Civil War Series

The Battle of Gettysburg



Ewell's demonstration against the Union right began at 4 P.M. at the sound of Longstreet's guns. It opened with artillery fire from Ewell's batteries near the seminary and on Benner's Hill 1,400 yards east of Cemetery Hill. The Union batteries on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill outgunned the four Confederate batteries on Benner's Hill, commanded by 20-year-old Maj. Joseph W. Latimer, and soon silenced them. At about 7 P.M. as the Confederates assailed Cemetery Ridge from the west, Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's division, less the Stonewall Brigade which remained along the Hanover Road to guard the Confederate left, attacked Culp's Hill from the east.

Culp's Hill is bounded on the west by the Baltimore Pike and on the east by Rock Creek. The hill mass has two peaks separated by a saddle. The principal one rises 150 feet above the creek, the lower only 50 feet. Both peaks were tree-covered, and the east slopes of both hills are studded with large rocks. The lower hill had an open field of about five acres (Pardee Field) on its northwest slope and was bounded on the south by a meadow that contained a stream and Spangler's Spring. McAllister's Woods bordered the south side of the meadow less than 300 feet away.



Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum's Twelfth Corps had occupied Culp's Hill south from its highest peak and had erected breastworks there. Just before Johnson's attack, however, the hill seemed not to be threatened, and Meade ordered the Twelfth Corps to leave it to buttress the endangered line on Cemetery Ridge. In response, Slocum sent all but Brig. Gen. George S. Greene's brigade from its works on the main hill. (Ironically, only Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams's division reached the Union center and participated in its defense. Brig. Gen. John W. Geary's division took a wrong turn and marched south on the Baltimore Pike away from the action.) Greene stretched his line to the right and was able to occupy all of the works on the upper hill and those on the north slope of the lower one before the Confederates struck his line.


In an undated letter to his brother, Sergeant John W. Plummer, of Company D, 1st Minnesota Infantry described the charge of his regiment, in which 190 of 280 officers and men were killed or wounded:

We were marched up there about a quarter of a mile, and ordered to lie down in front of the batteries very plainly. As I saw our men fall back, rally, and fall back again, skedaddlers rushing to the rear in squads, I never felt so bad in my life. I thought sure the day was gone for us, and felt that I would prefer to die there, rather than live and suffer the disgrace and humiliation a defeat of our army there would entail on us; and if ever I offered a sincere prayer in my life, it was then, that we might be saved from defeat. We all felt bad, but resolved when our chance came to do our best to retreive the fortunes of the day, hardly expecting to come out of the conflict unharmed. Our turn soon came. We were ordered forward against the enemy, who were then within musket range of us, and if any ever were willing and anxious to go forward into what we all could see was a deadly place, our boys were. We had two open fields to advance over, while the rebs were coming down over another open field, and the third corps falling back before [them]. We went forward on a run, and with a yell, till about half way across the second field, when we were ordered, for some unaccountable reason to us, to halt, and the bullets were coming like hailstones, and whittling our boys like grain before the sickle. "Why don't they let us charge?" cried all of us. "Why do they stop us here to be murdered?" Everyone seemed anxious to go forward, and some run way out ahead and beckoned for us to come on. We have always believed that determined charge would break any line, and that more would be accomplished and less life lost, than by lying down and firing two or three hours. We felt that we could check and force them to retreat, and we wanted to go against them with a vengeance and get over the deadly ground as soon as possible. We were halted against when across the second field, and though by this time few were left, we were just as anxious to go forward. We were almost together and the rebs had neatly flanked the right of the regiment. But what surprised me most was to see some of the rebs, not fifty yards from us, standing out openly and loading and firing as deliberately as though they were in no danger whatever. Ah! There is no mistake but what some of those rebs are just as brave as it is possible for human beings to be. I expected they would turn and run when they see us coming so determinedly, and I believe they would, had we went right on. We had not fired but few shots before we were ordered to fall back. 'Twas sometime before we could hear the order, and when we did, the right of the regiment was half way back. We dreaded to go back for the danger of it, more than staying there, and we felt though only obeying orders, that we were being disgraced to fall back when we knew we could hold our own. We fell back, and it was then I had the first feeling of fear during the fight. I felt almost sure I would be hit, and I saw many wounded going back. When we got back to the colors, where we rallied, scarce 25 men were to be found. Most who went in were killed, wounded, or helping off the wounded. The enemy advanced no farther, and soon some of our boys who did not fall back when ordered, came in bringing in prisoners, and they said when we fell back the rebs were making for the rear as fast as possible. It was now about dark.


Johnson's troops forded Rock Creek at dusk and struck Culp's Hill with three brigades. Two hit Greene's thin line in the works on the main hill; Brig. Gen. George Steuart's left regiments occupied the empty breastworks on the lower hill and groped their way in the darkness toward Greene's right flank. Greene's men waited behind their works, watching as the flashes of the Confederate rifles drew near. They were greatly outnumbered and frightened. "Moments passed which were years of agony; ... nervous hands grasping loaded muskets, told how terrible were those moments of suspense." Then they opened fire. "All was confusion and disorder," remembered a Virginia captain as the Union line fired down upon his regiment; the 3rd North Carolina Regiment "reeled and staggered like a drunken man." The 1st North Carolina shot into the Confederacy's 1st Maryland Battalion by mistake. A Confederate brigade commander, Brig. Gen. John M. Jones, bled freely from a wound in his thigh and had to leave the field.

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JULY 2, 1863. CULP'S HILL 8-10 P.M.
At 8 P.M. Ewell advanced Johnson's division against Culp's Hill. The Union 12th Corps, who were the principal defenders of the hill, had been withdrawn to reinforce the Union left, leaving behind only Greene's brigade to man the breastworks on the eastern and southern slopes of the hill. Although Johnson's men were able to seize the Union works on the southern slope, they could not penetrate Greene's main line.

Fortunately four Greene's men, reinforcements rushed to their aid in the darkness from Wadsworth's division on the west slope of the hill, from the Eleventh Corps on Cemetery Hill, and a regiment came even from the Second Corps on Cemetery Ridge. In spite of attacks on both its front and right flank, Greene's men held their position throughout one of the epic struggles of the war. Because of Greene's heroic resistance and the darkness, the Confederates did not perceive that for a brief period there were no obstacles between Steuart's brigade and the Union jugular, the Baltimore Pike. The 137th New York Regiment on the right of Greene's line, fighting in the darkness, protected the Union right much as the 20th Maine Regiment had guarded the Union left on Little Round Top a short time before.

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