Battle of Culp's Hill
Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863
Battle of Culp's Hill
Just as twilight was bringing an end to the fighting on
the Union left during the Battle of Gettysburg on July, 2, 1863, Confederate Gen. Richard S. Ewell's assault on the opposite flank was about to commence.
A half an hour before sunset, the division of Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson began its long charge up the steep slopes of
Culp's Hill. Opposing Johnson's 4,700 Confederates, roughly 1,600 New Yorkers under Gen. George Sears Greene were charged
with holding the extreme right flank of the Union Army and protecting its supply line, the Baltimore Pike. Under the light of a full moon, Johnson's men made their assault, only to run headlong into
formidable breastworks erected by Greene's troops. Gen. Maryland Steuart's brigade managed to outflank the Yankees, who merely
fell back to another line or breastworks. Increasing darkness led to great confusion as both sides tried to blindly feed reinforcements
into the fight. The battle for Culp's Hill would resume at daylight.
In the early morning hours of July 3, the Union and Confederate armies were positioned essentially where they had finished
the previous day's fighting. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was determined to renew the offensive, pinning his hopes to a
major assault by Gen. James Longstreet on the Yankee left or center. In concert, Gen. Richard Ewell's corps was given three
more brigades to continue his assault on the Federal right on Culp's Hill. Before Longstreet's attack was even planned, and
before Ewell could renew his attack, however, Union forces attacked at 4:00 a.m. The
Federals—a mixed bag of units from the First, Twelfth and Sixth corps—were still protected in part by their breastworks
and ably repulsed the Confederate efforts on upper Culp's Hill. On the lower part of the hill, Confederates clung to their
gains from the previous day on Lower Culp’s Hill and tried to gain the Baltimore Pike—a struggle that pitted Union
and Confederate Marylanders against one another. Northern generals funneled additional troops into the bloody fray and in
seven hours of combat, the most sustained fighting at Gettysburg, Confederate forces relinquished their hold on Culp’s
Culp's Hill was occupied initially on the evening of July 1, 1863, by troops
of the Union I Corps and XI Corps, along with neighboring Cemetery Hill, as a rallying point from the retreat following the
Confederate victory that day north and west of town. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell had discretionary orders to seize the heights
south of town, and he believed that Culp's Hill was unoccupied and therefore a good target, one that would make the Union
position on Cemetery Hill untenable. His third division, under Maj. Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, had just arrived on the
battlefield, and Johnson was ordered to take the hill if he had not already done so.
Johnson did not take Culp's Hill. He sent a small party to reconnoiter,
and they encountered the 7th Indiana Infantry of the I Corps, part of Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth's division, which had
been in the rear guarding the corps trains and was now linked up with the Iron Brigade, digging in following their fierce
battle on Seminary Ridge. Johnson's party was taken by surprise and almost taken prisoner before fleeing.
Ewell's failure to take Culp's Hill or Cemetery Hill that evening is considered
one of the great missed opportunities of the battle. Another reason for his reluctance to proceed was intelligence that Union
troops were approaching from the east on the Hanover Road. This was the vanguard of the XII Corps under Maj. Gen. Henry W.
Slocum. If those troops had arrived at the wrong time, Ewell's flank would have been turned.
By mid-morning of July 2, the XII Corps arrived and fortified the hill.
Brig. Gen. George S. Greene, who at 62 was the oldest Union general on the field, was a brigade commander in the division
of Maj. Gen. John W. Geary. As a civil engineer before the war, he had a natural understanding of the value of defensive works.
His division and corps commanders did not believe they would be stationed at Culp's Hill very long and did not share his enthusiasm
for constructing breastworks, but they did not oppose his efforts. He set his troops to the task of felling trees and collecting
rocks and earth to create very effective defensive positions.
|Battle of Culp's Hill
|Union Breastworks at Culp's Hill
|Battle of Culp's Hill
|Battered Trees of Culp's Hill
|Battle of Culp's Hill and Gettysburg Campaign
|Digitally Enhanced Map of Gettysburg Campaign. Courtesy Civil War Trust.
|Battle of Culp's Hill, Day 2
|Battle of Culp's Hill, July 2, 1863
|Culp's Hill, Battle of Gettysburg, Initial Defense
|Culp's Hill, Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863
The Union defensive positions on July 2 began in the north with artillery
batteries on Stevens's Knoll, followed by Wadsworth's division of the I Corps, Greene's New York brigade in positions running
north to south on the upper slope, and the brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Kane connecting to Greene's line behind breastworks
on the lower slope. Behind these front lines were, from left to right, the brigades of Col. Charles Candy, Col. Archibald
L. McDougall, Col. Silas Colgrove, and Brig. Gen. Henry H. Lockwood, extending past Spangler's Spring and through McAllister's
Woods. (The latter three brigades were from the XII Corps division of Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger, who was filling in for Brig.
Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, temporarily in corps command.)
That morning, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered attacks on both
ends of the Union line. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet attacked with his First Corps on the Union left (Little Round Top, Devil's
Den, the Wheatfield). Ewell and the Second Corps were assigned the mission of launching a simultaneous demonstration against
the Union right, a minor attack that was intended to distract and pin down the Union defenders against Longstreet. Ewell was
to exploit any success his demonstration might achieve by following up with a full-scale attack at his discretion.
Ewell began his demonstration at 4 p.m. upon hearing the sound of Longstreet's
guns to the south. For three hours, he chose to limit his demonstration to an artillery barrage from Benner's Hill, about
a mile to the northeast. But despite this demonstration, Ewell did not hold the attention of Army of the Potomac commander,
Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Meade was occupied with the fierce fighting on his left flank and was scrambling to send as many
reinforcements as possible. He ordered Slocum to send the XII Corps in support. It is unclear whether he ordered the entire
corps or instructed Slocum to leave one brigade behind, but the latter is what Slocum did, and Greene's brigade was left with
the sole responsibility for defending Culp's Hill.
Greene extended his line to the right to cover part of the lower slope,
but his 1,400 men would be dangerously overextended if a Confederate attack came. They were only able to form a single battle
line, without reserves. Only three of the five brigades of Union troops that were dispatched from the hill saw combat. The
remainder of Geary's division marched down the Baltimore Pike and missed a key right hand turn. By the time they realized
where they were, the crisis on the Union left flank and center had subsided.
Around 7 p.m., as dusk began to fall, and the Confederate assaults on the
Union left and center were slowing, Ewell chose to begin his main infantry assault. He sent three brigades (4,700 men) from
the division of Maj. Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson across Rock Creek and up the eastern slope of Culp's Hill. The brigades
were, from left to right, those of Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart, Col. Jesse M. Williams (Nicholl's Brigade), and Brig. Gen.
John M. Jones. The Stonewall Brigade, under Brig. Gen. James A. Walker, was occupied with Union cavalry on Brinkerhoff's Ridge
to the rear.
As the fighting started, Greene sent for reinforcements from the I Corps
and XI Corps to his left. Wadsworth was able to send three regiments, and Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard on Cemetery Hill was
able to send four—altogether 750 men, who served as Greene's reserve and help to restore dwindling supplies of ammunition.
On the Confederate right flank, Jones's brigade of Virginians had the most
difficult terrain to cross, the steepest part of Culp's Hill. As they scrambled through the woods and up the rocky slope,
they were shocked at the strength of the Union breastworks on the crest. Their charges were beaten off with relative ease
by the 60th New York, which suffered very few casualties. Confederate casualties were high, including General Jones, who was
wounded and left the field. One of the New York officers wrote "without breastworks our line would have been swept away in
an instant by the hailstorm of bullets and the flood of men."
In the center, Nicholls's Louisiana brigade had a similar experience to
Jones's. The attackers were essentially invisible in the dark except for brief instances when they fired, but the defensive
works were impressive, and the 78th and 102nd New York regiments suffered few casualties in a fight that lasted four hours.
|Battle of Culp's Hill, July 2, 1863
|Battle of Culp's Hill, July 2, 1863
|Battle of Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, Day Three
|Battle of Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
|Battle of Culp's Hill
|Battle of Culp's Hill, July 2-3, 1863
Steuart's regiments on the left occupied the empty breastworks on the lower
hill and felt their way in the darkness toward Greene's right flank. The Union defenders waited nervously, watching as the
flashes of the Confederate rifles drew near. But as they approached, Greene's men delivered a withering fire. The 3rd North
Carolina "reeled and staggered like a drunken man." Two regiments on Steuart's
left, the 23rd and 10th Virginia, outflanked the works of the 137th New York.
Like the fabled 20th Maine of Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain on Little Round
Top earlier that afternoon, Col. David Ireland of the 137th New York found himself on the extreme end of the Union army, fending
off a strong flanking attack. Under heavy pressure, the New Yorkers were forced back to occupy a traversing trench that Greene
had engineered facing south. They essentially held their ground and protected the flank, but they lost almost a third of their
men in doing so. Because of the darkness and Greene's brigade's heroic defense, Steuart's men did not realize that they had
almost unlimited access to the main line of communication for the Union army, the Baltimore Pike, only 600 yards to their
front. Ireland and his men prevented a huge disaster from befalling Meade's army, although they never received the publicity
that their colleagues from Maine enjoyed.
In the confusion of fighting in the dark, the 1st North Carolina, brought
up from the reserves, fired on the Confederate 1st Maryland Battalion by mistake. (In Gettysburg National Military Park, the
monument to this battalion refers to the "2nd Maryland" so that it would not be confused with the two Union regiments named
1st Maryland in Lockwood's brigade.)
During the heat of the fighting, the sound of battle reached II Corps commander
Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock on Cemetery Ridge, who immediately sent additional reserve forces. The 71st Pennsylvania
filed in to assist the 137th New York on Greene's right.
By the time the rest of the XII Corps returned late that night, Confederate
troops had occupied some of the Union defensive line on the southeastern slope of the hill, near Spangler's Spring. This caused
considerable confusion as the Union troops stumbled in the dark to find enemy soldiers in the positions they had vacated.
Gen. Williams did not want to continue this confused fight, so he ordered his men to occupy the open field in front of the
woods and wait for daylight. And while Steuart's brigade maintained a fragile hold on the lower heights, Johnson's other two
brigades were pulled off the hill, also to wait for daylight. Geary's men returned to reinforce Greene. Both sides prepared
to attack at dawn.
|Battle of Culp's Hill, July 3, 1863
|Battle of Culp's Hill, Third Day
|Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, Third Day
|Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
On July 3, General Lee's plan was to renew his attacks by coordinating the
action on Culp's Hill with another attack by Longstreet and A.P. Hill against Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet was not ready for
an early attack, and the Union forces on Culp's Hill did not accommodate Lee by waiting. At dawn, five Union batteries opened
fire on Steuart's brigade in the positions they had captured and kept them pinned down for 30 minutes before a planned attack
by two of Geary's brigades. However, the Confederates beat them to the punch. An attempt by Lee to hold off the start of the
fighting was fruitless. Ewell sent back a terse reply by messenger: "Too late to recall." Fighting continued until late in
the morning and consisted of three attacks by Johnson's men, each a failure. The attacks were essentially a replay of those
the previous evening, although in daylight.
Since the fighting had stopped the previous night, the XI Corps units had
been reinforced by additional troops from the I Corps and VI Corps. Ewell had reinforced Johnson with additional brigades
from the division of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, under Brig. Gens. Junius Daniel and William "Extra Billy" Smith and Col. Edward
A. O'Neal. These additional forces were insufficient to deal with the strong Union defensive positions. Greene repeated a
tactic he had used the previous evening: he rotated regiments in and out of the breastworks while they reloaded, enabling
them to keep up a high rate of fire.
In the final of the three Confederate attacks, around 10 a.m., Walker's
Stonewall Brigade and Daniel's North Carolina brigade assaulted Greene from the east, while Steuart's brigade advanced over
the open field toward the main hill against the brigades of Candy and Kane, which did not have the advantage of strong breastworks
to fight behind. Nevertheless, both attacks were beaten back with heavy losses. The attacks against the heights were again
fruitless, and superior use of artillery on the open fields to the south made the difference there.
The 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade (despite its name, a regiment of inexperienced
recruits) was badly shot up struggling for a stone wall crossing the open field parallel to the line of works. Geary replaced
them with the 147th Pennsylvania of Candy's brigade, which charged successfully, giving the field the name "Pardee Field"
after the Pennsylvanians' Lt. Col. Ario Pardee, Jr.
The end of the fighting came near noon, with a futile attack by two Union
regiments near Spangler's Spring. General Slocum, observing from the distant Powers Hill, believing that the Confederates
were faltering, ordered Ruger to retake the works they had captured. Ruger passed the order to Silas Colgrove's brigade, and
it was misinterpreted to mean a direct frontal assault on the Confederate position. The two regiments selected for the assault,
the 2nd Massachusetts and the 27th Indiana, consisted of a total of 650 men against the 1,000 Confederates behind the works
with 100 yards of open field in front. When Lt. Col. Charles Mudge of the 2nd Massachusetts heard the order he insisted that
the officer repeat it. He was then quoted as saying "Well, it is murder, but it's the order." The two regiments attacked in
sequence with the Massachusetts men in front, and they were both repelled with terrific losses: 43% of the Massachusetts soldiers,
32% of the Indianans. General Ruger spoke of the misconstrued order as "one of those unfortunate occurrences that will happen
in the excitement of battle."
Despite receiving reinforcements and attempting his assaults again, Johnson
was repulsed with terrible losses from one end of his line to the other. Colonel O'Neal wrote that his brigade "charged time
and again up to their works but were every time compelled to retire. Many gallant men were lost." The losses at Culp's Hill
included approximately 2,000 men in Johnson's division, nearly a third. An additional 800 fell from the reinforcing brigades
on July 3. The XII corps lost about 1,000 men over both days, including 300 men in Greene's brigade, or one fifth. Alpheus
Williams summed up the futility of this fighting: "The wonder is that the rebels persisted so long in an attempt that the
first half hour must have told them was useless."
One of the sad stories of the war involved the Culp family, owners of the
hill. Two of Henry Culp's nephews were brothers: John Wesley Culp and William Culp. Wesley joined the Confederate States Army
(the 2nd Virginia Infantry) and William the Union Army (the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry). Wesley's regiment fought at Culp's
Hill, and he was killed in the fighting on his family property on July 3. Ironically, he allegedly was carrying a message
from another soldier, a boyhood friend and Gettysburg native John Skelly, just deceased, to "Ginnie" Wade, the only civilian
killed during the battle. (His brother William was not present at Gettysburg and survived the war, however, William Culp seemed
to have regarded his brother as a traitor, and never spoke of him again.)
The second day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg was the largest and
costliest of the three days. The second day's fighting (at Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Peach
Orchard, Cemetery Ridge, Trostle’s Farm, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill) involved at least 100,000 soldiers of
which roughly 20,000 were killed, wounded, captured or missing. The second day in itself ranks as the 10th bloodiest battle
of the Civil War. The third day of fighting consisted of Culp's Hill, Cemetery Ridge, namely Pickett's
Charge, and two cavalry battles: one approximately three miles to the east, known as East Cavalry Field, and the other southwest
of Big Round Top mountain on South Cavalry Field.
Culp's Hill became a prime tourist attraction after the battle. It was close
to the town and, unlike most battles in open fields, it was heavily wooded and the extreme firepower took a very visible toll
on the trees, some of which were completely sheared off. Geary's division alone on July 3 reported that they expended 227,000
rounds. It took over twenty years before the scars of battle faded and nature reclaimed the breastworks.