It’s tough being Big Round Top. Every day, it watches everyone drive by in awe of the little hill on its right shoulder. What many may not realize, however, is how close Big Round Top came to lighting up the sky.
The towering peak on the south end of the Gettysburg battlefield avoided major bloodshed in July 1863, but because of that, many visitors avoid it today. Instead, visitors hone in on neighboring Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, the scene of one of the conflict’s most courageous and movie-worthy battles on July 2.
Battlefield visitors taking the battlefield’s Self-Guiding Auto Tour make a quick jaunt along the southern and western slopes of Big Round Top, spotting a few monuments – the 1st Vermont Cavalry or the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves – but it’s mostly just a nice scenic drive along South Confederate Avenue.
The most adventurous of visitors will park in a small lot half-way up and take Big Round Top by foot along a hiking trail. There usually aren’t a lot of cars because it’s quite a climb to the top. But up there, you’ll find a collection of monuments – to that of four Pennsylvania regiments and a second monument to the famous 20th Maine, popular for its heroic fight at the extreme left flank of the Union army on July 2.
But one of the most interesting finds at the peak of Big Round Top is the foundation for an observation tower, similar to those found at Culp’s Hill, West Confederate Avenue and Oak Hill. The tower that once stood there gave an incredible view of the southern end of the battlefield. Its view was vastly higher than those on the crest of Little Round Top.
The tower was disassembled in the late 1960s, according to a June 19, 1968 article in the Gettysburg Times. The National Park Service announced it would remove the monument rather than replace or repair the late 19thcentury structure, deeming it uneconomical “considering its condition and very limited use” in recent years.
“The tower reached by a lengthy climb up the side of Big Round Top, was used only by the hardiest of tourists,” the article read. “Most who started the climb gave out en route, and upon reaching the tower decided against continuing the climb to the top of the metal conservatory.”
But it was more than 20 years earlier that talks began about removing the tower from the battlefield’s second highest (Culp’s Hill is higher) peak.
In 1937, a local state legislator – John Rice – announced that a commission would be formed along with a memorial fund to create the so-called “Gettysburg Peace Memorial” in preparation for the 75th anniversary of the battle the next year.
Of course, the memorial – now called the Eternal Peace Light Memorial – sits atop Oak Hill overlooking the town of Gettysburg and the first day’s battlefield. But that wasn’t always the location marked for the monument.
In initial plans outlined in 1937, according to the Gettysburg Compiler, designs called for “an observation platform 75 feet from the base, while 30 feet above, and from the top, will be an eternal flame.”
That would have certainly made an impact on not only Big Round Top, but the remainder of the Gettysburg battlefield, as its flame would certainly be seen from across the Valley of Death, Wheatfield and Peach Orchard, all the way to the Confederate line on Seminary Ridge.
“The memorial will be dedicated to every man, woman and child who participated in any way in the Civil War,” the article continued.
In all six designs and several locations were considered, but of course, the final decision was to place the monument on Oak Hill. That monument was finished in time for a dedication in July 1938 by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
We encourage you to lace up those hiking boots someday and take the climb up Big Round Top. Those soldiers certainly deserve your time and recognition.