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Strong Vincent and Oliver Willcox Norton at Gettysburg

A lot of what we know about the Battle of Little Round Top (July 2, 1863) comes from the novel “Killer Angels” and the movie “Gettysburg” upon which the film is based and the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War”. Most of the visitors to the hill make their way over to the left flank of the Union line where Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine repulsed a Confederate attack

In my opinion the real hero of the July 2nd  Battle of Little Round Top was Colonel Strong Vincent of Erie Pennsylvania.

Strong Vincent 1837-1863

Strong Vincent was born in 1837, educated at Trinity College and graduated from Harvard in 1859. He practiced law in Erie and was a prominent citizen in the community. He enlisted as a private in the Erie Regiment and was promoted to First Lieutenant and adjutant. Vincent proved himself to be an able soldier and adjutant, busy with organizing and training new recruits. When the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers was formed, he was appointed major. He married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Carter on April 25, 1861.

3rd Brigade Flag

The 83rd was part of the 3rd Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps and commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. Butterfield received the medal of honor for leading the charge at Hanover Courthouse during the Seven Days Battle and is probably best known for the creation of the bugle call Taps with the help of the 83rd PA bugler Oliver Willcox Norton.

Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield

You can read more about Butterfield here:

After Butterfield left the brigade to become Chief of Staff to Maj. General Joseph Hooker and later Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, Vincent assumed command of the brigade which consisted of four regiments.

After marching all night from Union Mills on July 1, 1863 to Hanover to Gettysburg the 3rd Brigade found itself south of town near two hills- Big and Little Round Top.

Little and Big Round Top, 1863

It was discovered Little Round Top was undefended by Union troops. When Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac discovered this situation, he dispatched his chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren (Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac), to attempt to deal with the situation. Climbing Little Round Top, Warren found only a small Signal Corps station there. He saw the glint of bayonets in the sun to the southwest and realized that a Confederate assault into the Union flank was imminent.

Gouverneur K. Warren on Little Round Top

Warren saw that Little Round Top was unoccupied and open to being captured by the enemy. He realized the danger of having the position overrun by Confederate forces and quickly  sent staff officers to find help from any available units in the vicinity. The response to this request for help came from Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commander of the Union V Corps. Sykes quickly dispatched a messenger to order his 1st Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. James Barnes, (who had arrived from Union Mills) to Little Round Top. Before the messenger could reach Barnes, he encountered Col. Strong Vincent, commander of the 3rd brigade, who seized the initiative and directed his four regiments to Little Round Top without waiting for permission from Barnes.

What are your orders?

He and Oliver Willcox Norton, the brigade bugler and guidon bearer, galloped ahead to reconnoiter and guide his four regiments into position. Upon arrival on Little Round Top, Vincent and Norton received fire from Confederate batteries almost immediately. Vincent yelled at Norton to take the horses and flag to safer ground and jumped off his horse forgetting his sword. For the rest of the day he directed troops with the riding crop he had received from his wife as a gift.

On the western slope Vincent placed the 16th Michigan, and then proceeding counterclockwise were the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and finally, at the end of the line on the southern slope, the 20th Maine. Arriving only ten minutes before the Confederates, Vincent ordered his brigade to take cover and wait, and he ordered Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, to hold his position, the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac, at all costs. Chamberlain and his 385 men waited for what was to come.

Hold at all hazards

The brigade held the position and in a brilliant move the 20th Maine charged down the hill chasing back the 15th Alabama. Strong Vincent was mortally wounded on Little Round Top that day and died on July 7.

His promotion to brigadier general was quickly authorized and the order read to him before he died. His death struck the members of his command hard. Many came to his deathbed to say goodbye and some clipped a piece of his uniform. His young wife, Libby who was pregnant with their only child, tried in vain to be by his side. He was buried with full military honors in Erie on July 13.

Norton wrote home:
Headquarters Third Brigade, Berlin MD
Friday July 17, 1863
“Colonel Vincent died on the 7th, as brave and gallant a soldier as ever fell. His commission as Brigadier General was read to him on his death bed. His loss is felt deeply by the brigade. There is no one to fill his place. No one could march a brigade as he could. Oh, how we loved him! But he is gone.”

You can read more about Oliver Willcox Norton here:

O.W. Norton so admired Vincent that he named his youngest son after him years later. Vincent and Norton were indeed were close. They had to have been. They were two years apart in age. Both were educated men. Both had strong views of the war. Both enlisted for patriotic reasons. And it was not uncommon for a bugler and his commander to be familiar. The two would have spent much time together. The duties of a bugler required him to be near at all times. They must have talked, exchanged ideas, and grown to like each other’s company. Years later, Vincent’s sword was given to O.W. to hand down to his son, but the younger Norton had no desire to keep it. It is now in the vaults of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Although Joshua Chamberlain’s Twentieth Maine suppressed the Confederate attack much credit needs to go to Strong Vincent for his initiative and leadership that day.


Strong Vincent and his Brigade at Gettysburg by O.W. Norton

“Strong Vincent-A Hero of Gettysburg” by Roy Stonesfifer, Jr

Oliver Willcox Norton, the brigade bugler and guidon bearer that day wrote what is considered the best eye-witness account of what happened “The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top” is worth the read. The best eye-witness account of what happened that day.

Norton returned 26 years later to be the main speaker at the dedication of the 83rd PA monument. His words were eloquent and afterwards he sounded the old brigade call (the Dan Dan Dan Butterfield call) on the hill which drew the veterans up to him, many with tears in their eyes.

Oliver Willcox Norton in the 1890s
The Dan Butterfield Brigade Call
83rd Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg

From the dedicatory remarks given at the 83rd PA Monument in Gettysburg in September 1889

The line was held, but at what a cost! [Colonel Strong Vincent] Throwing himself into the breach he rallied his men but gave up his own life. Comrades and friends, that was not a bauble thrown away. In the very flower of his young manhood, full of the highest promise, with the love of a young wife filling his thought of the future with the fairest visions, proud, gentle, tender, true, he laid his gift on his country’s altar. It was done nobly, gladly. No knight of the days of chivalry was evermore knightly.

When a few hours before, as we tramped along the dusty road in the night, marching to Gettysburg, then unknown to fame, the old flag was unfurled and fluttered in the breeze, he reverently bared his head, and with the premonition of the morrow in his heart, said solemnly, “What more glorious death can any man desire than to die on the soil of old Pennsylvania, fighting for that flag!

Some of us wished that those words might be placed upon our monument, but the commissioners would allow nothing but the cold transcript of records in the war Department. May we keep them graven in our hearts and teach them to our children.

This place is holy ground. The glory of the Christ is that He died for men he died for men. He died, and we know he is not dead. May we not reverently say that those who have died gladly died for men are not dead, but are with us today, more living when they stood to stem the height of invasion? If we are proud to say that we were in that line on little round top, think you they regret it? With clearer vision than ours their eyes see the glory of the coming of the Lord. They see this broad land a nation; not an aggregation of petty sovereign states. They look down the coming years and see it peopled with a host of freemen, rejoicing in the result of their sacrifice. They are content.

Let us listen to them today. God forbid that this fair land should ever need another such sacrifice, but if he fails to prize its heritage, and must again be purified by fire, may we and our children be able to sing as they sang:

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”

Oliver Willcox Norton SEPT 1889

One Comment

  1. Rich Pawling Rich Pawling July 3, 2020

    This is awesome. His speech speaks to us today. “God forbid that this fair land should need another such sacrifice, but if we fail to prize our heritage” this might happen again. History speaks the truth. America lay your differences aside and embrace each other for all lives matter.

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