Struggle for northern flank

Culp's Hill: The Gettysburg re-enactment schedule includes a look at the controversial battle waged for the high ground at the northern end of the Union position.

Gettysburg : A Remembrance

July 01, 1999|By Paul Ruppel | Paul Ruppel,Special to the Sun

An often overlooked aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg was the critical fighting on the northern side of the famous "hook-shaped" Union line. The tactical importance of Culp's Hill and the defense of the right side flank movement by Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell were critical to the defense of the Union's position and victory at Gettysburg.

After the 1st and 11th Corps of the Army of the Potomac were pushed back through the streets of Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard attempted to rally the Union forces on Cemetery Hill just south of town. After pursuing the Union army, Ewell pondered his next move: Should he wait for the full Confederate army to advance on Gettysburg or should he try to take the high ground before the enemy could do so?

Ewell obtained permission from Gen. Robert E. Lee to take Cemetery Hill on July 1 "if he could do so to advantage," as Ewell understood the orders. However, because he was unable to bring artillery to bear on the hill, he waited for reconnaissance reports on the position of the enemy. It was reported that the hill southwest of Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, was unmanned by the Union. Ewell sent orders to Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson to take the hill.

Later that evening, Johnson sent a reconnoitering party while he prepared his men to move onto Culp's Hill. However, this party was met by a Union picket line at the base of the east slope, and several Confederates were captured. Ewell concluded that a "superior force" was in place at the summit of the mountain, though it was really a single regiment, the 7th Indiana Infantry. Hesitation and overestimation of the force before them cost the Confederate army the opportunity to take this vitally important position.

With reports that the Union was bringing up several more corps, it was expected that Ewell would attack the right side of the Union army early the next morning once Lt. Gen. James Longstreet began his assault on the Union left. But when daybreak came on July 2, Lee gave orders to Ewell to delay his attack until the late afternoon. This was particularly disheartening to Johnson's men. From their position on Benner's Hill, they could hear the Union army fortifying its position by constructing breastworks atop Culp's Hill through the evening and into the morning.

The Union, in repelling attacks on the center of the line at Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge to the southwest, had sent reserves to the left to shore up its defenses. But orders for the 12th Corps to send reinforcements were misunderstood. The brigades of both Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Kane and Col. Charles Candy departed for the Union left, leaving only one brigade -- Brig. Gen. George S. Greene's men -- to hold the long defensive line along Culp's Hill. If the hill fell into enemy hands, the entire Union flank would be exposed.

Despite the Confederates' tremendous fortune in the weakened Union forces before them, Ewell's assault on the eastern side of Culp's Hill was a difficult task that lent itself to confusion. For Johnson's men to cross from Benner's Hill, they would have to wade through Rock Creek.

The terrain on the eastern slope of Culp's Hill, in most places, was rugged at best, consisting of large boulders and dense forest. There were a few Union pickets scattered below along the creek, and brigades atop the hill had constructed formidable earthworks for defense (a tactic becoming more and more common in the Union army, but not yet standard practice in every corps). By the time the Confederates began their attack, shadows were beginning to grow long and darkness was slowly setting in.

Nevertheless, Johnson's division commenced its attack on Culp's Hill about 7 p.m. after heavy artillery was fired from Seminary Ridge and Benner's Hill. Brig. Gen. John M. Jones' brigade attacked Greene's left, Brig. Gen. Francis R. Nicholls' attacked his center, and Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart attacked his right. Union skirmishers attempted to slow the Confederate assault, and Greene's men were forced to patiently hold their fire until the skirmishers recovered to the safety of the Union line. The Confederates charged through the dense forest. In some places Confederates charged to within 20 or 30 yards of the Union line before hundreds of muskets flashed just in front of them.

Union Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz was on Cemetery Hill when Johnson's attack began. "The enemy was attacking the batteries on our right," he said, "and if he gained possession of them he would enfilade a large part of our line toward the south as well as the east, and command the valley between Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill, where the ammunition trains were parked." Greene requested reinforcements when the attack began, but some Union generals, including Schurz, had instinctively sent men when they heard the battle in the distance. "The fate of the battle might hang on the repulse of this attack. There was no time to wait for superior orders," Schurz said.

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