. In spite of later recognition, including a life-sized monument, various memorials, and a namesake high school in Erie, Vincent was apparently on a fast path to obscurity. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s decades of self-promotion at Vincent’s expense shrouded seemingly anyone else’s contributions on the famed hilltop. In a solid appendix, Myers covers Chamberlain’s boastful postwar campaign, those who attempted to counteract him and preserve Vincent’s legacy (namely Oliver W. Norton and Chamberlain’s own comrade, Ellis Spear), as well as more recent adaptations of Chamberlain’s tale.
The book is not without its quibbles. If the author’s right-sizing of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was envisioned as controversial, this reviewer did not find that to be the case. Myers’s argument was cogent and well made. Instead, the author seemingly ascribes to Chamberlain’s own story. In his closing paragraphs, Myers claims that Strong Vincent “saved the Union that day.”
To be certain, the struggle for Little Round Top was an important part of the Battle of Gettysburg. Visiting the hilltop is key to understanding the ebb and flow of the battle. But the Union was not saved at Little Round Top. The Battle of Gettysburg was not won or lost on its slopes. Hard stop. That’s not a knock on Vincent, Chamberlain, or the men who fought there. But if we’re going to go through the trouble of breaking down Chamberlain’s loose relationship with the historical record, let’s not legitimize his own fanciful version by assigning it to another.
The Lion of Round Top: The Life and Military Service of Brigadier General Strong Vincent in the American Civil War
By H.G. Myers
Casemate, 2022, $34.95