THE FIGHT FOR CULP’S HILL
JULY 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 1863
Culp’s Hill was the “barb” of the famous “Fishhook Line”, forming the extreme right of the Union line at Gettysburg. Culp’s Hill runs roughly north to south, and is bordered on the east by Rock Creek. It is connected to Cemetery Hill by a low ridge on which is located Steven’s Knoll. The strategic importance of Culp’s Hill has been largely ignored over the years, but the fact is that, had the Confederates taken Culp’s Hill, the Union position on Cemetery Hill would have been untenable.
Culp’s Hill is actually made up of two hills. The northernmost, or Upper, Hill rises sharply about 180 feet above Rock Creek. The Lower Hill, about 400 yards south of the taller summit, rises about 80 feet above Rock Creek. The lower hill extends southward to Spangler’s Meadow, a swale at the base of the hills, and Spangler’s Spring, located in this meadow. A hollow, or saddle, running roughly east to west separates the two hills.
July 1, 1863 – Dusk to Midnight
Culp’s Hill remained unoccupied throughout the first day’s battle, with most of the action taking place north of the town of Gettysburg. As the Federal units fell back, badly depleted units of the First and Eleventh Corps were reformed on Cemetery Hill as more and more reinforcements poured in to bolster the Union force. General Hancock ordered Wadsworth’s division (Cutler’s and Meredith’s brigades) of Doubleday’s battered First Corps to occupy Culp’s Hill at about 5:00 PM. Cutler ordered his 7th Indiana to occupy the hill. The 7th Indiana had been detailed as wagon train guard during the day, thus were fresh troops.
The Hoosiers marched to the upper hill, along with the remains of units from Meredith’s Iron Brigade. The 7th Indiana occupied the peak of the upper summit with the bulk of the regiment facing northward, and the Iron Brigade units to their left. Company B of the 7th was placed at right angles to the main line, facing Rock Creek to the east in a skirmish line. The Twelfth Corps would move into position protecting the eastern approaches of the hill on July 2nd, but the night of July 1st saw only this one company on the eastern slopes of the hill.
Shortly after deployment, Company B was pulled back so that it was only a few yards to the right of the main battle line. This concentration took place just as a Confederate reconnaissance was moving up the western slope of the upper hill. During the evening, Confederate General Edward Johnson had deployed most of his division along the west side of Rock Creek. Late that night, he sent a reconnaissance up the hill to verify an earlier report that the hill was unoccupied. The patrol ran into Company B 7th Indiana, provoking a volley of musketry which sent them scrambling back down the hill to report strong resistance. Meanwhile, General Richard Ewell thought that Cemetery Hill could not be taken, but that occupation of Culp’s Hill would outflank the Union positions. However, General Lee had ordered him to move his corps to the other end of the Confederate line. Ewell went to Lee to successfully plead his case to stay on the left, returning to his headquarters about midnight with a plan to take the hill. Ewell sent orders to General Johnson “to take possession of this hill, if he had not already done so”. Johnson, assuming that the hill was occupied in overwhelming force, deferred from attacking the hill based upon that assumption and asked for further orders. By the time Ewell received this reply to his orders, it was too late to move. Therefore, the Confederates lost a golden opportunity to dislodge the Army of the Potomac from their strong position at Gettysburg.
Juy 2, 1863 - Midnight to 4:00 PM
While Company B of the 7th Indiana was engaging the enemy patrol, the rest of the regiment was busy building breastworks, cutting down trees and using cordwood which was piled on the hill. This construction appeared to be a spontaneous effort by the troops, for Orville Thomson of the 7th Indiana stated that “this was the first time work of that character” was performed, and it was attended to with “unusual alacrity”. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin, which was on the left of the 7th Indiana said that his regiment had started construction of the breastworks, and the 7th’s Colonel Grover decided the works along his front. Other units took up the work as they moved in to position on the hill until the works extended about one-quarter mile from the peak of the upper hill to the edge of Spangler’s Meadow.
The 1st Division of the XII Corps (General Slocum) moved onto the upper hill about 6:00 AM on July 2nd, with George Greene’s 3rd Brigade taking position to the right of the I Corps units facing east. The remainder of Cutler’s I Corps brigade (76th and 95th New York, 56th Pennsylvania) joined the 7th Indiana about 7:00 AM, moving in between the 7th and Greene’s 60th New York on the east-facing line. The rest of the XII Corps was present on the full length of Culp’s Hill by 10:00 or 11:00 AM. In addition, XII Corps units were covering the extreme right of the Union fishhook line with units of Williams’s 2nd Division all the way to the Baltimore Pike.
By 12:00 noon, the Union breastworks were complete. Before Kane’s brigade extended the line from the lower hill to near Spangler’s Spring, Greene had completed a “traverse” at the end of his works, facing the east-west “saddle” between the upper and lower hills, at a right angle to the main line. Although not necessary when Kane’s brigade was in the breastworks on the lower hill, this traverse would play an important role in the upcoming evening’s battle.
July 2, 1863 - 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM
At about 4:00 PM, General Richard Ewell initiated a series of actions designed to support Longstreet’s attack on the Union left. Major Latimer’s artillery battalion on Benner’s Hill opened fire on the Union right on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Infantry units were ordered into assault positions on the east side of Rock Creek opposite Culp’s and Cemetery Hill, with the main assault on Culp’s Hill assigned to General Edward “Old Alleghany” Johnson’s division.
Latimer’s artillery suffered heavy losses in a furious artillery duel against the overwhelming weight of Yankee artillery on Cemetery Hill. After about one-half hour, the Confederate artillery was driven off Benner’s Hill with heavy casualties, including a mortally-wounded Major Latimer. The bombardment had little real effect on the entrenched troops on Culp’s Hill, although the artillery did apparently have the usual disconcerting effect on the infantry, according to General Geary. In the meanwhile, the Confederate infantry sat idle throughout the day.
After the artillery fight died out, General Johnson started to move his three brigades into position. His fourth, the Stonewall Brigade under Walker, was off to the far left near Brinckerhof’s ridge, guarding against an imagined Union attack from that flank. Brigadier General J. M. Jones on Johnson’s right moved from the area of Benner’s Hill, and Col. Williams (Nicholls’s brigade) advanced to Rock Creek. The third brigade under BG George “Maryland” Steuart on Johnson’s left was much delayed by terrain and the movement of Nicholls’s brigade in his front. Because of these delays, the Confederates were not ready for the assault until nearly 7:00 PM, and even then the left portion of Steuart’s brigade was still coming up.
George Meade then made a huge blunder. The enormous pressure of Longstreet’s assault on the Union left, and the relative inactivity on the Culp’s Hill front, caused Meade to order General Slocum to move XII Corps off Culp’s Hill to reinforce the Union left. About 6:00 PM, General Williams marched his 2nd Division off Culp’s Hill and McaAllister’s Hill and marched down the Granite Schoolhouse Road toward the Union left. General Geary then ordered the 1st Division out of the trenches in preparation to move to the left. Kane’s and Candy’s brigades moved off Culp’s Hill, with General Geary leading. Geary then led these two brigades down the Baltimore Pike, missed Granite Schoolhouse Road, and marched all the way to Rock Creek, stopping in some confusion to bivouac and await orders.
Greene’s 3rd brigade prepared to follow the first two brigades, when the brigade skirmishers sent word that the Confederates were advancing toward Rock Creek and Culp’s Hill in force. Lt. Colonel Hiram Rodgers, AAG to Gen. Slocum, ordered Greene to remain where he was to meet the attack. Greene then reinforced the skirmish line and moved his brigade back into line in the works. His position extended from the top of the upper hill southward to the saddle between the upper and lower hills. All the works from that point to Spangler’s Spring were now unmanned.
July 2, 1863 - 7:00PM to Midnight
With an attack on his lines imminent, Greene was ordered to occupy as much of the entire quarter-mile length of trench lines as he could with his single brigade. The troops were attempting to accomplish this when the full force of the Confederate attack hit all along the line. The extreme right of the brigade, the 137th NY, had occupied the works as far as the lower hill when “Maryland” Steuart’s Confederates approached. Steuart’s brigade advanced in echelon from right to left, his right flank regiments coming under a heavy crossfire from the 137th NY and the 149th NY on its left. As the Confederate left flank regiments came up; however, they were met with empty works, formerly occupied by Kane’s brigade. Securing the works, the Confederates moved by the right flank against Greene’s regiments on the lower hill. The 137th NY soon found itself assailed from the front, its unprotected right flank, and even from the stone wall in its rear.
Colonel David Ireland of the 137th NY refused his right flank to protect against the Confederates moving along the works, but this maneuver could not stop the overwhelming force of Confederates. Under heavy fire from three sides, Ireland ordered the 137th back to the traverse above the saddle between upper and lower hills. The regiment fell back under fire in reasonably good order considering the gathering darkness and confusion of the attack. The 149th NY on Ireland’s left saw the 137th NY fall back, Colonel Barnum of that regiment believing that the 137th had broken, refused his right companies. The other troops in the 149th seeing the 137th falling back and their right companies moving, started retreating. Officers quickly stopped this rearward movement, narrowly averting a disaster.
Meanwhile, the 10th VA on the right flank of Steuart’s brigade occupied the empty works on the south slope of the lower hill without opposition. Moving along the stone wall at the rear of the Union works, the Virginians advanced against the rear of Greene’s line around the west side of the lower hill. In the darkness, the10th VA ran into the 61st OH and 157th NY from Eleventh Corps coming to the aid of Greene, unaware of the presence of the Confederates. The two Union regiments were driven back in confusion. However, First Corps also sent the 14th Brooklyn (84th NY) and 6th WI to the aid of Greene’s right flank. The two First Corps units arrived at the saddle between the hills just in time to drive back the 10th VA and secure the new right flank of Greene’s Corps.
By this time, it was completely dark on Culp’s Hill. General Johnson, who feared a trap, deemed further advance by the Confederates unwise. At this time, there was nothing between Johnson’s Confederate division and the Union rear on the Baltimore Pike about 400 yards away. A scouting party from the 1st MD (CSA) reported seeing wagons moving on the Pike. Johnson mistakenly figured the Federals were retreating, so figured he would wait daylight to finish the job.
The Confederates now occupied the captured works, and the lower hill, from the saddle between upper and lower hills south toward Spangler’s meadow. Greene’s brigade, with help from First and Eleventh Corps, had held the line of the upper hill until darkness halted the assault. As the night progressed, the First Division of the Twelfth Corps, along with Candy’s and Kane’s brigades of the Second Division, returned to Culp’s Hill in preparation for the upcoming morning’s action.
July 3, 1863 – Midnight to 6:00 AM
During the night and early morning of July 2-3, General Williams (acting as Twelfth Corps commander) prepared to assault the Confederates on the lower hill at early light. Kinzie’s and Rugg’s regular batteries were moved into position west of the Baltimore Pike commanding Spangler’s meadow, then clear of trees all the way to the Pike. These guns fired at virtually point-blank range down upon the Confederate works. The returning First Division was moved into its original position roughly on the south edge of Spangler’s meadow from the Pike to Rock Creek, with Colgrove’s brigade occupying their original works opposite Spangler’s Spring. Kane’s brigade of Second Division extended the east-west line of the traverse to the woods along Spangler’s Lane fronting Pardie’s Field, while Candy’s brigade moved into a supporting position behind Greene’s line. Williams’s orders were to attack at first light, so the artillery from the Pike was set to open on the Confederate works at about 3:30 AM.
While Union arrangements were being made, the Confederates were also moving units into position for the morning. Walker’s Stonewall Brigade (the last brigade in Johnson’s division) came up and was positioned opposite Colgrove’s Federals across the Spangler meadow. Ewell detached Daniel’s and O’Neal’s brigades from Rodes’s division to move into a support position behind Johnson’s brigades on the right and center facing the upper hill. Gen. “Extra Billy” Smith’s Virginians of Early’s division moved across Rock Creek to take a position extending the Confederate left from Spangler’s Spring to the Creek.
The opening of Federal artillery at early dawn slammed into the Confederates manning the works of the lower hill. After several rounds from the batteries, the 147th Pennsylvania under LCOL Ariel Pardee charged across the field in its front, clearing Confederate skirmishers and sharpshooters from the stone wall.19 This field has been known as Pardee’s field as a result of this action. At around 4:00 AM, the Union troops on the right moved out, and were met by a furious assault by the Confederates all along the line which stopped the Yankees in their tracks. Several assaults were made on the upper hill by the Confederate right brigades without success, and with heavy losses. Other assaults were equally unsuccessful, with the troops on the Confederate right being punished by the almost point-blank fire of Kinzie’s and Rugg’s guns.
Shortly before six o’clock, the firing died down somewhat as the Confederate assaults stopped. Colonel Colgrove on the Union right was ordered to make a reconnaissance to his front.20 Colgrove, either mistakenly or intentionally, ordered the 2nd Massachusetts and the 27th Indiana to assault the lines to their front. The 2nd Massachusetts attacked straight ahead across Spangler’s meadow toward Spangler’s Spring and the lower hill, while the 27th Indiana moved on the oblique and charged in a northwest direction across the meadow opposite their present monument. The two regiments ran straight into two Confederate brigades. The 27th Indiana made about a third of the way across the field before being stopped and driven back with huge losses. The 2nd Massachusetts made it almost to the Confederate line before being stopped in a jumble of boulders. The Massachusetts men held on for some time until lack of ammunition forced a withdrawal to the original line. The ill-fated charge had no real result other than the loss of many brave men in the two regiments.
Just before the charge of the Massachusetts and 27th Indiana, the 1st Maryland (U.S.) Potomac Home Brigade under Lockwood charged down Spangler’s Meadow from their position up at the Baltimore Pike. This advance went pretty well for the inexperienced Marylanders against some fairly heavy opposition, and this endangered the extended Confederate line near Pardee field. The advance was halted as it neared the Spring because Union troops were seen crossing the swale ahead of them from right to left (probably the 2nd Massachusetts charging). The Marylanders withdrew back to the Pike. 21Combined with Colgrove’s charge in a coordinated assault, Lockwood’s force of about 1,000 troops could have rolled up the Confederate line early in the morning. Unfortunately, there was no coordination.
July 3, 1863 – 6:00 am to 11:00 AM
The first Confederate assault died out at about 6:00 AM. The firing continued at a furious rate, however, since the opposing forces were not widely separated. After the Confederates had regrouped, Johnson launched another series of assaults all along the line at about 8:00 AM. These assaults fared even worse than those earlier in the morning; Daniel’s brigade on the right and Williams’s in the center beaten back by rifle fire, and Steuart’s taking heavy casualties from artillery.
The final assault by Johnson on the Union line took place at about 10:00 AM, with Steuart’s brigade forming at the southern edge of Pardee’s field and charging across the field. Steuart’s left moved across open ground to the left of the stone wall, taking terrible punishment from enfilading artillery fire and sheets of rifle fire from the Union works. The regiments on the left soon stopped and fell back in disorder. Steuart’s right, the 1st Maryland (C.S.A.) and 3rd North Carolina, advancing through the woods on the right of the stone wall had a bit more protection. The two units advanced as far as the saddle between the upper and lower hills when they could go no further. The farthest advance of the 1st Maryland is marked by a small tablet at the intersection of Geary Road.
At 11:00 AM, it was all over on Culp’s Hill except for the continuing roar of musketry all along the line. At about 3:00 PM, the Confederates started withdrawing across Rock Creek for the retreat to Virginia.