2 Southern brigades overrun Union guns

Cemetery Hill: The Confederate attempt to seize the high ground at the northern end of the Union line met with brief and costly success on the second day of the battle.

June 25, 2000|By CHRISTOPHER BAMBURY | CHRISTOPHER BAMBURY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The attack by the Louisiana Tigers brigade on Cemetery Hill, which briefly overran several Union artillery positions on the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863, will be portrayed in this year's remembrance of that great Civil War battle.

The re-enactment of this fighting will be held on Sunday, July 2. The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was over, a smashing victory for the Confederates under the leadership of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and an unflattering Union defeat. It was a defeat that not only inflicted heavy casualties on the Union army but also resulted in a haphazard retreat.

The disorganized Northern forces were able to take refuge atop Cemetery Hill. The Union fortifications there, which were strengthened during the night of the first day of fighting, were vital in the Union victory at Gettysburg. After the war many Southern veterans criticized the decisions made at the end of the first day of fighting at Gettysburg.

Much of the criticism falls on Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, who was in command of the Confederate troops pursuing the Union regiments that had been dislodged from their original positions. It is argued that if he had called for a further pursuit of the disorganized Union troops they would not have been able to fortify Cemetery Hill and possibly may never have regained their composure for the next two days of battle.

In his report on the battle, Ewell records the fact that Lee sent word to him to "attack Cemetery Hill if he could do so with advantage." Ewell saw the high ground before him defended by entrenched infantry and artillery positions, and he concluded that he could not use his guns effectively against them. The two divisions that Ewell had on the field had been worn down by 12 hours of hard marching and fighting, and his third division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson, did not arrive until after nightfall. Therefore the assault on Cemetery Hill was delayed until the next day.

Lee's plan for the second day's fighting called on Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's 1st Corps to attack the southern flank of the Union position while Ewell made a diversionary attack on the northern flank at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill.

By about 8 p.m. Ewell got the attack underway, striking two blows, one on the eastern side of Culp's Hill and the other on the western side, where the terrain formed a saddle with Cemetery Hill.

According to Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz, a Union commander in that segment of the line, "It was already dark when we on Cemetery Hill were suddenly startled by a tremendous turmoil at the batteries of [Capt. Michael] Wiedrich and [Capt. R. Bruce] Ricketts, placed on a commanding point on the right of Cemetery Hill. General [Oliver 0.] Howard and I were standing together in conversation when the uproar surprised us. There could be no doubt of its meaning. The enemy was attacking the batteries on our right, 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.

"The fate of the battle might hang on the repulse of this attack. There was no time to wait for superior orders. With the consent of General Howard, I took the two regiments nearest to me, ordered them to fix bayonets; and, headed by Col. [Wladimir] Krzyzanowski, they hurried off to the threatened point at a double-quick. I accompanied them with my whole staff."

The Confederate attacking force was Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays' Louisiana Tigers brigade, supported by Col. Isaac T. Avery's North Carolina brigade.

Maj. Harry Gilmor, a Maryland Confederate cavalry officer who volunteered to accompany the assault because he liked to fight, described it in his memoir, "Four Years in the Saddle," published in 1866:

"On the evening of the 3d, General Harry Hays, of the Louisiana brigade, told me that he should assault the works in front, and I promised to join him. At dusk, the brigade, which was famous for its dash and gallantry, moved on in line of battle to the attack. There was a perfect network of rifle-pits to be taken before reaching the entrenchments; And, although the brave boys fell in piles, they charged and took them one after another.

"On reaching the main works the brigade was a good deal scattered, but still went bravely forward, I was the only mounted man in the whole command, not caring to attempt the ascent on foot, and I had no difficulty in leaping the trenches and keeping well up to the front.

"There were 15 guns mounted in those works, all pouring a deadly avalanche of shell and canister down among the Louisianians, who never quailed, but pressed on until they scaled the works and drove off the gunners. There was a heavy infantry force supporting those guns, and [Maj. Gen. David B.] Birney's division was coming in at a double-quick to reinforce them.

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