Confederate General Richard Ewell's Failure on the Heights
The Battle for Culp's Hill
America's Civil War Magazine
As dusk settled over south-central Pennsylvania on the evening of July 1, 1863, 27,000 Union infantrymen and nearly 85 fieldpieces held the heights overlooking this misleadingly peaceful countryside near the tiny hamlet of Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia had won decisively the first day of fighting there, but it had failed, as commanding General Robert E. Lee knew only to well, 'to gather the fruits of victory.
The next morning the conversation at Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell's II Corps headquarters concerned Lee's expectations for the coming day. Said Lee pointedly: We did not pursue our advantage of yesterday, and now the enemy are in good position. Given Lee's habitual gentlemanly demeanor, that amounted to a severe dressing down of Ewell, as Old Baldy immediately realized. Wisely, Ewell made no reply. The day before, ordered by Lee to take the Heights south of Gettysburg, specifically Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill, Ewell had flinched. With much of his corps scattered and exhausted by the hard march and even harder fighting earlier that day, the usually aggressive Ewell had taken one look at the two hilltops bristling with Union artillery and chosen not to attack.
Ewell's decision — or indecision — had pained Lee greatly, but to some extent it was Lee's own fault. Accustomed to the brilliant and imaginative leadership of Stonewall Jackson, dead now for two months, Lee had fallen into the bad habit of suggesting rather than ordering. His directions to Ewell had been typically contradictory and confusing: he was to take the heights if practicable but not bring on a general engagement. Given the fact that a general engagement had already been flaring for 12 hours at Gettysburg, Ewell's puzzlement, if not necessarily his paralysis, was understandable.
Now, Lee kept his orders simple. Ewell was to keep pressuring the Federal right in order to prevent Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade from transferring troops to the left, where the primary Confederate assault of the day was planned. Again, should the opportunity present itself, Ewell was to take the heights. For his part, Ewell did not interfere with the previous dispositions of his divisional commanders. Major General Robert Rodes held the corps' extreme right, southwest of Gettysburg; Maj. Gen. Jubal Early held the center, due east of the Baltimore Pike; and Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson was posted east of town above the Hanover Road.
Confronting Ewell were elements of three corps from the Union Army of the Potomac: Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps; Maj. Gen. John Newton's I Corps; and Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum's XII Corps, all occupying the high ground just south of Gettysburg, the Northernmost part of the Union line. Howard's corps, in particular, had been roughly handled by Ewell's forces the day before, but reinforcements had rushed to the scene and stabilized the line, which was now shaped like an inverted fishhook, with the hook's curve sweeping west from Culp's Hill to Cemetery Hill.
During the morning and the midafternoon of July 2, the infantrymen and cannoneers of both armies made ready for renewed war. The Federals dug trenches, built abatis and felled trees to open lines of fire. Rations were cooked, brought to the front and quickly dispersed. Water, which was scarce, was rationed and shared among friends. Cartridges were unloaded off the ammunition trains, and each soldier saw to it that his pouch was full. Muskets were cleaned, bayonets sharpened. The familiar ritual was a shield against the accursed gods of war, against death, and against the terrible wounds that had so shocked their tender sensibilities when the war first began, but that now no longer caused distress. These Yankees were veteran infantrymen; they had seen the elephant. Now they waited.
Across the way, their enemies in butternut and gray did much the same. Their rations were not quite as good, but they had better access to water, and by now they had managed to equip themselves with the standard 1863-era musket, their home-brought smoothbores and shotguns a thing of the past. But the Rebels were expecting to make an assault, and their haversacks, many stamped with the initials U.S., were lightened of all but the essentials.
Sometime after noon, Confederate Major Joseph W. Latimer had gotten the 16 guns of Snowden Andrew's Maryland Battalion and the Rockbridge Artillery from II Corps' artillery reserve on the heights of Benner's Hill, a small rise about 1,400 yards northeast of Cemetery Hill. The 20-year-old boy major had distinguished himself in previous battles, and clearly intended to do his duty. Further dispositions of the corps artillery were hindered by terrain and by the singular failure of II Corps' artillery command. Of the early 80 guns available to the corps, only 48 had been brought to bear on the enemy, and only 32 had been fired in anger. It was a terrible showing by the heretofore excellent artillery officers, especially in light of the fact that the Federal position south of town was a salient, and very much subject to enfilading fire from both II Corps and III Corps artillery. But this opportunity, too, had been missed by Ewell. Any attack on the heights would now be strictly an infantry affair, virtually unsupported by the long arm of the army.
During the morning hours, Ewell had ordered his divisional commanders to prepare to advance on the enemy. He sent couriers to Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender, on his right, asking that support be provided in the event the corps went forward. Brigadier General James Lane had assumed command of the division several hours earlier when Pender went down with the severe leg wound that would eventually kill him. Lane replied to Ewell's request in the affirmative and ordered two of his brigades to the skirmish line. Ewell's attack was planned in echelon, a favorite Confederate tactic. Left to right, Johnson would go first, followed by Early, then Rodes.
Johnson's division lay just north of Hanover Road, east of town, about a mile from their objective, Culp's Hill. Brigadier General John M. Jones had been ordered to move his brigade in support of Latimer's artillery in the area of Benner's Hill. Colonel J.M. Williams' brigade fell in on Jones' right, while on his left Brig. Gen. George Steuart's hard-fighting infantry extended the front several hundred yards eastward. On Steuart's left, the renowned Stonewall Brigade formed but was quickly forced to change fronts, bringing its line perpendicular to the division's front in order to fend off some forceful skirmishing by belligerent Union cavalry. As a result of the Union harassment, only three of the four brigades of Johnson's division would go forward.
In the corps' center, Jubal Early had placed Colonel Isaac E. Avery's brigade on the left, while Brig. Gen. Harry Hays' brigade of tigerish Louisianans was posted on the right. Brigadier General John B. Gordon's brigade made up a reserve, and Brig. Gen. William Extra Billy Smith's little brigade was sent up the York Road in response to erroneous reports of Federal activity there. Again, as had happened with Johnson, only three of Early's four brigades would be available for the upcoming assault.
On the right, Rodes had not gotten out of town before dusk. Nevertheless, Ewell ordered Johnson to take his command forward. Marching in two lines with battle flags unfurled in the July twilight, the three brigades stepped off briskly, taking shells from opposing Union batteries. Brigadier General James A. Walker, commanding the Stonewall Brigade, had been given discretionary orders concerning the Federals on his right, with the intention that his command would join the division as soon as practicable. The three brigades crossed the Hanover road in good order, only to be stymied at Rock Creek, where they lost much time fording the stream. By the time the Rebel brigades made the base of Culp's Hill, it was dark.
As the confederate assault began, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum ordered Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams, temporary commander of XII Corps, to send his former division, then holding the line along the southeastern portion of Culp's Hill, to support Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles and Winfield Scott Hancock fighting on the left. Williams, informed Slocum that at least one division, Brig. Gen. John Geary's, should remain posted along the hill. Slocum initially agreed but later ordered Geary to follow, leaving behind only Brig. Gen. George Pap Greene's five upstate New York regiments. Greene's brigade would now be responsible for a battle line formerly held by a corps.
Greene had graduated from West Point in 1823 and had served 13 years in the Regular Army before resigning and pursuing a career in civil engineering. In 1862, Greene joined the army as a volunteer. At Chancellorsville, two months earlier, he and his brigade held the Union salient against overwhelming odds and in a large part were responsible for providing time to extricate the right wing of the army. Now, Greene found himself in a similar situation.
Along the northern slope of Culp's Hill, the Federal line was held by Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth's division, or more accurately, what was left of it. The day before, July 1, the two brigades of the division, the legendary Iron Brigade and the hard-fighting 2nd Brigade, had suffered more than 50 percent casualties in a heroic effort to stave off the determined assaults of three Confederate divisions. That they eventually failed was inevitable, but the price extracted from their enemy was exorbitant. While the casualty list for I Corps was swollen with the names of brave men, the fighting spirit of the remnant was not diminished.
Wadsworth's line formed along the crest of Culp's Hill, while Greene's gradually descended toward Rock Creek as it moved southeastward. Greene had just started his movement to occupy the vacated works when his entire front came alive with the sharp reports of musketry and the nerve-shattering Rebel battle cry. The brigade was caught in motion, the worst fate that could befall a fighting unit.
Nicholl's brigade of case-hardened Louisianans (the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 14th and 15th Louisiana) under the command of Colonel Williams, fell on Wadsworth's redoubt while J.M. Jones' brigade of Virginians struck Wadsworth's right and Greene's left. In the darkness on the severe slopes, Johnson's veterans were having a terrible time of it. Not only did the terrain seem to rise up against them but also sharp-eyed bluecoats were firing volleys by companies, secure behind abatis and trenchworks. The Federals cut down each and every attempt to seize their works and left the northeast slope of Culp's hill littered with Confederate dead and wounded.
Greene's 1,400-man brigade was next stunned by Steuart's assault on the right. The vanguard of Steuart's attacking column was the 23rd Virginia, which poured destructive fire on the New Yorkers and rolled them back. The Virginians, their battle blood up, pursued the federals through the works until they reached a part of the line perpendicular to the enemy and opened an enfilading fire. The staccato sound of individual musket fire followed moments later by the roar of a volley cut through the air and filled the participants with a sense of dread known only by combat veterans. The New Yorkers were in an untenable position.
Greene saw all to clearly that even courage and heroism couldn't hold the position for long; he sent couriers to adjacent commands desperately seeking support. Wadsworth, having secured his line, sent the 6th Wisconsin and 84th New York, while Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard, commanding the XI Corps, sent over the 82nd Illinois, 45th and 157th New York, and 61st Ohio. From II Corps on Cemetery Ridge, due west of Culp's Hill, the 71st Pennsylvania arrived — and just as quickly returned as a result of staff errors. The six regiments that came to aid Greene had already suffered terrible casualties on the first day of the battle and, as a result, only 700 soldiers were able to answer muster.
The 37th and 10th Virginia regiments and the 1st Maryland Battalion moved up in support of the 23rd Virginia and extended the line westward. The Rebel movement was countered by the appearance of Greene's reinforcements, arriving piecemeal on the field. Faced with increased resistance and oncoming darkness, and forewarned that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's infantry was coming to his aid, Steuart was anxious to secure his gains and await further developments. In the meantime, elements of the 1st and 3rd North Carolina regiments pushed westward in the darkness toward the Baltimore Pike, groping in the night before retracing their steps and rejoining the brigade. At 10 P.M.., Steuart's brigade had established a lodgement on the right of the Federal line, near the top of Culp's Hill.
It was just as well that the North Carolinians had halted short of the pike. Had they continued, they would have encountered a strong line of skirmishers thrown out by Brig. Gen. Thomas Ruger, commanding the 3rd Brigade of Williams' 1st Division, XII Corps. Following Ruger, Brig. Gen. Henry Lockwood's 2nd Brigade moved on Ruger's left, near the Baltimore Pike, and bivouacked for the night. In the meantime, Ruger formed his line from Spangler's Spring, near Rock Creek on his right, to a field near the pike on his left. Williams' XII Corps was returning from the Federal left after learning its works on Culp's Hill had been seized by the enemy.
About the time Ruger was putting his brigade in line, the first elements of Geary's 2nd Division were returning from their misadventures on the Federal left. Earlier in the day, Geary had received orders to follow Williams' division after the latter had started his division down the Baltimore Pike. By the time Geary had gotten his division (less Green's brigade) in marching column, Williams and his command were gone. Geary's orders were to follow Williams, but as he was out of sight, no one could tell Geary where he was supposed to go. So Geary marched the division south along the pike, turned left at an intersection, away from the battle, and got himself and his command lost for several hours. A frantic search by XII Corps staff officers finally located the missing brigadier, and he was ordered to march his division back to Culp's Hill.
At 9 p.m., Geary ordered Brig. Gen. Thomas Kane to move the three Pennsylvania regiments of his 2nd Brigade back to their old position. Colonel Charles Candy's six regiments of the 1st Brigade would follow. Two hundred yards from its former position, Kane's leading regiment took fire and withdrew, fearing the Pap Greene's 3rd Brigade had opened on it by mistake in the darkness. Kane marched his men back to the Baltimore Pike, moved them around Greene's position, and brought them up on his right. As it neared the line, Kane's command was hit with another volley, and he ended up taking a position on Greene's right, perpendicular to his line.
Not long after Allegheny Johnson's division had become engaged, Jubal Early ordered his battle line forward. Robert Hoke's brigade, now commanded by Colonel Isaac E. Avery of the 6th North Carolina, held the left, while Hays' brigade formed the right of the attacking lines. Gordon's brigade constituted the reserve. Extra Billy Smith's little brigade of Virginians moved up the York Road in search of the ephemeral Yankees.
Hays had been given overall command of the assault, and as soon as he received the order from Early, he sent the two brigades forward. The seasoned Rebel infantrymen advanced with measured step, battle flags unfurled, the sound of bugles and the steady tattoo of regimental drummers providing a martial air that stirred the brave and calmed the hesitant. Clearing the low hill on their front, the Southerners were struck by the musketry of well-entrenched Federals and supporting batteries. Men fell in groups of twos and threes as shells burst just above them. Others were savaged by wickedly ricocheting shell fragments. To a man, the Confederate infantry knew that at 300 yards out, the cursed Yankee artillery would switch to canister and the price to be paid would increase dramatically.
Hay's brigade made for the area of the hill closest to town, while Avery's men descended a low knoll on their front and began to take galling and accurate musket fire on their right flank. Avery, mounted on a white charger, ordered a right oblique under severe fire, which his veteran command executed perfectly. Directly to their front, protected behind a stone wall, the Federal brigades of Colonels Leopold von Gilsa and Andrew Harris formed their line of battle.
Union artillery continued to pound the Confederate advance, and darkness, coupled with the smoke of musketry and artillery, blanketed the field and shielded the attackers. The Rebel yell was picked up and moved along the companies and regiments with rapidity. Their battle blood was up now, and they itched to git in among'em.
The 75th Ohio had been placed at the stone wall south of the hill, the 17th Connecticut on its left. Near the beginning of the attack, the 17th was ordered to the extreme right of the line, probably in response to the fighting on Culp's Hill. Only a few soldiers of the 25th Ohio Volunteers held the line vacated by the 17th. Avery's men, perfectly furious at having taken Federal fire in the assault, struck the 1st Division's defensive perimeter, found the area vacated by the 17th, and poured through quickly, overrunning the men of the 25th Ohio. The Federals quickly began to skedaddle. Organized resistance collapsed altogether, a frightening recreation of the events the day before and two months earlier at Chancellorsville. Forevermore, the 1st Division would be referred to with the insulting sobriquet Flying Dutchmen. So great was the fear and the panic that seized these men, many of whom were recent German immigrants, that their flight to presumed safety took them directly into the fire lanes of Union artillery.
Meanwhile, Avery had mounted his white charger in order to take his command forward in the tradition of the Old South. Near the stone wall he was struck by a ball at the base of his neck. The wound that would take his life 30 hours later allowed sufficient time for the colonel to render a last gallant message: "Major, tell my father I fell with my face to the enemy."
Captain Michael Wiedrich ordered the guns of his Battery I, 1st New York Light Artillery, fully depressed, loaded with a double-shotted rounds of canister and fired as quickly as his gunners could manage. He didn't consider at the time that his command was killing his own fleeing infantry as well. He was more concerned with the prospect of keeping the Rebels away from his guns.
All too soon, Wiedrich's worst fears came to pass as Confederate infantry fell on his guns with a ferocity reserved for cannoneers. The killing took on a frenzy that intensified when Weidrich's artillerymen, mostly German immigrants, stood well to their guns and fought bayonets and clubbed muskets with fence rails, ramrods and pistols. No quarter was asked and none given.
At Wiedrich's battery, some 75 Rebel soldiers, mostly from the 6th North Carolina Volunteer Infantry, planted their battle flags and prepared to continue the advance. Their next objective was Captain R. Bruce Rickett's Batteries F and G, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery. The results were the same, but the confederate assault was now petering out, the attackers widely dispersed, fighting individual battles in small groups along the front. Colonel Tate, commanding the 6th North Carolina, called for support, but Early never ordered Gordon forward and Rodes never got out of Gettysburg in time.
Hancock had heard the fighting over on Cemetery Ridge and, without hesitating, ordered Colonel Samuel Carrol's 1st Brigade, minus the 8th Ohio, over to Cemetery Hill. By the luck that is often associated with hard fighters, the three regiments (4th Ohio, 14th Indiana, and the 7th West Virginia) came in on the right of Rickett's batteries. Guided by the musket flashes of Tate's Rebels, who now held the batteries, Carroll ordered his regiments forward.
The 14th Indiana formed in two lines and led the assault, supported by the 4th Ohio. The 7th West Virginia was forced to change fronts in order to strike the salient's flank, all accomplished in the dark and under severe fire. The 80 or so Confederates under Tate's command were no match for the three excellent Federal regiments, and Tate ordered a withdrawal as soon as the Yankees struck. The Confederates found a stone wall near Wiedrich's battery and made a stand. Firing by volley into the dense mass of union infantry, Tate and his men were able to throw back the attacking Federals.
Hays' brigade faced the same situation as Avery's had on the left. After breaking three lines of Union infantry posted behind stone walls and enduring the Union artillery fire, Hays' assault petered out near the summit of Cemetery Hill in the face of stiffening Federal resistance.
The XI Corps commander, Howard, completely frustrated by the failure of his Dutchmen to hold a protected position, ordered Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz to advance on the Confederates holding Wiedrich's batteries. Schurz in turn ordered Colonel Wladimir Krzyzanowski, commanding the 2nd Brigade of Schurz's division, to take two regiments and drive on the Rebel salient at the batteries. Colonel Charles Coster's 1st Brigade came up in support and, coupled with the appearance of Carroll's three regiments, was sufficient force not only to dislodge the Rebels but also to threaten their destruction.
Hays had received information — false, as it turned out — that Early was sending Gordon's brigade up Cemetery Hill in support, so he the line as best he could. When Gordon failed to appear, Hays went back down the hill himself and found Gordon's command posted at its old jump-off position. Returning to the brigade, Hays determined that it was time to get out and issued orders accordingly. By 10 p.m. the hard-won gains of the two courageous Southern brigades were simply ceded to the Federals.
On Early's right, Rodes' division had just cleared the town when Hays' and Avery's soldiers came tumbling down the hill. Brigadier General S.D. Ramseur's brigade was in the van, and he had been given discretionary orders by Rodes to attack if conditions were favorable. Ramseur could clearly make out the massed Federal infantry and artillery, and the fact that Early's assault had failed must have been known by him. He conferred briefly with Brig. Gen George Doles and decided not to push his brigade up the hill.
The fighting had now come to an end with the exception of the ever-present sharpshooter and the occasional shell burst. The dead and dying lay all over the hillside. Among the retreating Confederates, there was anger at the lack of support given the assaulting brigades. No one was more angry than Tate. He demanded to know why Gordon had not been sent. Early flushed but did not respond until later. His answer, given in his post-action report, which did not give due credit to the 6th North Carolina's impressive achievement, stated: It was ascertained that no advance was made on the right and that ordering Gordon forward would have been a useless sacrifice of life.
Tate, fearing the 6th would be slighted, sent a letter to Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina on July 8: "I look for no special mention of our Regiment, while it is the only one in the A.N.V. which did go in and silence the guns on the heights…but it is due to the noble dead, as well as the living that these men be noticed….Inside the works the enemy were left lying in great heaps and most all with bayonet wounds, and many with skulls broken with the breeches of our guns. We left not a living man on the hill of our enemy." Casualties for the 6th North Carolina during the Gettysburg campaign were 172 killed, wounded, and missing.
The battle on the Federal right remains the subject of endless speculation. In the end, the only way the Army of Northern Virginia could have succeeded in driving off its foes — and this is pure conjecture — would have been with a total commitment of both II and III Corps to an attack on the flanks at Cemetery Hill. Lee's failure was due both to a lack of concert of action, as he would explain in his post-action report, and also to the fighting will of his resilient enemy, the Army of the Potomac.