We have heard it said that one person can change the world. Let me tell you about a courageous man who was willing to act boldly in order to preserve the army, and the country, he loved. By his actions, he very probably saved the United States from becoming a shadow of the great country it is today. His name was Gouverneur K. Warren, and his story begins on July 2, 1863, during the American Civil War, near a small town in southern Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.
On that swelteringly hot July afternoon, Brigadier General Warren, serving as the chief engineer for the Union Army of the Potomac, was riding his horse near the southern perimeter of the Union line. He was looking for signs that the enemy Confederate soldiers were about to attack the Union forces. As he scouted the line, he was amazed to see a large group of Union troops moving aggressively toward a grove of peach trees and a nearby wheat field far in front of the Union Army. He knew the soldiers did not have orders to move out that far, so he decided to explore the undefended area.
Reaching the area, he spied a high hill directly in front of him and immediately realized it commanded a view of the entire battlefield. He also recognized that it marked the end of the Union defensive line, the critical left flank. He quickly rode to the top, got down from his horse, and hurried to the edge of the hill. Looking around, he could not believe his eyes. The hill was completely empty except for six signalmen using flags to communicate with their fellow soldiers on the other nearby hills. Warren was speechless at the sight, but then he caught a glint of polished steel out of the corner of his eye. He instinctively raised his binoculars toward the trees just beyond the bottom of the hill. A moment later, his binoculars landed on the spot, and he experienced a chill of impending disaster. In the woods facing him were hundreds of men in gray, and they were gathering directly in front of the small group on the hill.
Instantly, Warren recognized the weak and vulnerable position the Army was in. He had to do something fast or the hill, the left flank, and eventually the entire Union Army could be destroyed. He had two choices before him. He could report the risky situation to the commanding General and request permission to move soldiers onto the hill. If he followed the book, however, he would expend priceless time, and the Confederates would seize the hill and destroy the Union Army from the flank. Alternatively, he could bypass the chain of command, summon some Union troops on his own authority and order them to protect the hill. Without hesitation, Warren decided that he had to personally take action if the hill was to be defended and the Army of the Potomac and ultimately the Union cause itself, was to be saved.
His mind made up, he turned and hurried back to his horse, galloping back down the hill as his eyes frantically searched for the nearest troops. Only moments later he came upon a brigade of troops sitting on the ground with their officers standing a short distance away. As General Warren hurried over, Colonel Strong Vincent, the brigade commander, stepped forward. Warren turned and pointed to the hill, quickly explaining the dire situation. Vincent responded, “What are my orders, sir?” Occupy and defend the hill was Warren’s terse order.
Colonel Vincent simply nodded his head before he turned to his soldiers and began shouting for marching formation. Warren allowed only a quick glance behind him as the brigade hurried up the side of the hill. He then moved further down the road toward another group of soldiers accompanied by several cannons. Just as he had with Vincent, Warren shouted for both the soldiers and the cannons to help defend the flank. Warren followed them back to the hill and watched as the soldiers fired their rifles and muskets at the oncoming Confederate soldiers. After repeated assaults on the hill, including bayonet charges and even desperate hand-to-hand fighting at times, the Confederates finally disengaged from the hilltop battle. With the Confederate withdrawal, Warren realized that the Union Army had been saved from collapsing on the left.
On that hot July 2nd afternoon, in the most important battle of the American Civil War, the survival of the Union Army of the Potomac, and very possibly the fate of the Union, hung in the balance. Had the Confederates taken the hill, today known as Little Round Top, they would, in all probability, have defeated the Union Army, forcing President Abraham Lincoln to end the war, dividing North and South forever. Thanks to one man, that did not happen. Though often overlooked because of the gallant defense of the hill by men such as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the troops of the 20th Maine, the real hero of Little Round Top was General Gouverneur K. Warren. He saw the danger, took decisive action, and literally “saved the day” for the Army and the United States of America. Gouverneur K. Warren’s deeds that July afternoon prove, without a doubt, how one person truly can make a difference in the world around them.