Little Round Top saved again Gettysburg: Site of Civil War battle sees one last successful defense.

June 02, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Little Round Top, the hill where outnumbered Union troops barely turned back a strategic challenge from Confederate soldiers, has been secured again -- the result of a three-year campaign by a park preservation group.

The last 30 acres of hillside and field, in one family's hands since before the Civil War battle in 1863, will be under the protection of the National Park Service -- safe from development.

It's another victory for the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, a nonprofit group that has bought development rights to more than 300 acres.

"People kind of assume Gettyburg's done, protected," said Ranger Katie Lawhon, public affairs officer at the 5,900-acre Gettysburg National Military Park. "But you don't have to go far to see development in the farm fields."

In addition to Little Round Top, recent sites that the nonprofit group has protected are:

* Two properties north of town where the first day's fighting occurred on July 1, 1863, including a house where Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell conferred.

* Almost half of East Cavalry Field, where Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart and Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer fought to a draw in the final day of the battle on July 3, 1863.

The organization also is considering buying the Home Sweet Home motel at the southernmost end of heavily commercial Steinwehr Avenue (the Emmitsburg Road).

An historic marker on the motel's frontlawn indicates the spot where a withering Union cross-fire decimated the left flank of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's ill-fated charge, which many consider the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

In the case of the two Little Round Top properties, the group bought six acres for $96,000 -- its first purchase of land -- and donated it to the park April 21, said Vickey Monrean, the group's executive director. They also paid $158,400 for historic easements on 24 adjoining acres that will soon be donated to the park. An historic easement means the land will be preserved and cannot be developed.

"I think almost everybody in the world knows the significance of Little Round Top," said Shelby Foote, author and Civil War historian. But he was "surprised" the hill was not fully protected.

Michael S. Weikert, owner of the Little Round Top property, said he approached the group about three years ago because he wants the land preserved forever. Over the years, Weikert watched as trailer parks and golf courses moved ever closer to the land of his great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran.

Although Weikert will continue to live on the 24-acre parcel, he said it still was "a difficult decision" to sell rights to the land to someone else.

The farmlands on the Taneytown Road belonged to Jacob Weikert at the time of the war, and his son Emanuel Weikert, of Company G, 101 Pennsylvania Volunteers, was the oldest Civil War veteran in Adams County when he died at the age of 96 in 1927, according to a Weikert family history.

According to a park history, it was at the Weikert house, where Michael Weikert still lives, that the Union's chief engineer alerted officers that Little Round Top was unguarded and about to be taken. Soldiers raced to defend the hill.

The six acres that Weikert sold lie in one of the battlefield's most visited sites.

There, Company B of Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain's 20th Maine Volunteers helped defeat the Confederate attempt to take the hilltop, as he followed orders "that the position assigned to me must be held at every hazard," according to his field report.

Whizzing bullets cut saplings in half and the fighting was hand-to-hand, according to battlefield accounts. When Union soldiers ran out of ammunition, they fixed bayonets and charged, so surprising the enemy that they fled.

But the cost of holding the hilltop was high on that second day of fighting on July 2, 1863. A third of Chamberlain's 386 men lay dead or wounded during five charges by the larger Confederate force.

Had the South succeeded in placing its artillery on Little Round Top, some historians say, the Union army might have been dislodged from its position on Cemetery Ridge -- possibly turning the tide of the battle and in turn the war.

Foote believes that might be an overstatement: "I think that if they had taken Little Round Top, they would have been driven off again" by Union troops, who had increased in strength on the second day.

"I wish 'em luck with saving it," Foote said. "I think it's an outrage the way people have bought up land [that should be protected]."

Almost as soon as the Battle of Gettysburg ended -- with more than 5,700 killed and more than 27,000 wounded -- visitors and veterans were drawn to the site. In 1864, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased several significant locations, including the crest of Little Round Top.

The Little Round Top properties cost the Friends' group more than $250,000, much of it grants from the Katherine Mabis McKenna Foundation, the Civil War Trust, and the National Park Trust.

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