July 2, 1863 (Thursday)
Much had been discussed through the dark hours of night, but never did anyone breath of word of retreat. General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had won a victory, but, as all knew, it was not complete. General Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac had fled through the town of Gettysburg and established itself upon Cemetery Hill, just south of town. In the fleeting sliver of the previous day, Lee had ordered corps commander, Richard Ewell, to assault the hill, but only “if practicable.” After much postulation, Ewell determined that it was not.
And so it fell to this day to launch the attack. But the question of “how” hung heavy in the humid Pennsylvania air. General Lee and James Longstreet discussed this for hours on end. Lee’s Army faced Cemetery and Culp’s Hills to the north and west. To the north, upon General Ewell’s front, the ground over which they must attack was steep and treacherous. The ground to the west, in General Longstreet’s front, though gentle and sloping, was wide and open.
For a time, Lee considered bringing Ewell’s Corps to the west, in line with Longstreet’s, as it was clear that it would be an easier assault. Longstreet, who still wanted to completely disengage, march to the Maryland border, and get between Meade’s Army and Washington, was not so sure. To scout the ground, they called for the topographer Captain Samuel Johnston. He could map the ground (at least mentally) and tell Lee and Longstreet where they Federals were placing their corps.
Captain Johnston left before dawn and likely went as far south as the eminence known locally as Round Top [today, Big Round Top]. Along the way, he passed through a lovely peach orchard and over a rocky little ridge. When he returned, he mapped out his route for Lee, who seemed puzzled as to why the topographer wandered so far south. Nevertheless, Lee now believed he knew where the enemy was positioned. Meade, thought Lee, had fortified Cemetery and Culp’s Hills, and strung his men in a line south along the Emmitsburg Road, which led south out of town. This was fine news as it meant that Meade’s left flank was dangling and exposed, just waiting for someone to roll it up towards Cemetery Hill.
That someone, ordered Lee, would be James Longstreet. The catch, however, was the Lee went directly to Lafayette McLaws, commanding one of the divisions in Longstreet’s Corps, personally selecting from where the attack should be made, placing the division near a peach orchard and perpendicular to the Emmitsburg Road. McLaws saw nothing wrong with Lee’s plan, but wanted to send skirmishers to check out the ground. Lee thought that it wasn’t necessary, after all, Captain Johnston was just there. When McLaws suggested that he ride with Johnston to see the ground, the disgruntled Longstreet cut in and disallowed McLaws from leaving his division. Additionally, Longstreet tried to change the direction of the attack, telling McLaws to position himself parallel to the Emmitsburg Road. Lee corrected his strong-willed lieutenant and called the meeting to a close, sending Longstreet on his way and riding to the left to see how General Ewell was coming along.
Across that wide open space crested by the Emmitsburg Road, General Meade’s Army had grown. The previous day, only the I and XI Corps had been engaged, but by 9am, they had been joined by the II, III, V and XII Corps. It wasn’t Meade’s entire army – not yet – but it was enough for now.
Meade had firmly established his troops upon Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. The XII Corps held the latter, while the XI Corps held the former (with bits of what was left of the I Corps occupying both). General Windfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps held Cemetery Ridge, the rise of a spur that extended off its more rounder namesake. It was not, as General Lee had suspected, upon the Emmitsburg Road, but well behind it. The only thing left to do was place the III Corps, commanded by Daniel Sickles.
Meade had ordered General Sickles to hold tight to Handcock’s left while extending the line south to a vague position previously held by some of the XII Corps throughout the night. Sickles agreed, but when he saw the ground, didn’t like it at all. First, it was too low. The ground before him, which was crested by a peach orchard, commanded his own position. He had been in a similar fix at Chancellorsville, and wanted nothing of the sort again. Secondly, Sickles thought that abandoning the Emmitsburg Road to the enemy was daft. Lastly, Meade’s orders on where to place his left flank (and thus the left of the entire Army of the Potomac) were open to interpretation. On this day, Sickles would take full advantage of such openness.
When General Lee had arrived at Richard Ewell’s headquarters, he had to wait for Ewell to return from a bit of scouting. Upon his return, Ewell was fully convinced that attacking Cemetery and Culp’s Hills from his northerly position was an incredibly bad idea. Lee seemed to agree and suggested that Ewell come around to the western side to aide in Longstreet’s attack. But neither did Ewell wish to do that. Deciding not to press the issue, Lee decided to leave Ewell where he was with orders to prevent the Union troops upon the hills from reinforcing their comrades on Cemetery Ridge. Lee did not, however, seem to think it would work. Topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss recalled that Lee “feared we would only take it at a great sacrifice of life.”
Around 11am, Lee returned to Seminary Ridge only to find James Longstreet still there. Though Lee had not issued orders for when an attack was to be made, he apparently figured that Longstreet would start as soon as possible. Seeming to not care at all about the time, Longstreet urged Lee to let him wait for a wayward Alabama division, still marching towards Gettysburg. Lee acquiesced and Longstreet’s march to get into position didn’t start until noon.
Incidentally, it was around this time that Lee’s own knight errant, Jeb Stuart, returned from his long ride around the Union army. Just the previous day, he had been in Carlisle where he learned that Lee was at Gettysburg. Lee, not even a little amused by this, welcomed him back with a rebuke and sent him to guard Ewell’s left flank.
As General Longstreet marched and counter marched into position, Union General Meade was busy readying his army to receive an attack. Around 3pm, he and his corps commanders met at a small house on the other side of Cemetery Ridge. The scuttlebutt was that Dan Sickles (who had not yet arrived) was in a state. This was proven true when General Sickles arrived, having worked himself up to a panic.
The enemy, said Sickles, were about to attack his line, which was placed on some rather bad ground. He wondered if Meade might not want to take a look at it. Meade did not. He had ridden the lines before placing Sickles’ men and saw no need to do it again. Sickles then asked if Gouverneur Warren, Chief Engineer, could have a look. Meade also declined that. Going on down the line, Sickles asked for Henry Hunt, Chief of Artillery. Finally, Meade relented and sent General Hunt with the worried III Corps commander.
The problem was that Hunt admittedly had no idea what Meade wanted. This mattered not at all to Sickles, who only wanted Hunt’s permission to move his corps to the Emmitsburg Road. Being an artillerist, Hunt fell in love with the position, especially the peach orchard, which providing some very excellent fields of fire. The problem was that Sickles did not have enough troops to cover the whole line, which would have to end back at a rocky hill next to Round Top. This was a problem, to be sure, but Sickles seemed to brush it off, asking Hunt to allow the move. Hunt refused, but told Sickles that he would ask Meade about it.
Around 3pm, General Meade once again called together his corps commanders. All had arrived except Sickles, who had failed to come when called several times this day. But when Chief Engineer Warren rode up, Meade understood why Sickles was absent. The position once held by Sickles’ Corps was now unoccupied. Meade could not believe what he was hearing and became furiously enraged. When Sickles finally wandered over, Meade stormed out of his headquarters and demanded that Sickles move his line back to the original position. He wasn’t even to dismount. Meade would soon follow.
As Sickles was riding towards Meade’s headquarters, he heard artillery to the south. This was actually the artillery placed in the peach orchard. General Longstreet’s Confederates had finally moved into position (or close enough to it for Longstreet’s liking) and had been discovered, and thus Lee’s plan to hit the Union’s exposed left flank (which had not been exposed when he came up with the plan, but was exposed now) was itself exposed.
When Meade arrived at Sickle’s headquarters, his fury had not abated. Meade very angrily explained that the Emmitsburg Road was neutral ground. Neither side could hold it because the artillery of both sides commanded it. When Sickles asked if he should fall back to his original position, the Rebel artillery accented his reply: “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”
In the meantime, Gouverneur Warren had been doing a bit of poking around along the Federal left. His meanderings brought him to the small rocky hill next to Round Top. He noticed that it was unoccupied and had a fine view of Cemetery Hill. He believed it to be the key to the whole position. Sickles, believed Warren, was supposed to have had troops upon this hill, yet there were none. Having been fearful of being outflanked by the Rebels, he could now clearly see that it was about to happen. He immediately sent his staff in every direction to find troops that could hold it if it might be attacked. Before long, part of the V Corps was found and Little Round Top (as it became known after the battle) was defended.
But this little rocky hill and its larger sister to the south were not at all upon General Lee’s mind. He had ordered Longstreet to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, fairly bypassing the two round hills. Longstreet, however, attacking with two divisions, placed them almost parallel to the road. And there were enemy troops where he had suspected none.
John Bell Hood’s Division, as Longstreet’s right, attacked first, but quickly lost their way, moving east rather than north. They attacked over a horribly rocky ridge to an outcropping later christened “Devil’s Den,” where elements of Dan Sickles’ III Corps defended. The fighting was unworldly and personal as brigade after Confederate brigade crested the ridge and flowed into the valley, stopping short of taking the little rocky hill now held by Strong Vincent’s Brigade of the Union V Corps.
Longstreet’s other division, commanded by Lafayette McLaws smashed into the salient foolishly created by Sickles’ unauthorized movement, throwing the III Corps troops back to the position they were originally to hold. Sickles himself was carried off the field, his left taken off by a Confederate shell. McLaws’ wave finally crested as more Federal troops from the V Corps rushed in to beat them back.
On McLaws’ left was Richard Anderson’s Division of A.P. Hill’s Corps. They had been ordered to take part in the assault once the Union flank had been rolled up. Though it wasn’t quite rolled, they threw themselves across the wide space just north of the peach orchard, falling upon Hancock’s II Corps along the Emmitsburg Road. Repeated counter attacks, however, stopped them short of any great success.
It was now 7pm and day had turned to dusk. General Ewell had early that day refused to make a full scale attack upon Cemetery and Culp’s hills. But now, as he believed that Longstreet’s assault was rolling up the Federal left, he wanted to hit the Federal right with everything he could muster. With three divisions, he would hit them.
Elements of the Union XII Corps, once atop Culp’s Hill had been called upon to fill the gaps left by Sickles’ movement. Culp’s Hill was now defended by only a single Union division. General George “Pap” Greene had constructed some mighty fine entrenchments that would make for some hot work when attacked.
And it was hot for certain. Just before sunset Allegheny Johnson’s Division attacked. Up the steep dark slope they came, but could not even come close to the Federal positions. General Greene called upon Meade for reinforcements, which came quickly as Longstreet’s attack had mostly ended. This also stiffened resistance upon the eastern slope of Cemetery Hill, which was about to be assaulted by Jubal Early’s Division.
Early attacked with two brigades and it was vicious. The screaming and firing Rebels nearly crested the top of the rise – nearly stormed through the darkness into the cemetery itself – but were beaten back at the last minute as Union reinforcements arrived, crashing in on the Confederate flanks. Robert Rodes, who was supposed to support the assault, failed to do so when he saw what his men would be up against.
The fighting upon Culp’s Hill, unlike that upon Cemetery Hill, never stopped. Over the night, it would wane, but even before the dawn, it would rage again.
General Meade knew that he was not beaten, but wasn’t sure how long that could last. He had already lost upwards of 20,000 men. If tomorrow brought again the same, where would he be? Calling upon his corps commanders yet again, it was decided to hold out one more day. If Lee attacked, so be it. If he did not, Meade would be forced to go on the offensive. Meade, however, fully believed Lee would attack.
For the second day in a row, General Lee’s Army had tasted victory, but had yet to win the battle. Still, Lee believed his success greater than it truly was. It was upon this assumption that he was determined to fight another day.1
- Sources: Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Gettysburg by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Gettysburg, Culp’s Hill & Cemetery Hill by Harry W. Pfanz; with a bit of fun from Troy Harmon’s Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg. [↩]